Ferhat Mehenni: The Age of Identity
Towards the break-up of the borders resulting from European colonization
At the end of 2010, the book « Le siècle identitaire – the end of the post-colonial states » was published by Michalon (Paris). Its author, Ferhat Mehenni , presents his views on the question of the state born in the ashes of European colonization . For him, all the states born of the so-called « decolonization » movement (which saw the European nations renounce their sovereignty over most of the African and Asian territories) share the same characteristics. Regardless of the nationality of its former colonizer (British, French, Portuguese, Dutch …) and its geographical and anthropological situation (Mediterranean, sub-Saharan, Asian …), there is a generic template applicable to any State born of the process of decolonization of the second half of the twentieth century. « In all the formerly colonized countries, the schemas of oppression are superimposed. Having fun interchanging Kabylia with Kurdistan, Casamance with Baluchistan, Somaliland with Tribal Zones, Kashmir with Northern Niger, or trying to swap Algeria and Afghanistan, Congo and Cameroon, Vietnam and Kenya, Afghanistan and Libya … we realize that this does not fundamentally disrupt the data of the problem. »
Ferhat Mehenni identifies three such common characteristics: The brutal nature of these states is conditioned by their colonial origin, which forces various peoples arbitrarily gathered by colonization to cohabit within the same state, which prevents the construction of proper nation-states, especially in Africa.
The genesis of the post-colonial state is, to the author, the original sin: « The evil of African countries and of formerly colonized Asia resides not in the quality of their governance, but above all in the nature of their State« . Because « after the independence of the years 1950-60, there was no creation of a new state, merely a renewal of the colonial state almost as it was. « The decolonization of fifty years ago was that of the false nations » Mehenni adds. In order to illustrate his point, he reminds us that the current borders of African States were in fact drawn up in Berlin in 1885, at a conference organized by Bismarck and bringing together all the major powers at the time . The « native » populations were, of course, never consulted about the course of these boundaries.
For the author, there is no use in calling for liberalization and democratization of post-colonial states. Their historical origins condemn them to use only brutality in their relations with the populations for which they are responsible, to reproduce the behavior of the European colonial powers that created the borders of each of these states: « The only method within reach was that of brute strength, that borrowed from the colonial power which they had just succeeded. (…) It was not even an alternation, but a succession. »
The fatal flaw of the post-colonial state is, for Mr. Mehenni, that their borders, crafted by foreign powers, do not take into account the anthropological realities of the populations under concern. In his opinion, there is no post-colonial state that is a genuine nation-state. On the contrary, it refers to « states without a nation » each harboring on its soil several « nations without a state » . It makes a mockery of ethnic and dialect, often used in a pejorative way against the minority peoples: « In the popular sense, an ethnic group is a sub-people, a dialect, a sub-language, as slave and sub-man « . On the contrary, Mehenni claims that « an ethnic group with its own language, territory, traditions and history, distinct from those of its environment, is a people. When its members are aware of it, it is a nation « . He also notes that these terms are still applied during identity tensions in the former European colonies (from Kenya to Côte d’Ivoire via Darfur, Kabylia or Kurdistan) but never when these same identity tensions are closer to home, in the west (nobody talks about the « interethnic conflicts » of the Basque Country, Ireland, Corsica or Quebec).
Mr. Mehenni insists on this lack of an authentic unified nation within each post-colonial state: « In a given country, as soon as there is a second language, or a second religious belief closely associated with a historical territory, there is a second people. « The nation-state is the exception and not the rule throughout the world. It ends where the identity, linguistic or religious dissonance begins. « The state of colonization, for wanting to be a nation-state, has decieved its people and to history. For him, the « fake national feeling » (be it Algerian, Ivorian, Congolese …) forged in the anti-colonial struggles of the years 1950-60 is artificial and paradoxically also a « European import » . In reality « it expressed more the rejection of injustice (…) than the existence of a united people » and « was not likely to found, on its own, a nation » .
What are the consequences of this decolonization that has given birth to States grouping different peoples within their borders, disregarding language or religion? For the author, they are disastrous and prevent any creation of a democratic state: In these countries, « the state naturally appears as a place of acquisition and allocation of the scarce wealth and resources of the country. Country, in favor of the region of the people who control it « . Worse still, the fact that these countries are officially recognized as states, accepted at the UN and supported by various major powers can sometimes turn into « permits to torture, to imprison » or even to « permit genocide of » minority peoples by the dictators who are at their heads. Every people who make up the mosaic of the post-colonial state dreams that one of their own will gain power and monopolize the resources of the state for its own benefit. The post-colonial state prevents, by nature, the emergence of democracy since « every people from which the ‘president’ comes is proud of his dictator » . The only way for minority peoples, removed from power, is to renounce their identity and adopt that of the majority people who control the wheels of their state. This is the odious paradox: « Instead of calling into question these states for their colonial origin, we prefer to question peoples and their legitimate political organizations carrying identity claims. »
What solutions does Mr. Mehenni forward to remedy what he thinks is the historic failure of the post-colonial state? For him, « the oppressed cultural minorities do not understand how the civilized world is so concerned about the disappearance of plant and animal species on the planet but not that of peoples! « . As a result, the oppressed peoples can only rely on themselves, once the work of conscientization has been carried out: « If a people wants to access their freedom, it is time for them to express it by democratic means. To wait for others to do it in their place, to await the Messiah, is to condemn themselves to death ». In other words, it is urgent to put an end to « the principle of the inviolability of the frontiers inherited from colonization » . This principle of the status quo at any price has been « emptied of its meaning by Eritrea, East Timor or Bangladesh » , states now recognized by the international community although having themselves seceded – for reasons of identity – from other states from European decolonization (respectively Ethiopia, Indonesia and Pakistan).
For Ferhat Mehenni, the examples of independence of Eritrea and East Timor, or more recent ones from Montenegro, Kosovo or North Ossetia (one could add to the list one in progress, South Sudan) and the creation of autonomous regions in Bolivia, Morocco (Western Sahara) and Iraq (Kurdistan) show the way forward and are the warning signs of a great upheaval to come. « The world is still changing and it’s a safe bet that the number of countries will increase, perhaps double, in 20 to 30 years. The countries of colonization, soon dislocated, will give birth to many countries with new names, some of which nowadays constitute regions « . He seems convinced that « the decolonization of fifty years ago was that of the false nations. That of true people is yet to come ». To those who would worry about an uncontrolled proliferation of the number of states, Mehenni submits a historical counter-example: « To put an end to the Thirty Years War, Europe had no less than 350 states with the Treaties of Westphalia on October 24, 1648. Or are we going to say that what was allowed in Europe at that time would be intolerable today elsewhere? » As for those among Europeans who are alarmed at the proliferation of states too small to ensure their own subsistence, the author retorts, not without malice, that Europe « admits to it micro-states (…) Luxembourg, the Principality of Monaco or Liechtenstein (…) while at the same time refusing the creation of « normal » states, if at all possible there is a norm in this respect « . For a discussion on the question of the optimal size of a state, the author could also have referred to the 2003 book The Size of Nations in which the authors show that there is no obstacle to a good economic development for a small state, as long as it integrates harmoniously into regional and global trade (examples from Luxembourg or Singapore) .
Ferhat Mehenni does not place any trust in the UN to help bring about this « spring of nations« . In one of his chapters , he describes it as a quasi-mafia organization, headed by « godfathers » (the five states with the right of veto: the United States, China, Russia, France and Great Britain) each constituting a clientele of small post-colonial states that they use to defend their interests. In return, the great powers guarantee the durability of these states in the name of the sacrosanct « intangibility of borders« . This sometimes turns into a tragic farce when states with virtually no tangible existence, such as Somalia, still enjoy their seat in the United Nations, while others that actually exist (Kosovo, Taiwan) are not given a place in the United Nations so as not to « anger » some member states.
Ferhat Mehenni calls for the identification of the post-colonial world – a break-up of the current borders artificially created in the nineteenth century by European diplomats and officers in favor of new, smaller states whose borders more closely match the anthropological realities of affected peoples. He thinks that some transitional solutions such as autonomy or federalism may be sufficient for a long time to sustain the current states, but because of their structure, he considers that most would be unable to carry out such institutional reforms. In his view, the democratization of Africa and part of Asia will only be possible if we first resolve the question of identity that is at the root of the evils that eat away at these regions.
Mr. Mehenni’s argument is well organized, rigorous and convincing. However, we would have liked the book to go beyond the unique theme that is his. Indeed, to be complete, a reflection on the future of the post-colonial world, while it cannot ignore the problem of identity, ought also to take into account the demographic, economic and religious aspects, which do not appear in the work of Mr. Mehenni. Similarly, the examples of young states that have recently seceded from a post-colonial state and which he calls to follow the example leaves one wondering: Eritrea is one of the worst totalitarian regimes in Africa , provoked two wars with Ethiopia and financed the Somali jihadists. As for East Timor, the poorest country in Asia, it can not get out of the economic slump and political chaos. It therefore seems that, desirable as it may be, accession to sovereignty for a persecuted people is not automatically synonymous with progress for peace, prosperity and democracy, as Mr. Mehenni seems to believe. Despite this lack of multidisciplinary and critical sense, we can only recommend « Le siècle identitaire » to all those interested in the future of the world’s minorities.
Born in Kabylie in 1951, Ferhat Mehenni is an important figure in the Amazigh cultural movement of the 1970s and 1980s, opposed to Algerian power. Deeply involved in politics, he first campaigned in the Rally for Culture and Democracy (RCD, Algerian political party founded in 1989), then founded in 2001 the Movement for the autonomy of Kabylia (MAK). In 2010 he became president of the Provisional Government Kabyle (GPK – Anavad), self-proclaimed « government » and in exile.
We will use in this text the expression « European colonization » because it is exclusively to this type of colonization that we generally refer when we evoke the notion of a « post-colonial » world. It should be remembered that other colonization phenomena have existed in history and, for some, continue today (Aryan, Arab, Bantu, Mongolian, Russian, Turkish, Japanese, Chinese settlements …)
cf. Le siècle identitaire, the end of the post-colonial states, Michalon, Paris, 2010, p. 26.
Ibid, p. 30
Ibid, p. 31
Ibid, p. 36
Ibid, cf. p. 49
Ibid, p. 75
Ibid, p. 81
Ibid, p. 81
Ibid, p. 104
Ibid, p. 108
Ibid. p. 91
Ibid. p. 97
Ibid. p. 101
Ibid. p. 65
Ibid. p. 65
Ibid. p. 113
Ibid. p. 40
Ibid. p. 78
Ibid. p. 54
Ibid. p. 91
Ibid. p. 41
cf. Ibid. p. 125
Ibid. pp. 125-126
Ibid. p. 36
Ibid. p. 127
Ibid. p. 129
Cf. the article by the Economist The Economist on this subject
Ibid. pp. 153 to 162
Ibid, p. 89
See the subject of the article du Monde.