The horrific images of malnourished and dying children in the Horn of Africa once again grip the attention of the world. The UN describes the problem as the worst humanitarian crisis on earth today—with 12 million people in four countries facing starvation.
But in spite of a severe, multi-year drought, there’s a broad agreement that this is not an entirely natural calamity. U. S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called it a completely "preventable famine." Most experts concur. Jacques Dioup of the Food and Agricultural Organization, for example, noted that only about 1% of arable land in the famine zones in the Horn of Africa is under cultivation. The main culprit is the endless cycle of conflict in the region and the instability it has caused.
The Greater Horn of Africa region (GH), consisting of Ethiopia, Djibouti, Somalia, Kenya, Uganda, Eritrea, and Sudan, has long been defined by intra- and inter-state conflicts that have hampered all chances for regional economic and social development. The extent of violence is disheartening. The region has been the theater for some of the longest and most vicious civil wars in the world. Three of the GH countries have seen 20+ years of civil war that contributed to their misery index—and that of their neighbors. Over the last three years, all seven countries have either experienced civil conflict or have been involved in a war with a neighboring country.
Not surprisingly, therefore, the "Index of State Weakness" rankings by the Brookings Institution in partnership with the International Monetary Fund, gave all seven states either "weak," "critically weak," or "failed state" rankings for the last three years.
Experts on the region consider belligerent inter-ethnic narratives a powerful contributor to the atmosphere of hate that fuels conflicts between ethnic groups as well as between states of the Greater Horn region.1 Even minor conflicts that arise from competition for scarce resources are often exacerbated by negative inter-ethnic narratives. As Mengisteab2 has argued, the narratives tend to get more vitriolic over time and "can easily revert to dehumanization of adversaries and provide justification for their destruction or elimination."
The search for solutions has led to creation of regional organizations charged with seeking peace at various levels. The latest such organization is the Greater Horn Horizon Forum (GHHF) established through a UNESCO initiative in 2007. The Forum is a think tank of scholars devoted to "building a strong consensus on a long term vision of stability, sustainable development, and regional integration."
In one of its first major initiatives in 2010, the GHHF called on media of the region to serve the cause of peace by resolving to oppose negative inter-ethnic narratives. Media in the region were thus urged to adopt principles of the Social Responsibility Theory3 as a guide in fighting inter-ethnic prejudices.
Basic premises of the Social Responsibility Theory that are of interest here derive from universally salient human values. In a study involving more than a dozen countries located on five continents, Christians and Traber4 noted the recurrence of certain fundamental ethical principles. They found that "the veneration of human life is consistently affirmed as bonding humans into an organic whole." Likewise, Peukert5 maintains that the idea of humanity itself is rooted in the principle that "we have inescapable claims on one another which cannot be renounced except at the cost of our humanity...."
Another universal principle is the value of truth-telling. This is a core tenet in all major faiths like Islam, Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism. The social character of human civilization is predicated on truthful communication between individuals and groups. Indeed, Sissela Bok argued that falsehoods are unnatural strands in the fabric of human co-existence. She wrote:
Imagine a society, no matter how ideal in other respects, where word and
gesture could never be counted on. Questions asked, answers given, information
exchanged—all would be worthless... There must be a minimal degree of trust in communication for language and action to be more than stabs at the dark.6
A third universal ethical principle is nonviolence—as violence would simply be counter-intuitive in the broader paradigm of the sacredness of human life. Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. elevated this ethical principle to a philosophy of life. But it has been a cornerstone of Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition for centuries through the commandment in the Old Testament that Thou Shalt Not Kill. And so Christians and Nordenstreng7 write that, "out of nonviolence, we articulate ethical theories about not harming the innocent as an obligation that is cosmic and irrespective of our roles or ethnic origin."
This brings us to an examination of the ethical and moral principles that have guided communication among Africans for centuries.
An African Ethical and Moral Theory
The irony for Africans is that all the principles enunciated above—human dignity, truthfulness, and nonviolence are core values in indigenous African cultures—including those of the Greater Horn of Africa region. The people of the Greater Horn embody the triple heritage that Cheikh Anta Diop said defined Africa’s people. This heritage represents the confluence of Christian, Islamic, and indigenous traditions.
Indigenous African principles have been outlined in the moral theory of ubuntu. The word ubuntu is derived from the Zulu language but is a variant of a word common to all Bantu languages. Roughly translated, it means “humanness.” As an idea, it connotes the complex web of human interconnectedness that lends meaning to each individual’s humanity. As the African maxim says, “a person is a person through other persons.”
In its pure form, the ubuntu moral code precludes killing, deceit, theft, violation of trust, etc. All these elements in the code point to consideration for others in communal settings. It is a code that reaffirms the oneness of humanity and the sacredness of human co-existence. As a prominent African thinker8 put it: "At the center of traditional African morality is human life. The promotion of life is therefore the determinant principle of African traditional morality."
Through the influence of Islam and Christianity, the people of the Greater Horn region reaffirm this traditional moral code that values community and co-existence. European travelers to 19th century Ethiopia were struck by the importance of hospitality and sharing that were symbolized by both the Coptic Church and the Emperor’s Palace. Social anthropologists posit that large communal meals by Ethiopian monarchs were a form of redistribution of wealth at the same time that they served to cement human bonds across ethnic divisions.
In Islam, the Prophet Muhammad set an example for his followers through the Medina Charter, which was designed to forge a sense of community among warring tribes and between Muslims and Jews in the city of Medina. The Charter contained several principles instituted for the sake of building cohesion among rival ethnic groups. One such principle is called Islislah—which, in mediation processes, requires decisions to be made "in the best interest of all neighboring communities."
The violence and divisions that have driven apart the people of the Greater Horn region are therefore inconsistent with the core values that have defined their common heritage. The media in the region should promote these core principles in educational campaigns which they are well positioned to undertake.
1. See series of research papers presented at the special “Conference on Identity, Citizenship and Regional Integration in the Horn of Africa,” held in Djibouti, November 2009. Available at: http://www.greater-horn-horizon.org.
2. Kidane Mengisteab, “Concept paper on identity, citizenship and regional integration,” presented at Conference on Identity, Citizenship, and Regional Integration in the Horn of Africa.” Djibouti, 2009.
3. Fred Siebert, Theodore Peterson, and Wilbur Schramm, Four Theories of the Press. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1956).
4. Clifford Christians and Michael Traber (eds.), Communication ethics in universal values. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1997).
5. H. Peukert, “Universal solidarity as the goal of communication,” Media Development, Vol. 28, No. 4, 1981.
6. Sissela Bok, Lying: Moral choice in public and private life. (New York: Vintage Books, 1979).
7. Clifford Christians and Karle Nordenstreng, “Social responsibility worldwide,” Journal of Mass Media Ethics, 19(1), 2004, pp. 3-28.
8. Godfrey Onah, “The meaning of peace in African traditional religion and culture,” available at: http://www.afrikaworld.net/afrel/goddionah.htm Accessed April 12, 2010.