Mar 16, 2006

When Minorities rule over Majorities

It is rather strange to consider, in this day and age, that there are still countries which are ruled by minorities. Given the decidedly strong emphasis and direction that the world has towards majority rule in a liberal democratic framework, minority rule is the exception and the few countries which are remaining are on the path to reform. Well, perhaps “reform” is too optimistic a word, but let us just say that the trend is away from minority ruled countries. The countries which remain are becoming even more glaring to the eye.

Off the top of my head, I can think of Syria, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Iraq, Rwanda, Kenya and possibly Jordan as countries which are either existing or have recently been exposed to this piquant situation of a minority ruling over a majority. I know many people will ask me about Israel and Palestine, but frankly, I am tired of that lot, far too much attention has been paid to that area for too long. Let me put it in another way, if you had totted up all the multilateral and bilateral aid which has been poured into Israel and Palestine, and then taken that money and poured it into other hotspots with issues such as Congo, Kashmir, Bosnia, Central America or Columbia, we would have seen better results. Fifty years and billions down the drain and nothing has been resolved. A pox on both their houses, so to say! But I digress. Back to our theme.

Syria has been ruled by the Alawi sect, South Africa was ruled by the Afrikaners, Iraq by the Sunni’s, Zimbabwe by Robert Mugabe’s tribe (Shona), Rwanda by the Tutsi’s, Kenya by the Kiyukis and Jordan by the Bedouins. All of them have been minorities. Strangely enough, all of these situations can be traced back to their colonial masters. Whether we are talking about Syria or South Africa, it is a colonial hangover which hangs over these countries. When the imperial colonial power wanted to rule the country, it obviously needed to have its agents, through which it could work. Think back to British India, where a quarter of a million British men controlled a country of 300 million people. Keeping people divided was best and thus gave rise to agents who were powerful enough to keep rest of the population under control, but not powerful enough to threaten the viability of the colonial regime.

Then came independence, where power was handed over to the dominant party. Whether it be a monarchy (Iraq, Jordan and Syria) or the dominant “resistance” party (Kenya and Rwanda), the fact remains that power was transferred over to the person or persons who were shouting the loudest or promised to keep the colonial links alive. We all know what happened after that. The dominant party entrenched itself, eviscerated opposition parties, locked up every possible threat to its power, put in tribal or sectarian members in key positions, corruption flourished and extreme nationalism was the name of the game.

As we have seen in the above mentioned examples, the minority parties or groups stay in power by controlling its main levers. These are common to all, control over the law/order framework (judiciary, police, intelligence agencies), the military and a vast number of jobs and power patronage network (usually because the economy is strongly socialist or nationalist – definitely not free market). The last point is particularly important; as while fear can be the key, it is not the lock. The lock is the general minutiae of day to day living, the rules and regulations governing jobs, electricity bills, availability of information (TV, Radio, and Internet), phone connections, etc. Once you swamp this day to day existence with silly, archaic, corrupt and inefficient ways of working, you have control. This allows a small and centralised elite to control the vast forces of power and patronage. This is further buttressed by secrecy, intimidation and fear by the security services and army. It is no surprise that most of the above mentioned examples are shown to have the support of the army.

The problem which comes up is when one is faced with the fact that this sort of state characteristic (minorities ruling the state) that it is becoming even more eye-catching and rare. Iraq and South Africa are two prime examples of what soft power and/or hard power does. Soft power such as EU’s efforts, the United Nations and other multi-lateral agencies in South Africa, versus the hard power push such as by the USA in Iraq. Despotic regimes such as these are now becoming the exception rather than the rule and managing to perpetuate these regimes is becoming even more of a difficult choice. Look at North Korea, Syria, Kenya and Jordan. Specially look at Syria and Jordan. They are in a dangerous place in the world, and frankly, both ruling regimes simply exist because of their huge repressive state administration. If you ask me, these would probably not exist for very much longer. Also the natural antipathy and disenchantment of the majority or other groups allows external parties to drive big cracks into the state edifice. But not always, it helps if you have oil or belong to an area which is dangerous or if you turn into something which is not easy to remove (e.g. North Korea with Nuclear Weapons).

The problem with power being concentrated in few hands is when those few hands are chopped off (figuratively or literally); the entire edifice falls apart very quickly. See South Africa and Iraq for examples. Unfortunately, to protect their existence, these regimes lash out and lash out usually with dire results internally. Look at Zimbabwe, Kenya, North Korea, Syria and Jordan. Even if we disregard North Korea, the rest of these regimes have an extremely repressive internal security system. In addition, what better way of getting the public’s mind off internal loss of freedom and state repression than by stoking nationalistic fervour? Hence most of these regimes, in some shape or form, have been involved in external fights at worst or intrigues at best.

To wrap up, these regimes are going to die off, but it will not be an easy task, either for their populations or for their neighbours and even for the world community. It is indeed a smart cookie who does this, witness South Africa. As we have seen in South Africa, it sometimes also needs another smart cookie on the other side, who will be able to take control and set the path of the country firmly on the liberal democratic route. It is not simple and many a hiccup happens, but I believe that history is firmly on the side of the democratic angels (so to say). As George Bernard Shaw once said: “Democracy means the organization of society for the benefit and at the expense of everybody indiscriminately and not for the benefit of a privileged class”. What the heck, here’s another interesting quote, “In democracy, it's your vote that counts; in feudalism it's your count that votes.”

All this to be taken with a grain of salt!

No comments: