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Joe Magnet: the accidental statesman

In an improbable sequence of events, an Ottawa law prof has taken on the constitutional cause of the Afar people in Africa.

By BRAD MACKAY | APR 02 2012
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Professor Joe Magnet. Photo by Daniel Ehrenworth.

It’s a sweltering October day in Logia, a remote desert town in Northern Ethiopia, and Joe Magnet is patiently sitting – and sweating – in a room packed with 150 chanting, self-styled freedom fighters. The men belong to the Red Sea Afar Democratic Organization, or RSADO, a paramilitary group supported by the Ethiopian government whose job it is to defend the rights and well-being of the Afar, a nomadic indigenous tribe that has existed in the Horn of Africa for more than 2,000 years.

On most days this involves patrolling the contentious border between Ethiopia and Eritrea or protecting against attacks by Al-Shabaab, the notorious Islamist organization that calls nearby Somalia home. But today they’re sitting behind children’s desks inside this scrubby one-room schoolhouse, whose yellow walls are plastered with homemade political posters and RSADO banners. Joe Magnet, a member of the University of Ottawa’s law faculty, is front and centre, taking long slugs from a bottle of water as men with cameras and camcorders jostle for space around him in the 42 C heat.

Though he looks uncomfortable, he’s not here against his will. In fact he’s a guest of honour. That’s because for the past 18 months Professor Magnet has been serving as legal counsel to the Afar, advising them on a series of constitutional and human rights issues. A well-known authority on constitutional law in Canada, he’s chosen up until now not to publicly discuss his pro-bono work with the Afar back home. His clients, on the other hand, have been decidedly less circumspect.

After his first visit to this vast arid lowland region in 2010, the Afar wrote countless news stories about Professor Magnet, posted more than a half-dozen videos of him on YouTube, and the Red Sea Afar changed their name to better reflect his ideas. They even gave him his own tribal name, “Madab-abba,” which translates into “Father of the Constitution.”

On this day last October, to mark the end of his second trip here, soldiers, executives and elders of RSADO have turned out for a going-away party. After the tributes and testimonials are over, Professor Magnet gets his chance to address the crowd. The audience listens intently and cheers as an interpreter translates his words of praise and reassurance.

When he’s finished, an elder emerges from the crowd and presents him with a gold-framed picture of the group’s logo. Moved by the humble and heart-felt keepsake, Professor Magnet hoists the picture over his head in an impulsive gesture of joy and triumph. The men are still cheering when he exits the building with a broad grin stretching across his face.

A few minutes later in the open-air of the savannah, Madab-abba pauses in front of an idling Land Cruiser and contemplates the bizarre scenario that just played out. “What the hell am I doing here?” he blurts out. “I mean, who the fuck do I think I am? The Jewish Che Guevera?”

It’s a good question, and typical coming from this man, who possesses a deeply arch view of the world. After all, here he was: a 65-year-old vegetarian Jew working for meat-raising Muslims in one of the hottest and most perilous places on earth. His close friend, Ottawa lawyer Lawrence Greenspon, would call this one of Professor Magnet’s “Woody Allen moments”– a time when he is keenly aware of the human comedy and the role he plays in it.

For instance, Professor Magnet would be the first to admit it that he makes an unlikely statesman for these tenacious, proud people. Until a few years ago, he had no clue who the Afar even were. He first heard of them in 2008, after a chance encounter with Warren Creates at a neighbour’s Christmas party. A well-known immigration lawyer and old acquaintance, Mr. Creates brought him up to speed on non-profit work he was doing with a little-known Ethiopian tribe of pastoralists.

The story continued at lunch a few weeks later, when Mr. Creates enthused about Can-Go Afar, the charity he had founded that was building water filters, funding schools, establishing scholarships and delivering aid to Afar refugees (who have been subject to persecution inside Eritrea ever since the country became independent from Ethiopia in 1991). Photos were shown, stories were told, and before long the lunch had transformed into a recruiting drive.

“It sounded very grand and adventurous,” Professor Magnet said recently in his Ottawa home, “but I wasn’t really sure what he wanted from me. Plus, I had real security concerns because I had a young daughter at the time, so I wasn’t too sure about the whole thing.” Besides, Professor Magnet was at a stage in his life where he says he “wasn’t looking to pad out my resumé.”

As that resumé will attest, over the past 35 years Joe Magnet’s name has become synonymous with minority rights and constitutional law in Canada. The first of his 18 books, Constitutional Law of Canada, originally published nearly three decades ago, is currently in its ninth edition and remains one of the definitive textbooks on the subject.

Over the years, in addition to his work as a teacher and scholar, he has served as counsel in more than 200 constitutional cases in Ontario, Quebec, Manitoba and the Supreme Court of Canada. These included high-profile cases involving religious minorities, women’s groups and francophone minorities, the last a landmark case in Manitoba that earned him hate mail and death threats.

Over the past two decades, most of his casework has shifted towards Aboriginal populations; in 1999 he became general counsel to the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples and he is currently involved in three major cases for First Nations, one an important treaty case in Ontario that is ongoing.

“I knew he was respected in Aboriginal law circles in Canada,” Mr. Creates says, “and these people, the Afar, were likely the original Aboriginal people.” Despite some initial reluctance, the more Professor Magnet researched the Afar, the more engaged he became.

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Where the Afar reside: The nomadic Afar people live in three countries, with the majority (1.3 million to 2 million) in Ethiopia. Within Ethiopia, most reside in the Afar Region, a federated ethnic state.

The Afar can be found across the Horn of Africa, but the vast majority (about 1.25 million) reside in Ethiopia’s Danakil region, a difficult expanse of desert and sub-savannah. Despite the Afar’s low profile outside Ethiopia, they boast a rich pedigree that stretches back to Old Testament times – and beyond, if ethnographers are correct. “Afar” literally means “people” and linguists have posited that it may have influenced the naming of Africa itself. What’s more, Lucy, a 3.2-million-year-old hominid believed to be Earth’s first evidence of human life, was discovered in Ethiopia’s Danakil Depression, the Afar’s ancestral land, in a region that has since been dubbed the Cradle of Humanity.

The area also happens to be one of the hottest places on earth, with temperatures that can crest above 50 C in the summer, making their way of life – which involves travelling the desert on foot with goats, sheep or cattle in tow – especially gruelling. Yet despite hard lives and a reputation for ferociousness, those who have met the Afar in person (such as Mr. Creates) speak of the Afar’s kindness, generosity and humility.

It was more than enough to hook Professor Magnet. According to Mr. Creates, within a couple of months the Afar cause had “burrowed its way into his head and his heart.”

In July 2010 the pair journeyed to Samara, the capital of the Afar state, a far-flung city on an elevated plain more than 600 km north of Addis Ababa. “I had very low expectations of the trip,” says Professor Magnet. “I was asked to come along, but I wasn’t sure why.”

He broke bread with the president of the Afar Region and delivered a speech praising multi-nation federalism, a constitutional framework of which he believes Canada is a shining example. The turning point came when a group of Afar elders asked to meet with him. The meeting took place at night under the stars, with Professor Magnet and a few others sitting at a long table across from 200 or so elders and clan leaders.

“We were placed at the head of this big table and we didn’t quite understand why, so we just sat there, talking and joking,” he recalls. “We were waiting for something to happen, without realising that we were what was happening.

“Then one of the elders spoke up and said, ‘I’m not an educated man, I don’t know how to read and write, but we don’t feel properly respected here. We don’t really like what we’re seeing.’”

Professor Magnet listened intently to what the man was saying, which included stories of human rights abuses in Eritrea and camps that were overflowing with Afar refugees.

“There have been several moments in the enormity and the heat of the moment that Joe realised the importance of his role in things,” observes Mr. Creates, “and that was definitely one of them.”

When the man was done talking, Professor Magnet said, “You might not know how to read or write, but it is very clear from the respect that everybody holds of you that you are a very wise man. I can see that myself, and I want to tell you that I’ve come here to help you with your problems. And I will spare no effort to do that.”

“It became clear to me then,” he recalls, “that I had been thrust into the centre of this.”

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Professor Magnet visits a UN refugee camp in Asayita, Ethiopia, during his first trip to the country in July 2010. The camp shelters members of the Afar who fled neighbouring Eritrea. Photo courtesy of Warren Creates.

Since that moment, Professor Magnet has devoted hundreds of hours to the Afar cause. He has met with senior Ethiopian government officials and Canada’s Foreign Affairs department (to debrief them on his activities in the country), and has delivered food and clothing to refugee camps. He’s also drafted two human rights complaints on behalf of the Afar, one for the United Nations Human Rights Council, the other for the UN Special Rapporteur on Indigenous Peoples, ensuring they were officially recognized as indigenous people.

“This Afar nationality is intensely proud. It’s joined by a language, by a religion, by a territory and by a way of life – a tough life that few outsiders ever see. And it will probably be undergoing a rapid transformation very soon,” Professor Magnet says. “That’s tremendously intellectually interesting as an example of what you find in federations around the world that are wracked by identity politics. So, I was looking at it through that lens, and I got very interested.”

But his most significant contribution may be the Samara Declaration, a document that condemns the “ongoing killings, persecution, torture, repression, expulsion, and other unlawful mistreatment” of the Afar by the Eritrean forces, calls for international action to stop “atrocities” and, perhaps most controversially, lays out a multi-ethnic constitutional framework for Eritrea, which he considers a failed state.

In his eyes, the 21-year-old country of Eritrea is a brutal dictatorship that is ripe for an Arab Spring-styled democratic uprising. “If Cuba is a prison,” he says, “then Eritrea is a torture chamber.”

He is not alone in this appraisal. Reporters Without Borders has ranked Eritrea at the bottom of its annual Press Freedom Index for five years in a row (below China and North Korea), the CIA has accused it of being a hotbed for human trafficking, and the UN has placed sanctions on the country – twice – for a host of alleged offences which include supplying money and weapons to Al-Shabaab.

These are among the reasons that the Red Sea Afar Democratic Organization was formed. As one of the groups that fought for Eritrean independence alongside then-rebel leader (and now Eritrean president) Isaias Afewerki, RSADO maintains that the Afar were never granted the rights and freedoms they were promised before the revolution. They believe that under the current regime they are subject to bigotry, discrimination and persecution, including imprisonment, torture and death.

Until recently the bulk of RSADO’s efforts at regime change have been martial in nature. Press releases boast about armed incursions into Eritrea and list the number of enemy soldiers that have been killed or captured.

An avowed humanist, Professor Magnet looks forward to a day when the Afar minority can live inside Eritrea without fear – and does not advocate armed conflict as a means to that end. His ideas about constitutional reform as a tool seem to have had an influence on the organization’s world view. While they haven’t quite given up their trusty Kalashnikovs, they have embraced his perspective, and even some of his language. The RSADO website quotes John A. MacDonald’s concept of federalism and uses part of the Samara Declaration – “The right to self-determination up to secession” – as its motto (an assertion not uniformly supported in the Horn of Africa, or even among the Afar themselves).

Professor Magnet’s endgame here is to try to export Canada’s successful brand of multi-ethnic federalism as a solution to the problems faced by the Afar inside Eritrea.

“It’s the only solution that has been known to work in the experience of world history for states like this,” he explains. “The Canadian example was very pregnant. I told people that had we not made the necessary accommodations in Canada, we probably would not have the state we now have. It probably would have fractured and failed in the 1980s. We made very difficult adjustments, but it is working. The benefits are very rich: people are free, enabled and liberated. So what do you want to happen for you?”

As of this February, the academic’s work had expanded to include a proposed documentary that would capture the life of the Afar at this critical juncture in their history. Even the recent news that a group of tourists had been attacked, and five killed, by unknown gunmen near Erta Ale was not enough to make him change his plans.

“What drives him is his love of people,” says Mr. Greenspon. “He doesn’t distinguish colour or creed or race or religion. And I think what he loves, even more than people, is his ability to make their lives better in some small way. He gets a real high from being able to do that – and it’s something I can certainly understand.”

His work has even garnered official approval from the Ethiopian government. Michael Tobias Babisso, consul general at the Ethiopian Consulate in Canada, calls Professor Magnet “a respected scholar, an accomplished lawyer and a substantial human being,” and says, “His work over the past few years has significantly benefited the Afar People as well as Ethiopia more generally. Both the Ethiopian federal government and the state government of Afar fully endorse his work. We thank him for his truly impressive commitment. We honour ‘Professor Joe’ and encourage him to continue.”

Ahmed Youssouf Mohammed, an Afar-Canadian who has accompanied Professor Magnet to Ethiopia, calls his involvement a “godsend.”

“The dreams and aspirations of the Afar have never been brighter than they are now,” Mr. Mohammed says. “For someone like Joe to take on our cause like this, it’s a vision come to life.”

This March, Mr. Mohammed presented Professor Magnet with honorary Afar citizenship. “He’s one of us now. It’s not about religion or diet or whatever, it’s about human one-to-one love for each other. We see him as an adviser, someone we can trust. But he’s all that – and more.”

Brad Mackay is an Ottawa journalist who has written for the Globe and Mail, National Post, Toronto Life and Maclean’s.

A brief history of the Afar

Little-known outside Africa, the Afar are an indigenous minority in the Horn of Africa. Predominantly Muslim and nomadic, they are pastoralists who specialize in animal husbandry, raising goats, sheep and cattle across their often barren homeland.

The Afar men stand out, thanks to their colourful fotas (a sarong-like garment), their ever-present curved gille knives and a distinctive curly hair style which they achieve by rubbing camel butter into their hair. Afar women sport braids on their forehead and sometimes wear gold jewellery that partially masks their face.

Though their nomadic way of life makes it difficult to gather population data, there are believed to be between three million and 3.5 million Afar spread out across three countries: Ethiopia, Djibouti and Eritrea. The majority (1.3 million to two million) live in Ethiopia, with the balance divided between nearby Djibouti and Eritrea.

The Afar are one of many distinct ethnic groups inside Ethiopia (others include Oromo and Tigray) and they make up about two percent of the country’s population. Within Ethiopia, the majority reside in the lowland Afar Region, one of nine federated ethnic states that have their own governments and elected officials. The Afar Region encompasses the Danakil Depression, one of the lowest and hottest places on Earth which is home to Erta Ale (or “Smoking Mountain”), an active volcano and lava lake that attracts tourists.

During the 30-year war for Eritrean independence from Ethiopia, many Afar were caught in the middle. Following Eritrea’s secession from Ethiopia in 1991, several Afar organizations emerged to advocate, and fight, for the roughly half-million Afar who were left living inside the new country. Today, one of the more prominent groups is the Red Sea Afar Democratic Organization. Comprised of Afar “freedom fighters,” the RSADO is committed to defending the rights of Afar inside Eritrea, supporting Afar refugees from Eritrea and eventually reclaiming their ancestral land inside Eritrea.

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  1. Daniel Guinan / April 2, 2012 at 6:51 pm

    The Afar are one of nine officially recognized ethics groups in Eritrea. The Eritrean model is much more like the Canadian model than Ethiopia, in which ethicity forms the basis of provincial boundaries and political represenation. Canada is not based on ethic entrenchment in the constitution, with the exception of the founding nations. There is no German or Irish province in Canada. That is the problem with Ehtiopia where the entire country is on tenderhooks because of teh dominance of one ethnic group over the others. That is also the basis of the conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea. Mr. Magnet is quoting verbatim the national mythology of the ruling ehtnic group in Ethiopia. I think he is part of the White Saviour Industry.

  2. Wedi Anday / April 10, 2012 at 12:00 pm

    @Daniel “The Afar are one of nine officially recognized ethics”,,, you must be joking.

    Yes Eritrea know Afars live in eritrea but never recognize them. By the way eritrea has no constitution,,, so where on earth can we find a country without written constitution recognizes any ppl??????

  3. Tafesse Yilma / April 10, 2012 at 12:03 pm

    Professor Magnet has effectively made the case for accomodation of identities in nation building.This is inherently democratic.When diversity is accomodated,the collective energy which could otherwise have been invested in a liberation struggle,would be invested in development endeavour.Ethiopia is a typical illustration of this case.The country would never have achieved the status of third fastest growing economy in the world without constitutionally reassuring its diverse people of their right to their respective identity.This factor has redirecting the energy of its diverse people towards development.The process is continually building momentum to the point of irreversibility.This model would probably salvage the ailments of all multinational countries in Africa.

    This model could not apply to the current Eritrean political set up as it is inherently dictatorial and therefore could not accomodate diversity of any kind.

  4. woldai / April 10, 2012 at 1:48 pm

    Daniel, did you say”Canadian model?” in my perspective ,Eritrea doesn’t have any model or whatsoever! but for sure,Eritrea will follow the Ethiopian model as soon as the demise of Isaias & cronies! Daniel,for your knowledge,the only problem Ethiopia has is: the leadership in Eritrea!

  5. Wedi / April 10, 2012 at 3:28 pm

    But comparing the ethnic federalism in Ethiopia with Canada non-ethnic federal system is very wrong.

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