maandag 2 april 2018

International parallels in (de)centralization: Spain, Ethiopia, and broader

Recently, this March of 2018, there were municipal elections in the Netherlands, as every 4 years. Also, since a time in the news – at least here in Europe – is the independence movement in Catalonia, now part of Spain, with regional president of Catalonia, Carles Puigdemont, as main spokesperson. This single-sided declaration of independence – or referendum initiative - was apparently illegal constitutionally, and therefore Puigdemont became a wanted and eventually arrested man, by the central Spanish authorities.

Earlier, a bit less known, I gather, there was by the way a call for Scottish independence leading also to a referendum, resulting in a majority voting in favour of remaining part of the United Kingdom.

The municipal elections in the Netherlands, meanwhile, showed an increased participation and success of “local”, own political parties, operating apart from the larger national parties.

In Northern Italy, there was also a resurgence of calls for independence , at least by some groups, typically in wealthy regions like Veneto and Lombardia. Likewise, Catalonia is one of the wealthiest and most industrialized parts of Spain. This of course relates to the independence wish. It is difficult to become independent when you depend on central funds.


All these, partly unrelated topical issues, share at least that they raise questions about centralization versus decentralization of states. Some states have very centralized governments, others have chosen a more decentralized model, including relative political (decision) autonomy for regions, “nations within nations”, or on a smaller scale, municipalities, or sub-regions.

All this is, as the Rastas call it, part of “politricks”, and can be condemned, or at least mistrusted, as such. Also, local-level government, even with autonomy, tends to be run by the more privileged elites in regions or towns, continuing largely the inequality. Oppression of minority groups also remains part of that, as several political groups show, espousing more autonomy or independence, and having at the same time xenophobic agendas toward local foreigners. Examples? Vlaams Belang in Flandres, Belgium, The Lega Nord in Northern Italy. Also the Brexit movement has – more covert – anti-foreigner overtones.

It is therefore, in my opinion at least, somewhat hard to conclude whether a more or less centralized state – or organization for that matter - is good or bad. It is not that simple. Decentralization seems to suggest democratization, as it promises more say for the citizens over their direct environment, which can be seen as a human and civil right. That is: extending voting and political participation: not just for a distant central government, but also at the local level.


Spain’s situation is for European standards a bit problematic, because the current Catalonian issue was historically preceded by a movement for independence in the Basque country – elsewhere in Northern Spain - , now apparently satisfied with an increased degree of regional autonomy. Some other parts of Spain, such as Galicia, also knew such movements, with differing levels of support.

Spain became after the Franco dictatorship (ending in 1975), and perhaps because of that highly centralized Right-wing dictatorship up to 1975, since 1977, a federal state of sorts, divided in 17 “autonomous regions”, with differing degrees of autonomy. This depends on ethnic claims of belonging to a distinct historical nation. These claims are made by several groups within Spain: the Basques, the Catalans, and Galicians, all having own languages, cultural traditions, and partly own histories. Politicized these became “national identities”. These were however not histories “as independent from Spain” at some point conquered by the big power that is Spain, as some might wrongly assume..

In fact, from Spain’s early development as a state in the 8th c. AD, Basques, Galicians, and Catalans, formed constitutive parts of it, as these peoples joined forces against the Moorish/Islamic rulers that ruled in a large part of Iberia, between the 8th and 15th c.. They joined forces as Christian kingdoms (some aided from what is now France) to “reconquer” Spain and Portugal on the Islamic Moors, from the North. This took some centuries, but eventually, Christian kingdoms risen in the North of Spain, like Asturias and León (and Galicia), Castile, and Aragón and Catalonia, could conquer the rest of Spain. For that reason, the Galician language spread southward and became (with some changes) the still related Portuguese language. Likewise, the Catalan language spread to the Valencian region (where it developed into Valencian, linguistically strongly related to Catalan), and the Balearic islands. The language of the Castilians from around Cantabria, with also Basque influences, spread southward to central and southern parts of Spain.

Spanish writer José Camilo Cela even once said that “the Basques made Castile”, historically. There are quite some Basque loanwords in Castilian, some even commonly used (though not so much as there are Arabic/Moorish ones).

Somewhat ironic, maybe, how early kingdoms forming voluntarily a larger state, eventually resulted in regions wanting to become independent.


This is not that unique to Spain, or even Europe, however. It can be found on other continents as well. Ethiopia in Africa is a good example. Ethiopia was never really colonized by European powers, despite attempts, temporary conquest, or violations by Italy. Fascist Italy under Mussolini could conquer Ethiopia in the 1930s, but only for some years.

Ethiopia’s national borders are thus historically formed by local, indigenous rulers and kingdoms, following local warfare or competition, alliances and such, not unlike some European and Asian countries that never were colonized. Early Ethiopian emperors – when spreading their power geographically - soon came to rule over different surrounding, ethnic groups or “nations”, speaking different languages, with different cultures, and even religions. Several emperors were even of mixed ethnicity themselves. This joining of kingdoms, Christian ones too, is somewhat comparable to Spain’s history, also because it was partly opposed to upcoming and surrounding Islam.

Christianity has a long history in Ethiopia, even longer than in Spain or elsewhere in Europe. Early Christian rulers of the Tigray and Amhara people thus “conquered” and combined – or via intermarriage - a Christian-led country together, that luckily escaped European colonialism. To maintain this country, power became centralized, with the predominantly Ethiopian Orthodox Christian Amhara people having relatively much influence within Ethiopia’s central government of, later, Addis Ababa. Also the Tigray people in Northern Ethiopia had historically quite some influence, to which early Emperors as Yohannes of Tigray descent attest.

Haile Selassie became emperor of Ethiopia in 1930, following thus on a long line of related monarchs. This followed after much conflict with competing groups or self-proclaimed heirs. After the necessary power play and warfare, Haile Selassie became, however, the legitimate heir to the throne of Ethiopia in 1930. Haile Selassie was partly of Amhara descent, but also partly of Oromo and Gurage descent, combining thus various ethnicities within him. This is not uncommon among the wider Ethiopian population, by the way. Emperors had to be Orthodox Christian, and also Selassie’s father, Ras Makonnen, was. Selassie’s father, an influential military leader in Ethiopia, was of Oromo descent. The Oromo are numerically the largest of the about 8 main ethnic groups within Ethiopia, and are in majority Muslim. These were however excluded from imperial rule, as Ethiopia defined itself as a Christian state, at least Christian-led.

This history explains the centralized rule, and reasons for it, in Ethiopia. Not just until the latest monarch, Haile Selassie, ruled, but also continuing after 1975, under Mengistu’s communist rule.


In the Dutch-language scholarly work ‘Afrika : van de Koude Oorlog naar de 21e eeuw’(‘Africa : from the Cold War to the 21th century ), published in 2002, and written by Roel van der Veen, the author pays some attention to decentralization by African governments. In this book on modern African history, Van Der Veen discusses of course the legacy of colonialism, and other aspects, resulting in weak or undemocratic, or even “failed” states and economies.

Van Der Veen defines this decentralization as intricately bound with democratization, allowing people to participate politically in their direct environment. Yet, he also points at possible negative outcomes in Africa, as more politicians at local levels also means more corruption or power abuse. He discusses Uganda as an example of decentralization to local government that went “relatively well”, starting under President Museveni since 1986. This was – according to him – not the case elsewhere in Africa. Problematic was also that in colonial times there was a type of “decentralization” in the form of indirect rule through local, traditional rulers, dictated by European colonial rule. This may have been decentral, but hardly “democratic”. Some postcolonial governments therefore sought other, democratizing ways for decentralization. According to Van Der Veen this was however seldom with much success, mostly due to corruption and inequality.

While the book by Roel van der Veen is moderate and quite neutral in tone, and with a healthy amount of nuance, its author allows himself a few “sweeping statements”, it seems. He states that, concluding: “the result of decentralization (in Africa) with regard to improving the living conditions of citizens were overall mediocre”. He also points out, on the other hand, that it helped increased democratization and participation, if only partly.

African countries were mostly divided according to the wishes of Europeans, separating ethno-linguistic groups over different states. This seems to increase both the difficulty and the need for decentralization, as part of effective and democratic rule.

The example of Spain and a few other European countries shows that it also occurs in states formed by the local people itself, “voluntarily”. The elites decided then mostly, of course, but they were local elites.

Ethiopia also was never really colonized, although influenced by European colonialism in its direct surroundings. It has now about 8 main ethno-linguistic groups, comprising a total of many more languages and quite differing ethnic groups. Especially after 1974, several separatist movements arose in different parts of Ethiopia, wishing secession for their ethnicity or nation, including Eritrea (eventually succeeding), but also in bordering Tigray in Northern Ethiopia, among the Oromo in Central and Southern Ethiopia, and among Somali people in the Ogaden dessert border area. Some of these are still active today.

All these felt “separate national identities” within states of course influence decentralization processes.


When talking about Africa as a whole and “central” or “decentral”, the history of Africa before colonialism and Arab and European slavery is also interesting.

In an earlier blog I mentioned how people from the Congo/Angola region was relatively strongly affected by slavery in the period between the 15th and 20th c., being relatively “easy pickings”. That’s why many enslaved Africans ending up in the West came from these regions (Congo, Angola), forcibly brought to North America, Central and South America, and the Caribbean. There are historic examples of opposition and heroic Angolan kings and queens resisting against the Portuguese and other Europeans, but eventually these Europeans got a stronghold.

One might be tempted to think that a strong centralized state or nation in Africa at that time, would better be able to ward off enslavement of their people by Europeans. After all, centralization supposes power.

Historically, this seems not to be really the case. As collaborators with European enslavers, some of such central states or kingdoms, with powerful rulers, even delivered slaves from other peoples – or even of their own ethnicity – to European traders. Precisely because of that power. The Ashanti kingdom, in present-day Ghana, was for instance powerful , but many slaves from there ended up in the West too.

In what is now Nigeria two main South-Nigerian ethnic groups, the Yoruba and Igbo, both were strongly affected by the slave trade, while the Yoruba and Igbo had at that time already quite different social and political structures: more central and urban in Yorubaland, more decentral and based on villages in Igboland. It seemed to not make much difference in their becoming victim, as both relatively many Yoruba- and Igbo-speaking slaves were brought forcibly to the West.

In the Americas, Yoruba ended up relatively much in Cuba, Brazil, Haiti, and Trinidad, whereas among the slave population of Barbados, and to a smaller degree Jamaica and other English-speaking Caribbean islands, Igbo were quite numerous.


In other continents as Europe and Asia, centralization has showed or still showed its ugly head. Historically one can go back to the Roman Empire, as super-centralized, Napoleon Bonaparte’s ambitious conquests and Paris-based empire, and certainly the Fascist dictatorships in Italy under Mussolini and the Nazi’s in Germany. Being totalitarian regimes, these limited internal autonomy, but as known also bothered the rest of the world with it.

The current Chinese government also aims at total control over far-away regions and its many citizens, with little space for self-rule or autonomy. The oppression in Tibet, formally a part of China, also shows this.


The dictatorship of Franco in Spain (1939-1975) was loosely based on the one earlier by Mussolini in Italy, with some general Fascist traits, but had some differences as well, modeled further on conservative Catholic ideals or simply “the old order” of old, united Spain. It was quite centralized in the capital Madrid. This made Madrid for some regions – perhaps against better knowledge – as the centre of Spain’s Fascistoid Franco rule. Ironically, however, Madrid was one of the last cities to be conquered by Franco’s Right in the preceding Civil War. A bit later than Catalonia too. Franco’s aim was “centralization” of Francoism, not “Madridization” of Spain, as some independentists erroneously present it. Franco himself was not from Madrid, but from Galicia. The Galician language, that he knew how to speak too, was outlawed in his native Galicia. Perhaps also ironic too, though some Spaniards thought that he was secretly less strict in suppressing Galician than other minority languages. One of the ironies of centralization., as well as privileges of being a dictator.

In Spain, therefore, decentralization, and regional autonomy-granting, accompanied the democratization process, necessary in Spain after the end of Franco’s dictatorship in 1975. Longer, historical demands and promises for autonomy of groups like the Basques, Catalans, Galicians and others were fulfilled through not only granting certain regions within Spain autonomy, but by dividing the whole country in 17 autonomous regions, with differing degrees of political autonomy, rendering this way a federal state. Spain now can be considered a federal state.

There is some sense in it, I opine, and differs from Italy, where only certain regions have autonomy, the rest not. The nation-wide federal approach seemed more balanced, if also a potential source for conflict. I see its democratic value, also for culture, but can also imagine scenarios of unnecessary separation or tribalism, at the cost of solidarity.

The way this world is, the separatist conflicts in Spain related more to money than to culture or sensed identity. Not fully, though. Basque and Catalan separatist movements both championed cultural and linguistic differences, and some even, more dubious, genetic reasons. Dubious both morally (a “purer” or “more European” race?), as well as scientifically.

Catalonia, along with the Basque Country, is the region within Spain with the highest degree of local autonomy in government. That’s where my objections lie, against the separatist call of some Catalans: they are already privileged. Thinking further: why are they more special than other “ethnic groups” within Spain. There is something like a Catalan identity and culture, with own interesting traits, most present in Catalonia proper, but much less already in Valencia or the Balearic Islands, despite linguistic ties. Interestingly, the Catalan language is strongly related to the Provençal languages in Southern France, where they only remain as dialects, showing also a historical focus and choice for centralization within France, up to the present.

There are, however, other cultures and languages within Spain. When I went to Galicia in NW Spain I noticed that the Galician language was dominantly present even in some bigger towns, heard as least as much as Castilian, often more. Galicia has furthermore an own Celtic-based culture, including bagpipes and harps, as does Asturias. Others, like the Andalusians (with e.g. a distinct, South-Spanish Flamenco culture and Moorish influences), the Aragónese, Murcians, or Canarians, sense but actually also have an own identity and culture.

I agree that regional languages should be used if the speakers of it wish so, also in political affairs, and be thus official, or co-official languages. This by itself good and democratic fact is however already the case for the Basque, Catalan, and Galician languages. Beyond that, the “cultural identity” issue is more vague and biased, I find.

My main objection is however the lacking socioeconomic solidarity. Virtually every country has wealthier regions within it, helping thus out poorer, less-developed regions in the same state. Through, well, centralization or centralized rule. Lombardy, Piemonte, and Veneto are examples of wealthy, industrialized Italian regions, in which many find they subsidize the poorer Southern parts of Italy. Not always objecting to it, though. I spoke to several Northern Italians (including my own father) who understood or even appreciated that rich Northern Italy, with wealth levels comparable to countries like Switzerland and Germany, helped out poorer, rural parts of Italy (with wealth levels like Spain or Greece).

This lacking economic solidarity along with ethnic “special statuses”, makes the separatist movement and call of Catalonia less ”Left-wing” or democratic in the broad sense, than what Pavlov reactions to “wanting independence” (from former world power Spain!), might have us assume.


Somewhat concluding, I think “bigger picture” is a key term here. Focussing on ruling very local affairs, one might become too short-sighted, and forget the wider world around, dealing just with small, daily or petty issues. Issues that touches one personally or “one’s people” get mainly, almost self-involved attention. That has a place in each human life, of course, but must not impede something like (international/interregional) solidarity with humans farther away from the direct environment, that might be worse off. Or a wider consciousness.

In the Netherlands there were, as I mentioned at the beginning of this post, municipal elections in March, 2018. In Dutch law, foreign nationals (especially of EU countries) are allowed to vote, but not for the national elections. Whatever the formulated or public “democracy-enhancing” rationale, it remains skewed in my opinion: foreigners need (read: should) not interfere with national, “bigger” affairs, but can with local affairs, that however stem from national choices. Directly or indirectly. Ultimately national policy directions determine the choice for building a car park in a nature area in some town or municipality.

That is a partial lack of democracy, covered up with “decentralization”, similar to what can be found in certain socialist and other dictatorships (so-called democratic workers’ groups, neighbourhood political committees etcetera).

When I was in Cuba in the period 2001-2006, I heard about, and even noticed the activities of, the Comités de Defensa de la Revolución (CDR), translateable as: Committees for the Defense of the Revolution. Most neighbourhoods I went had one, suggesting local involvement in politics, at the neighbourhood level.

Down the line, I noticed and learned that the “Defence” part of these neighbourhood CDRs consisted mostly of “political snitching”, and also often had corrupt (bribing, favouritism) aspects. One must think of reporting to powerful local forces (police or politicians) about a Cuban woman taking foreigners home, having intimate affairs with them, possibly related to prostitution, Cubans of both genders just befriending foreigners, or buying and selling products from the Black market, listening to foreign news or music etcetera etcetera. The CDR in the neighbourhood could report such people to authorities, thereby helping the Revolution at the neighbourhood level. Or so they say..

Centralization or decentralization: a complicated and contextual issue..