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Editor's Note: The author, who is presently working with New Country Foundation members to organize a libertarian new country project in Africa, asked that his name be withheld. If you would like further information about this project, please contact NCF at the address listed on the masthead.
Somewhere in East Africa, there is a green valley that is often referred to as "no-man's-land." It received this name for two reasons. First, almost nobody was living there during the past two centuries. Second, for a long time the surrounding states, those of Ethiopia, British Somaliland and French Somaliland, showed little interest in this valley. It was only in 1954 that this no-man's-land, up till then a white spot on the political map of the United Nations, received its color. It was then that the UN divided this valley among two sovereigns, the larger part going to Ethiopia; the smaller part to British Somaliland.
When I visited this beautiful valley for the first time, in 1992, I instantly saw its potential as an independent country. Like Galt's Gulch, it is surrounded by mountains, which gives it a sort of privacy. Also, it has a pleasant, temperate climate due to its location at 1700 meters altitude. Its size, equal to that of Luxembourg, is three times larger than Hong Kong. With modern cultivating techniques it can easily feed a million people. My big question was, why there were no villages in this valley. The answer came soon. The British forbade settlement, fearing that its trees would be cut in order to permit agriculture. They reserved the valley for nomads.
The nomadic tribe which has been living in this valley for the past few centuries is called "Samaron," after its founder. Its nickname is Gadabursi, i.e. mountain people. When asked whether they were interested in turning their valley into an independent country, these tribesmen answered positively. They said that, traditionally, tribes are sovereign, refusing to take orders from each other, or from any Republic. They offered to discuss this matter with the Republic of Somaliland, independent since 1991, which professes to welcome foreign investors.
This valley is part of the African continent, which has the reputation of being in a perpetual political and economic mess. But who created this image? Surely the proponents of the state order, which is precisely the order Africans don't want. The basic conflict in Africa is between the proponents of two different political systems: state government, which is authoritarian, and tribal government, which is libertarian.
Libertarian, in what sense? In a libertarian society every person is free to exercise the profession of his choice, including that of judge and policeman. This includes the right to establish and maintain a court of justice or a police force. In other words, in libertarian society no person has the right to monopolize the police services in any given area.
What is a state? It is best defined as a police force which doesn't tolerate any competitors; which monopolizes its particular trade. Therefore, states are unacceptable to libertarians. They prefer stateless societies, i.e. societies where the government consists of an aggregate of competing judiciaries and police forces.
Some people believe that, in politics, authoritarians and libertarians are equally honorable options. But they are wrong. The right to establish one's own judiciary or police force is grounded in natural law, which consists of the rights and obligations inherent in human nature. Therefore, all authoritarian political systems are of a criminal nature.
The scholars of tribal government in Africa agree that, at present, there are at least a dozen countries where part of the population is stateless. What do they mean by this? They mean that these Africans live under tribal governments which lack permanent offices, lack a bureaucracy, lack a hierarchy. But that is not how libertarians define statelessness.
Libertarians do not care whether the police force and the courts of justice are permanent or not, whether the jobs of judge and policemen are full-time or part-time occupations. What matters is, whether a police force does, or doesn't, maintain a coercive monopoly. And what do we see in Africa? Among the rural people almost nobody accepts such monopoly. They prefer tribal government, which is stateless. As there are some 400 million rural Africans who still live with tribal government, one can say without exaggeration that there are 400 million stateless people in Africa, 400 million libertarians.
It has been said that living in a stateless society does not make one a libertarian; that the Africans would establish states if only they had the skills. Many observers have indeed volunteered this hypothesis, but it has never been substantiated. Professor George Ayittey from Ghana, as well as quite a few other eminent scholars, have shown, on the contrary, that statelessness in Africa is there by design, not by accident. They cite as evidence that there have been several African states, which — predictably — organized the lives of their subjects in frightening detail. Also, in almost all tribes, there are legends of dictators whose rule was so oppressive that the tribe forswore dictatorship forever. Third, almost all African tribes have organized their government in such a way that no politician can ever hope to accumulate any power over his fellow tribesmen. Let's analyze each of these three points in more detail.
Prior to the colonial period, there have been half a dozen African states, which is not much if you realize that there are approximately 2,000 tribes in Africa. Let's take Dahomey. Its state lasted for more than 200 years, until the end of the 19th century. It had a powerful army and an efficient bureaucracy.
Says one scholar (A.A. Boahen, Topics in West African History, New York, Longman 1986): "The farmers in each village were counted by officials of the ministry of agriculture and the tax paid in kind by each was fixed according to the assessment made of the villages' total production. Livestock was also counted and taxed. The kings of Dahomey regularly conducted a population census to get an accurate estimate of the number of people to be taxed ... or conscripted. Two other writers (G.T. Stride and C. Ifeka, Peoples and Empires of West Africa, Lagos, Thomas Nelson, 1971) have this to say about the State of Dahomey: "The entire administrative machine was ruthlessly efficient. Headed by rulers of rare political talent and backed by people of great military skill and courage, it was a dynamic political organism."
More typical is the case of the Habar Ghidir Sa'aad clan north of Mogadishu. Once they decided to have a ruler, a suldaan. As soon as he was appointed, he issued a decree that he would eat, for breakfast, lunch and dinner, nothing but the marrow of goats, so as to secure him eternal youth. He specified that 25 goats had to be slaughtered in the morning, another 25 at mid-day and yet another 25 in the evening. After the first day of his reign, the elders of the clan came together. Not because they feared for the indigestion of their leader, but rather because they realized that, at this rate, their new ruler would soon devour all of the clan's wealth. So, collectively, they killed him, and decided never to have a dictator again.
African tribal government is organized as follows. In each village one finds a chief. Always, he is accompanied by three men who act simultaneously as his advisors and his guardians.
The role of the chief is to execute the decisions of the Council of Elders, who, in turn, must seek the consensus of the village assembly. In some tribes, a ruler, is appointed during times of war, but this ruler is stripped of his powers as soon as peace returns. During peace time, chiefs are carefully watched by the Council of Elders. Many an African chief lost his chieftaincy by stepping out of the lines drawn by his Council. A good example is the Samaron tribe, which owns the green valley which caught our attention. During the 1930s, this tribe deposed its king because he had signed a pact with Ethiopia's emperor Haileselassie without the prior consent of the tribe's Council of Elders.
Some observers of traditional African politics point to the fact that in many tribes one finds a king. His primary function, however, is a religious one. During political deliberations, a king keeps his mouth shut. There are tribes in which the king must pull a blanket over his head during political discussions. When the Council has taken a decision, the king is requested to speak up. Thereupon, he removes his blanket and says: "and so it has been decided." In politics, therefore, an African king is little more than a rubber stamp and an archive.
Another time-tested device to prevent politicians from becoming dictators is secession. Each African family is free to leave his community when he disagrees with the decisions of its leaders.
Given this almost obsessive fear, in Africa, that a state may emerge in their midst, one wonders why in Europe and North America people are so much at ease with central government. The French historian Bertrand de Jouvenel, asking himself the same question, wrote a superb book about this, entitled On Power: The Natural History of Its Growth, published in 1993 by the Liberty Fund in Indianapolis. I quote:
What sort of country would be a reliable host for an experiment with statelessness?
2. It must have a large percentage of libertarians among its indigenous population, in order to keep it libertarian.
3. It must seek the short-term gains of the experiment rather than care for its long-term political consequences.
There is one African nation of particular interest, the Somali nation. It is the only African nation thus far, which has abolished statehood after its decolonization. It's the first African nation that returned to its indigenous political tradition. There are, of course, many former politicians among the Somalis who try to revive the state. They are often plotting with foreign states, including the USA. When, in 1993, America tried to re-impose statehood on the Somali tribes, they successfully defended their newly won freedom with every tooth and nail. Thus, the Somalis bore out a pet libertarian theory that free nations need not fear foreign armies unless their soldiers are prepared to kill the entire population.
Tribal government is quite suitable for a rather static, pastoral way of life, but it does not serve the needs of those operating on world markets. The Somali leaders realize this, but what can they do? They lack the necessary political skills. This is where foreign libertarians can come in. The question is, how? Not by advising the Somalis how to reorganize their government, because there are almost no Somali politicians willing to listen to a foreigner. Those who will listen are rarely capable of acting upon such advice. Therefore, the only effective way in helping the Somalis is by establishing a small model country in their midst, with a sovereign government based on the same political principles as practiced by the tribes. This model government will then show the way to modernity, particularly to those Somali politicians who will be associated in its management.
The Somali tribes, because of their libertarian tradition, cannot be
careful enough in choosing a partner for developing their politics and
economics. The same goes for libertarian new country advocates. They should
locate their free market experiments in a solid libertarian environment.
Somaliland and the libertarians both have something to offer to each other.
Somaliland has the land and the sovereignty that libertarians are seeking.
The libertarians can bring about the political and economic development
that Somaliland is seeking. Therefore, new country advocates and Somaliland
can be — and will be — ideal partners. D
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