No Island No Claim: The Cases of Tuvalu and Nauru

In 2009, the Island of Bermeja, located in the Gulf of Mexico disappeared from site. Now, it will disappear on maps, as well.

Mexico was using Bermeja to leverage a claim on oil rights in the Gulf of Mexico, after all, their state maps showed the Island as an unquestionable part of their territory. The problem was, when a crew went out to examine the Bermeja, it could not be found.

Another crew was sent out to investigate the claim, alas, nothing to be found. The disbelief even led to conspiracy theories of the CIA destroying the island (see: Bikini Atoll). The United States gave a prompt and cutting response to Mexico, “No Island, No Claim,” the norm in international law.

This case was followed up in the last week by news that New Moore Island, or S. Talpatti, in the Bay of Bengal, a former maritime dispute point between India and Bangladesh, had ceased to be.

Many of the UN’s tiniest and lowest lying states, Tuvalu, Nauru, and Maldives, for example are in jeopardy of becoming submerged in the next decade, due to rising ocean levels.

The international community has been somewhat sympathetic to these soon to be submerged countries, with New Zealand, Australia, Taiwan, Sri Lanka, and even the United States offering financial aid. There are plans in the works for full scale evacuations of many Islands Oceania, should there be a catastrophic upsurge in sea levels in the form of a king tide.

It is likely that those in Tuvalu, Nauru, and some Parts of the Maldives and the Marshall Islands could soon become people without a state, only a few years after joining the UN.

Goodbye Nanumea Island (Part of Tuvalu). We hardly knew ye.

This issue is the focus of this week’s GeocurrentCast, illustrated in Google Earth. We’ll be taking a satellite look at the fate of the world’s tiniest and least elevated island states.

To download the presentation, first download Google Earth.

Next, download this file, and double click the video icon in Google Earth to start the guided, narrated tour.

You can pause or stop the tour at any time to investigate some of the islands in closer detail.

Happy flying. is now on twitter. Make us your source for history, geography, and cyber-cartography.

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Tribes and Nations: The Lumbees’ Frustrated Quest for Federal Recognition

U.S. states and recognized Native American tribes are both quasi-sovereign territorial entities subordinate to the federal government, but they remain fundamentally different kinds of units. Whereas the states together constitute the union and are thus arms of “the state” in the larger sense, tribes are vanquished polities that lost all but a few vestiges of their sovereignty. Reservations are thus never called “states,” even though they have many state-like attributes. But while Native Americans lost statehood, most groups retained nationhood. U.S. states are never considered nations, but tribes almost always are. The distinction between the state and the nation underwrites the differences between these two types of semi-sovereign units.

Unfortunately, the difference between nation and state has been muddied in common usage – along with such kindred terms as “country” and “sovereignty.” In everyday parlance, a nation is the same thing as a country as well as a fully sovereign state. Yet the formal definitions, which reflect earlier usage, remain distinctive. A “nation,” the Wikipedia tells is, is “a grouping of people who share real or imagined common history, culture, language or ethnic origin, often possessing or seeking its own government.” The essence of the nation, in this sense, is more cultural than political. Despite the changed meaning in basic usage, underlying connotations persist. If “country” primarily connotes a territory, and “state” primarily connotes a government, “nation” primarily connotes a people.

As subordinate nations, Native American tribes are supposed to have a “common history, culture, language or ethnic origin.” But when the indigenous peoples of the United States were conquered and displaced, remnant populations often amalgamated, creating hybrid societies. Due to their mixed origins and lack of a singular history, such groups may be denied official recognition by the U.S. government. The prime example of such an unacknowledged people are the Lumbee of North Carolina, whose 55,000 members form one of the largest tribes in the eastern United States (see maps above).

The Lumbee probably originated from remnants of several indigenous groups who sought refuge in the swamplands of southeastern North Carolina, where they were joined by escaped or freed slaves as well as a few poor Whites. They have been struggling for recognition for decades. In 1956, Congress acknowledged the Lumbee as American Indians, but it expressly denied the official recognition that would allow them to receive federal services through the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Critics argue that the Lumbee do not constitute a genuine nation, as they are of mixed origin and lack a native language. The Lumbee themselves have proposed several different tribes as their main progenitors. Many link their ancestry to the Tuscarora, an Iroquoian group that largely abandoned North Carolina for New York in 1700. The Tuscarora tribal government, however, rejects the connection and has opposed official recognition. Currently, the locally favored theory connects the Lumbee to the Cheraw, a South Carolina tribe that was virtually destroyed by a smallpox epidemic in 1738.

The Lumbee case is once again pending in the U.S. Congress. On June 3, 2009, the House of Representatives voted for full federal recognition, agreeing that descent from the Cheraw gives the Lumbee tribal legitimacy. Whether the tribe is mostly of Cheraw heritage, however, could be said to be beside the point, to the extent that nationhood stems from a range of “real or imagined” commonalities. In the current congressional battle, at any rate, the pressing issues are more economic than historical or cultural. The current bill, which has yet to pass the Senate, couples Lumbee recognition with an explicit prohibition on casino development.

Earlier this year, it looked as if the Lumbee would at long last gain official status. Chances dimmed in March after tribal leaders abruptly fired the lawyer who had led their struggle for twenty years. They turned instead to Lewin International LLC, a gambling consultancy. Lumbee leaders insist that the “no gaming” provision still holds, but if the pending bill becomes law, Lewin will enjoy “exclusive rights to develop and manage hotels, restaurants, retailing and theme parks on tribal land.” Many observers think that the Lumbee are indeed angling for casino development, which may undermine, yet again, their quest for federal recognition.

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The Ministry of Information brings you the following announcement:

You can now follow all of our posts, announcements, trivia, and extras on our brand new twitter feed.

We hope to engage with a worldwide audience of geographers, cartographers, historians, journalists, and global thinkers as we simultaneously learn and educate others.

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The Republic of Lakotah, The Alaskan Independence Party, and the Second Vermont Republic

Many Native Americans are worried about the reduction of tribal sovereignty. A few are so angry at the United States that they have declared independence. In 2007, Russell Means and a few other Lakota (Sioux) activists delivered formal papers of separation in Washington, D.C. They insisted that their self-proclaimed Republic of Lakotah was not seceding from the union but reasserting its own sovereignty. The Lakota, in their view, had signed treaties of dependency as a sovereign nation; as these treaties were not honored by the United States, they were effectively annulled, restoring Lakota independence. The republic’s organizers did say that they would consider entering a Compact of Free Association with the United States, following the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia.

In practice, the self-proclaimed Republic of Lakotah means little. The Bureau of Indian Affairs has deplored it as a publicity stunt, noting that its core members have no formal positions in tribal government. Few of the elected leaders of the eight reservations in the so-called republic have expressed support. While Russell Means claims that a sizable percentage of the Lakota people favor the declaration, others disagree. Support is even less certain among the non-Lakota Indians of “Lakotah,” and is undoubtedly extremely low among the non-indigenous people – who actually constitute the overwhelming majority of the proclaimed republic’s inhabitants.

Lakotah’s leaders sought international support, requesting recognition from Russia, France, Bolivia, and a few other countries. They have been rebuffed by all, even Venezuela. But the would-be republic has found support from two secessionist movements elsewhere in the United States: the Alaskan Independence Party, and the “Second Vermont Republic.” Such movements seeking to dismember the United States are small, but they are growing rapidly.

Modern secessionist groups in the United States are a diverse lot. Most follow a conservative-populist philosophy with libertarian tendencies – but not all. The Lakota activists are generally regarded as far left, but their politics are actually more complicated. Many of their libertarian platforms mesh well with those of the Alaskan splitters, including their support of the gold standard. The Second Vermont Republic, by contrast—founded by a former Duke University professor—is squarely leftist, “opposed to the tyranny of Corporate America.” But regardless of their divergent views, those who would secede from the union agree on one thing; they want to see the United States dismantled. To that extent, they are natural allies.

Although the Republic of Lakotah has largely been ignored by the media in the three years since it was declared, its leaders remain undeterred. As the group’s website recently announced, “On March 30, 2010, the Republic of Lakotah will repeat its position to the United States, and will transmit its communication to the President of the United States and to the Secretary of State, demanding that the United States cease and desist its activities in Lakotah territory, and insisting that the United States withdraw its presence from our homeland.”

The Republic of Lakotah, The Alaskan Independence Party, and the Second Vermont Republic Read More »

The Sovereignty of Non-Sovereign Tribes =

The federally recognized Native American groups of the United States are held to possess “tribal sovereignty.” The autonomy they enjoy is obviously limited, as the U.S. government maintains considerable control. But as we saw in yesterday’s post, sovereignty in practice is a divisible bundle of powers, which can be shared between a supreme political authority and its subordinate units. If the fifty U.S. states can be described as sovereign, so too can tribal governments, which usually enjoy more autonomy. (In the interests of precision, “quasi-sovereign” or “sub-sovereign” would perhaps be preferable terms, but one cannot easily change general usage.)

Native American groups were originally recognized as fully sovereign entities, able to sign treaties with other powers. As the U.S. government cemented its authority over the full extent of the territory that it claimed, they were demoted to the position of “dependent nations”: still partially autonomous, but no longer independent.

The extent to which Native American tribes today exercise sovereignty is an intricate issue, with a tangled history of court cases and acts of Congress. Tribal governments officially represent dependent nations directly subordinate to the federal government, and as such remain independent of the states and local branches of government. By a strict reading of their legal status, reservations should perhaps be mapped not as parts of states, but as autonomous territories removed from the fabric of state division.

Tribal freedom from state supervision, however, has gradually been whittled back. If Indian reservations are truly independent of the states in which they are located, then state courts should have no jurisdiction over them. Instead, both criminal and civil matters should be handled by tribal courts at the lower level and federal courts at the higher level. Such conditions obtain over much of the country, but not in the “greater northwest” (see map above). In 1953, Public Law 280 gave the governments of six states authority over certain civil and criminal matters on tribal lands that fell within their boundaries. It also allowed other states to later assume such powers if tribal governments consented. As the second map shows, most Native Americans today live in PL 280 states.

The recent development of reservation gambling was made possible by the limited sovereignty that tribal governments possess, but in practice it has further muddied the concept of tribal sovereignty. The Indian Gaming Regulatory of Act of 1988 forced tribes that wanted casinos to form “compacts” with state governments. At first such compacts were construed as business deals between autonomous and largely equivalent entities. According to the Act, if states refused to negotiate in good faith, tribes could sue in federal court. In 1991, however, the Supreme Court’s decision in Seminole Tribe v. Florida interpreted states’ “sovereign immunity,” as established in the 11th Amendment to the Constitution, as protecting them from legal action by their compact partners.

But tribal governments themselves also possess (limited) sovereign immunity. As battles over new tribal casinos rage, the scope of sovereignty continues to be scrutinized, and many Native American groups fear that their vestiges of sovereign power are being whittled away. The rhetoric can become heated. One American Indian website argued recently that the Attorney General of Connecticut has “waged a war against the doctrine of tribal sovereign immunity.”

Gambling is not the only economic issue at play. Tribal governments also benefit from selling low-tax tobacco, a business widely reviled. On March 16, 2010, Indian Country Today described the U.S. Senate as having “handing big tobacco a huge victory” by “attack[ing] tribal sovereignty and economies” when it passed the PACT Act (Prevent All Cigarette Trafficking). The Act left the Senate with unanimous consent, yet it could do significant harm to many tribal economies. American Indian leaders are now pinning their hopes on a presidential veto. According to one spokesman, “it comes down to Obama. He is an adopted Crow and he says all the right things, but this is real and not the campaign trail. So it will be interesting to see how he reacts when the rhetoric is tested against the reality of supporting tribes.”

The Sovereignty of Non-Sovereign Tribes = Read More »

The Sovereignty of Non-Sovereign States

The concept of sovereignty is a foundation of global politics. The countries that constitute the international system are supposedly defined by their ability to exercise supreme political authority over their entire territorial domains. But sovereignty in practice is often qualified, its limits varying as the context changes. This is particularly true in the United States.

The problem of sovereignty in the U.S. dates back to the foundational debates over whether the new country would be a confederation of independent states or a single federal state. The ratification of the constitution established union, but the degree of national sovereignty remained contested through the early decades of the 1800s. People still spoke of the country in the plural (“the United States are …”), and the federal government remained miniscule, hardly a state at all to many European visitors. It was the Supreme Court’s 1819 decision in McCulloch v. Marylandthat first clearly limited the authority of state governments while granting constitutionally implied powers to Congress. South Carolina’s failure to nullify the federal tariff in 1832 further cemented federal authority, and the defeat of the Confederate States in the Civil War seemingly settled the matter for good.

Yet the notion of state-level sovereignty never completely died, and today it is being revived. Nullification is again in their air as several state legislatures try to exempt their residents from the recent health-care bill. The concept of sovereignty is apparently in play, as voices call for the states to wrestle authority away from the federal government. According to the conservative website Right Side News, “the ‘State Sovereignty Movement’ continues to sweep the nation with well over three-quarters of the fifty states taking action, through their respective state legislatures, re-establishing their ‘sovereignty.’” Wyoming is the newest constitutionally sovereign state, after a bill was signed into law there on March 8, 2010. According to the Tenth Amendment Center, similar bills have been signed by governors in three other states, and have passed both branches of the legislature in an additional seven (see map).

What the Wyoming legislature has claimed, however, is obviously not true “sovereignty” as the word is generally defined. The leaders of the sovereignty movement do not want states to be governed without federal interference of any kind, much less to chart their own foreign policies. What they are seeking is rather extensive autonomy. Their justification stems from a strict reading of the Tenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which reserves to the constituent states all powers not explicitly granted to the federal government. And it is unlikely that Democratic Governor Dave Freudenthal of Wyoming wants even this limited form of sovereignty; a literal interpretation of the Tenth Amendment would shrivel the U.S. government to a fraction of its current size. Freudenthal, like many other proponents of “state sovereignty,” is likely more interested in making a symbolic statement in favor of states’ rights and against the further expansion of federal power.

The term sovereignty has several meanings. It primarily denotes the authority at the top level of the geopolitical hierarchy: the territorial unit that accepts no higher power. But it can also refer to the powers vested in the highest-order spatial subdivisions of those units, which by definition accept a subordinate political status. This same slippage is evident in the term “state.” A state in standard political discourse is the entity that holds sovereignty: the governmental apparatus that exercises ultimate power. But in the U.S. and a few other countries, states are also the highest order spatial divisions of the state. The origin of such conceptual imprecision dates to the formation of the United States, when the leaders of the breakaway colonies disagreed about whether they should form a federation or a confederation. In the end a federal government was formed, but vestiges of the confederal age were deliberately retained, remaining fixed in our language and ever ready to be deployed in the perennial tussle between Washington and the states.

The fifty United States, however, are not the only units in this country that claim sovereignty. The same is true of most Native American groups, as tomorrow’s post will explore.

The Sovereignty of Non-Sovereign States Read More »

Mining Scars & Smokestacks: Industrial Topography Illustrated in Google Earth

Our Geocurrentcast this week, aims to illustrate some of the most awe-inspriing images of the impact of industrialization. This week’s Google Earth tour looks at man’s physical impact on the surface of the earth through our thirst for mining ore, gold, boron, diamonds, uranium salt, natural gas, oil, and even the wind.

The tour takes time to stop with the army of Alexander the Great at the Khewra Salt Mines of Pakistan, resists Pinochet at El Teniente and El Chuquicama in Chile, and adds an extra karat of guilt to your grandfather’s wedding ring during its stop at the hand dug mines of South Africa.

The goal of this tour is to instill a deeper curiosity on issues extraction, energy use, consumption, land reclamation and industrialization through satellite illustration.

To view this tour, first download Google Earth.

Next, download the tour as a KMZ file, and double click the movie icon the places menu of Google Earth to play the tour.

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The Oromo and the Unrecognized Nations and Peoples Organization

The Kurds, who number some 30 million, are often describes as the world’s largest nation without a state of their own. They have also often been depicted as a “forgotten people,” generally overlooked by the global media. Yet the Oromo of Ethiopia and environs also number some 30 million, and they too have national aspiration. And if the Kurds have been “forgotten,” how might one characterize the Oromo?: “Never noticed in the first place?”

Although the Oromo have been granted a supposedly autonomous region in Ethiopia, Oromo nationalists demand independence. They also want additional territory. As can be seen in the maps above, the territorial claims of the Oromo Liberation Front are substantially larger than Ethiopia’s actual Oromia region. Thus even if Ethiopia were to grant Oromia independence (admittedly, an all but unthinkable occurrence), the conflict would probably persist. Ethiopia’s granting of independence to Eritrea in 1992, after all, did not bring peace, as the two countries continued to struggle over border districts.

The Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) is officially classified by the Ethiopian government as a terrorist organization. The OLF itself, with office in Washington D.C. and Berlin, maintains that it is democratic and non-violent, dedicated to the peaceful self-determination of the Oromo people. Critics, however, charge the OLF with violent rebellion, targeting Amhara people in Oromo areas, and making common cause with Islamist radicals in Somalia.

If the Oromo Liberation Front is indeed a militant group, its status in the Unrecognized Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO) could be jeopardized. UNPO (which has no connection with the UN) is an international organization dedicated to providing a political platform for self-proclaimed nations that remain under the domination of recognized states. Member organization must pledge to uphold democratic pluralism and non-violence. The Oromo Liberation Front has been a member since 2004.

The Unrecognized Nations and Peoples Organization had a fortuitous beginning. Initiated in Estonia in 1990, it gained additional support from Latvia, Georgia, Armenia and 11 other self-proclaimed nations without states. The collapse of the Soviet Union brought independence to four of the founding members the next year. Other groups joined, however, and the organization grew. It now boasts 54 active members: another five groups have been suspended, and 16 have withdrawn or been discontinued. Based in The Hague, the UNPO functions as a kind of para-United Nations, seeking a parallel path to international legitimacy for peoples excluded from the state-based international order.

The member organizations of the UNPO make unusual bedfellows. They include everything from the Tibetan Government in Exile to actually independent governments that have been denied international recognition (Somaliland), to European cultural groups that ended up on the wrong side of political boundaries (the former Danes of Southern Sweden), to small tribal federations such as the Tsimshian* of British Colombia, to the entire Aboriginal population of Australia (officially represented by the National Committee to Defend Black Rights), to the Afrikaans-speaking White population of South Africa. The organization’s position on the Afrikaner group is unambiguous: “The UNPO promotes the participation of the Freedom Front Plus within the democratic framework of South Africa, and recognizes the need of the Afrikaners to politically defend their linguistic and cultural rights. The UNPO further believes in the importance for all South African minorities, including the Afrikaners, to peacefully coexist in the ethnically varied context of South Africa, reiterating UNPO’s condemnation of any discrimination and targeted violence that takes place against the Afrikaners or any of the other ethnic minorities in the country.”

*The 10,000 members of this federation are divided into the following ethnic groups: Gidzalaal, Ginaxangiik, Gisp’axlo’ots, Gitandoyks, Gitlan, Gilutsau, Gitwilgyots, Git’andoo, Git’tsiis, Gitga’ata, Gitxaa³a, Gitasoo, Gitsalasuu and Gitsumgel’m.

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Sudan: Africa’s New Breadbasket?

As yesterday’s post discussed, Ethiopia’s western lowlands have significant agricultural potential. The agricultural resources of neighboring Sudan, however, are much greater. Vast clay plains cover much of east-central and southern Sudan; although they are not easy to farm, their soils are fertile and they have abundant – often too abundant – supplies of water. With adequate investment, Sudan could become a major agricultural exporter. Foreign firms and governments are interested. The United Arab Emirates has recently leased some 400,000 hectares, and other outside interests have made similar deals. Sudan, many hope, will become the “breadbasket of the Arab world.”

One problem with this scenario is the fact that Sudan is only partially within the “Arab world”; over sixty percent of its people are not Arabs. Most of the recent land-leasing deals have been made in the largely Arabic-speaking east-central region, but the agricultural potential of non-Arab Southern Sudan is also huge. Southern Sudan, however, is a highly troubled place. Long the site of a determined rebellion against the central government that took some two million lives, it has been granted a degree of autonomy as well as the promise that it will be able to vote on actual independence in January 2011. Few outside observers expect this election to go smoothly. The Khartoum government does not want to lose this oil- and water-rich region, and the southern Sudanese themselves remain divided. Ethnic violence has been increasing over the past two years, leading the organization Refugees International to warn that Southern Sudan faces“total collapse.” Meanwhile, aid agencies are preparing for spikes in violence through much of Sudan as the country prepares for national elections next month, its first multiparty vote in 24 years.

Large-scale agricultural investment in Southern Sudan is thus unlikely in the near future. But if the region does become politically stable and if agricultural development does proceed, tensions between local people and outside investors could well be pronounced. Conflicts could also emerge between farming interests and those of wildlife conservation. The global environmental community was pleasantly shocked in 2006 when new aerial surveys in Boma National Park and elsewhere revealed vast populations of antelopes, elephants, and other species of wildlife, as it had previously been thought that the region’s long civil war had destroyed most of its fauna. “I have never seen wildlife like that, in such numbers, not even when flying over the mass migrations of the Serengeti,” reported project leader J. Michael Fay. “This could represent the biggest migration of large mammals on earth.” Southern Sudan’s government is now working to protect its newly discovered wildlife, hoping to profit from eco-tourism. Political conflict, ethnic tensions, and resource development, however, present huge obstacles.

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Gambella: Ethiopia’s Troubled Western Lowlands

Ethiopia is well known as a plateau country. Its cultural and political core areas have always been in the highlands. But Ethiopia also includes extensive lowlands, a legacy of the imperial conquests in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Ethnic conflicts plague much of Ethiopia’s lowland fringe, as do tensions with the central government. One of the most troubled regions is Gambella, in far western Ethiopia along the border with Sudan.

Although relatively moist and fertile, Gambella is sparsely settled, with just 300,000 people in 25,800 square kilometers. Tropical diseases and frequent flooding have historically constrained agricultural development in the region. But Gambella’s population is now booming, due largely to migration from the highlands. As many as one in five residents may be former highlanders, mostly Amhara and Oromo.

Increasing population has brought escalating tensions. The two main indigenous ethnic groups, the Nuer and the Anuak, have been fighting over land. Although speaking closely related Nilotic languages, they traditionally follow different modes of life: for the Nuer, nomadic pastoralism; for the Anuak, sedentary cultivation. As is often true in the age-old conflict between herders and farmers, the former seem to have a military advantage.

The deeper ethnic conflicts in Gambella stem from domination by the highlands. Much of the upland plateau is densely populated and short of food. As a result, sparsely settled Gambella beckons. It has good soil and plenty of water, and also boasts tungsten, platinum, gold and oil deposits. Hostility between the indigenous inhabitants and highlander immigrants intensified in recent years. In 2004, after some 400 Anuak men were reportedly killed by the Ethiopian military, Genocide Watch placed the Anuaks on its list of potential victims. Violence seems to have subsided since then, but it has by no means disappeared.

Gambella’s agricultural potential has been noticed by the world market. Ethiopia has recently leased roughly one million hectares of farmland to foreign firms, and reportedly plans to lease another two million. In Gambella, Saudi Star Agricultural Company has taken over 10,000 hectares and is expected to add another 250,000, and the Indian company Karuti Global has leased 741,000 acres. The Ethiopian government’s desire for such deals is not difficult to understand; it is an impoverished country faced with chronic hunger, whose western lowlands could produce a great deal of food. But it is also not difficult to understand local opposition. As the Anuak exile Nyikaw Ochalla reported to the Anyuak Media news site on March 2, 2010,These are secret deals between the government and the land grabbers, in particular the foreign investors. I very much doubt that the regional government is even aware of these deals. This land grab is something that is happening in Addis Ababa, the capital city of Ethiopia. There is no consultation with the indigenous population, who remain far away from the deals. The only thing the local people see is people coming with lots of tractors to invade their lands.”

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Ethiopia’s Failed Ethnic Federalism

Ethiopia is known for a venerable Christian tradition and a record of successful resistance to nineteenth-century European colonization. Less often discussed is the depth of Islam in the country, whose population today is more than one third Muslim. Also overlooked is Ethiopia’s transformation into an imperial state in its own right during the late 1800s. Acquiring modern weapons to avoid colonial rule allowed the monarchy to embark on its own land-grabbing spree, conquering and incorporating large areas inhabited by people of strikingly different political and cultural traditions. This episode of Ethiopian imperialism remains invisible on most maps of late nineteenth and early twentieth century Africa, which portray the division of the continent as a strictly European affair.

The Ethiopian (or Abyssinian) kingdom had long been dominated by the Amhara people, with the Tigray and other Christian groups of the north also playing significant roles. Eastward conquests brought in Muslim areas, inhabited primarily by Somali and Afar speakers. Expansion to the southwest incorporated a large number of animist groups. The situation to the immediate south of Ethiopia’s historical core was more complicated. This was the homeland of the Oromo, a large ethnic group whose northward spread had vexed the Ethiopian monarchy in the 1600s and 1700s. Ethiopian kings intermarried with the Oromo, partly to co-opt them, and about half of all Oromos eventually converted to Christianity. As many turned to Islam, however, while a few retained their original beliefs. Today the Oromo people are roughly 47% Muslim, 30% Ethiopian Christian, 17% Protestant Christian, and 3% animist. Despite these religious divisions, the Oromo constitute the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia (some 25 million strong) and tend to have a strong sense of ethnic identity.

Ethiopia remained essentially a feudal monarchy until 1974, when the communist Derg (“committee”) seized power. The Derg attempted to demolish the traditional structures of Ethiopian society in a brutal and inept manner, but Amhara dominance of the state did not change. Regional and ethnic rebels gathered strength during the 1980s and made common cause against the Derg. In 1991, a multi-ethnic Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front seized power. Although the Front was a composite organization, its leading faction represented the Tigrayan area of the Christian north.

In 1996, Ethiopia’s new Tigrayan-dominated government restructured the country’s political geography, replacing thirteen provinces with nine ethnically based regions. Such a federal approach, it was hoped, would lessen the country’s severe regional tensions. But the new division of the country presented a few challenges. Trying to include all of the Oromo–speaking people into one region required intricate boundaries (see map above). Southwestern Ethiopia, one of the world’s more linguistically diverse areas, ended up comprising two ethnically composite regions. In the east, the historically important cities of Harar and Dire Dawa formed city-regions, as did Addis Ababa.

Ethiopia’s ethnic reorganization generated considerable enthusiasm in the international development community at first. It did not last long. By the early 2000s, complaints of continued Tigrayan domination mounted, especially in the Oromo region. Secession movements took root; today the Oromo Independence Movement, the Oromo Liberation Front, the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Oromia, and the Conference of Oromiya Peoples Liberation Front are all classified as actively seeking to split the state. Due both to poverty and conflicts with Ethiopian governments, many Oromos have been fleeing the country, often for Yemen across the Red Sea.

Recent reports highlight the plight of Muslim Oromo refugees in Yemen. As Voice of America News reported on March 4, 2010, “The Yemeni government calls many of those coming from Ethiopia ‘infiltrators’ and ‘sneakers’ and regularly announces mass arrests, and plans for deportations.” Ethiopia’s human rights record is increasingly criticized by the United States, generating bilateral tensions. The Ethiopian government has recently been jamming the Voice of America’s Amharic radio programming. Ethiopian president Meles Zenawi accused the station of broadcasting “destabilizing propaganda,” comparing it to the Rwandan radio station that propelled the 1994 Tutsi genocide. Perhaps not coincidently, Ethiopian national elections are scheduled for May of this year.

Although the Oromo region is currently Ethiopia’s main trouble spot, more serious human rights abuses may well be taking place in the western region of Gambella, as tomorrow’s post will explore.

Ethiopia’s Failed Ethnic Federalism Read More »

Troubled Times in the Kingdom of Buganda in the Country of Uganda

As we saw in last Friday’s post, a single kingdom can include several countries, just as the realm of an individual monarch can encompass many sovereign states. But a kingdom can also form a subdivision of a much larger state. Uganda, for example, contains four, five, or six constituent kingdoms, the exact number depending on how the term “kingdom” is defined.

Like the British monarchy, the Ugandan kingdoms are supposed to be cultural and ceremonial institutions, divorced from actual politics. But Buganda, the largest and strongest of these traditional realms, has been at the center of intense political activities of late. In September 2009, rioting in the capital city of Kampala took some 27 lives after the Ugandan government refused to allow the Kabaka (King) of Buganda to visit the Kayunga district, ostensibly part of his realm. The visit was blocked on security grounds; the Banyala people of Kayunga had unilaterally seceded from Buganda to form their own kingdom, and it was feared that the Kabaka’s presence could spark local violence. Trying to reduce tensions, Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni subsequently declared that Kayunga was an integral part of Buganda, but that the Banyala people should enjoy full cultural autonomy nonetheless. Such efforts did not generate calm. On March 16, 2010, the Bugandan Royal Tombs at Kasubi, a UNESCO world heritage site, mysteriously burned, again inciting deadly rioting in Kampala. Underlying these events are on-going conflicts over land rights and political organization. The Kingdom wants the return of some 9,000 square miles of land that it controlled before the central government stripped it away in 1967, and many people in Buganda are pushing for a federal system of governance that would devolve real authority on Uganda’s constituent kingdoms.

The historical roots of the conflict run deep. Several hundred years ago, Bunyoro was the strongest kingdom in the region, but its fortunes declined in the 1800s as those of Buganda rose. The British entered the area in alliance with Buganda; indeed, after a British “protectorate” was established in 1894, Buganda engaged in sub-imperial expansion, annexing Kayunga and extending its sway into Bunyoro and other areas. The British later sought to solidify their own power while reducing the local kings to a ceremonial role. While they were partly successful in this regard, the Kingdom of Buganda retained a significant degree of prestige and power as well.After independence in 1962, rivalry among the kingdoms and the new political parties contributed to Ugandan political instability. In 1967, the government summarily disbanded the kingdoms. But rather than entering a period of political amity, Uganda descended into the brutal dictatorships of Milton Obote and Idi Amin. Finally, in 1992, president Yoweri Museveni restored Buganda and several of the other kingdoms, insisting that their role henceforth would be strictly cultural.

It is often argued that many of sub-Saharan Africa’s political problems stem from the fact that its countries were created by Europeans in complete disregard for local political traditions, ethnic groupings, and regional economic systems. According to this line of thinking, a federal system of governance for Uganda would make considerable sense. The restored kingdoms of the south correspond relatively well with linguistic groups (see the maps above), enhancing their legitimacy among the local populations. The Baganda people of Buganda in particular tend to evince a strong sense of loyalty to their king and kingdom, generating a sub-state nationalism that could potentially be harnessed for economic and social development.

Yet there are reasons to be skeptical. The few African countries that are rooted in pre-colonial kingdoms – Ethiopia, Lesotho, Swaziland, Rwanda, and Burundi – have hardly been spared political strife.(To be sure, many of Ethiopia’s problems stem from the fact that it was more of an empire than a kingdom. Ethiopia has attempted to redress some of the resulting issues by politically reorganizing its territory on ethnically based federal lines. But its success in this endeavor, as we shall see in tomorrow’s post, has been minimal at best.) The same would likely be true in Uganda. Buganda remains Uganda’s economic heartland; granting it genuine autonomy could stifle development elsewhere in the country – or so many Ugandans fear. And as the events of September 2009 reveal, regionally based conflicts exist even within Buganda, just as they do in the country’s other kingdoms.

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The Eyjafjallajokull Eruption Illustrated

As a companion to this post, there is a short google earth tour that will enable you to explore the eruption area in Iceland, and fly to other eruption sites of the past.

To access the tour, first download Google Earth, then download this KML file, and finally double click the video icon in the places menu.

There was significant volcanic eruption in this morning between the Eyjafjallajokull & Myrdalsjokull Glaciers in Southern Iceland. The eruption brought about a glowing, thick, viscous lava flow through the glacial ice and left a plume of smoke and steam more than a kilometer high.
The eruption forced a prompt evacuation of nearby villages, including farming villages Hvolsvollur, Vik, and Skogar. Skogar is a sleepy town of herders, which occasionally attracts wayward, glacier bound tourists, to the local folk museum, shown below. I’ve never seen a photograph, which did less to dispel those elvish stereotypes surrounding Icelanders.
This eruption will not threaten human lives. Abandoned livestock are the most at risk from the gases. It is the flooding that follows that will cause the most problems. The volcanic runoff and heat from the eruption could create spouts of hot water that may melt the glacier.
The biggest threat, in this scenario, would be is a subsequent eruption of the nearby Katla Volcano, a few miles to the northeast, underneath the Myrdalsjokull Ice Cap. Such an eruption would melt the cap and set off catastrophic flooding.
Hopefully, history will not repeat itself, but the odds are not in the Icelander’s favor. According to wikipedia: Over the past 1,100 years, Eyjafjallajokull has erupted three times: in 920, 1612, and between 1821-1823. Each of these incidents directly preceded a major eruption in the nearby subglacial volcano,Katla.[9]


The Hekla Volcano, above, is proof in itself why Iceland is such a captivating location for scientists and ecotourists, alike. These eruptions should only add to the mystique.

Our fingers here are crossed that Iceland can escape without a second eruption, and that this video is the worst of the damage. The Icelanders had a rough 2009, highlighted by the crash of their banking system. An eruption at Katla would make those problems seem as far off as Bjork’s time with the Sugarcubes.
Now, if they’d only stop selling whale at the supermarkets in Reykjavik…

This post was made possible by information from theSmithsonian’s Global Volcanism Program

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Is a Country Necessarily a Sovereign State?

In the United States, the most common word used to designate the sovereign entities that make up the world geopolitical order is “countries.” In common parlance, a country is the same thing as a sovereign state, which can also be called a “nation” or a “nation-state.” To be sure, the connotations of these words sometimes differ, with “country” often emphasizing geographical expanse, “nation” often emphasizing people, and “state” often emphasizing government. But in general, the terms are used interchangeably. If one Googles the questions “what is the world’s largest nation?” and “what is the world’s largest country?,” most answers will specify whether they refer to “largest” in terms of area or population.

Academic definitions of these terms, however, remain distinct. As a result, the conceptual slippage between common usage and formal discourse can generate confusion. Strictly speaking, a country is not necessarily the same thing as a sovereign state, as several areas that are defined as countries are actually subdivisions of sovereign “composite kingdoms.” Thus Greenland, the Faroe Islands, and Denmark are the three countries that together constitute the Kingdom of Denmark, just as Aruba, the Netherlands Antilles, and the Netherlands are the three constituent countries of the Kingdom of the Netherlands (although the Netherlands Antilles is scheduled to be dismantled and reorganized later this year). But while Aruba and the Faroe Islands are classified as countries by their own governments, they are not sovereign states.

In regard to the Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Island, confusion on this score often leaves Americans scratching their heads about the actual meanings of such terms as England, Great Britain, and the United Kingdom. England remains a country but it has not been a kingdom, or a sovereign state, since it merged with Scotland in 1707. The three constituent countries of England, Scotland, and Wales together formed the kingdom, and sovereign state, of Great Britain from 1701 to 1801, when it merged with Ireland to form the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. That kingdom, in turn, yielded to the current sovereign state of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in 1927, when the Republic of Ireland gained independence. Adding to the confusion is the existence of Crown Dependencies like the Isle of Man (which are not parts of the United Kingdom yet remain under its sovereign umbrella), as well as the fourteen less autonomous British Overseas Territories.

The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is thus a sovereign state composed of four constituent countries that extends its sovereignty over a number of associated territories. But the situation is actually more complicated than that, as this state’s monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, reigns over a still larger area, serving as the official head of state for no less than sixteen separate states. Most members of this unofficial “Commonwealth Realm” (not to be confused with the larger Commonwealth of Nations) are small independent Caribbean states, but it also includes such sizable countries as Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Papua New Guinea.

Canada, like the other commonwealth realms, is never classified as anything but a fully independent, sovereign state, and for good reason, as its ties to the British monarchy are purely symbolic. But from a historical perspective, the continuing relationship generates some interesting paradoxes. “When did Canada gain independence?” for example, is essentially an unanswerable question. Canada became self-governing in 1867, but it did not formally gain the right to amend its own constitution without the approval of the British Parliament until 1982.

A kingdom can thus include several countries, but a country can also include several kingdoms, as we shall see next in Monday’s post on Uganda.

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