Crisis and Development in the Horn of Africa: two new books on a volatile region – By Magnus Taylor

Crisis in the Horn of Africa: politics, piracy and the threat of terror, Peter Woodward

Peter Woodward will be known to many as a long-time historian of the Horn of Africa and particularly Sudan, where his Sudan, 1898-1989: the unstable state is an essential work. His newest book is an overview of the entire region with a sexed-up title, probably seeking to play in to the hands of the so-called ‘policymakers’ eager to find assistance on approaching issues of strategic interest, notably, Islamic terrorism and maritime security.

They may be somewhat disappointed. Woodward’s book is a somewhat drier (and better) affair, comprised by a short history of each of the countries in the region (Ethiopia, Somalia and Sudan, with Eritrea and Djibouti sharing a chapter), and including broader sections on ‘The Evolution of the Horn’, ‘Regional Relations’ and ‘International politics.’ It is more a history of the Horn within an evolving international system, than a focus on any particular ‘hot button’ issues.

Woodward is a writer of traditionally scholarly style and is always eager to comment on the development of a body of literature which influenced the way in which the outside world has considered the Horn. For example, that on ‘quasi’, ‘failed’ and ‘collapsed’ states (Chris Clapham et al) have been greatly influenced by political developments in the region, notably related to Somalia’s political disintegration. He references the development of the post 9/11 sub-discipline of ‘terrorism studies’ which would incorporate work on the Horn as part of the ‘arc of crisis’ supposedly stretching from Afghanistan, via Pakistan to Yemen and Somalia.

Woodward’s histories of the different state actors in the Horn are largely pivoted on the end of the Cold War and the political systems that developed in this key period of transition for Africa. The histories are comprehensive and readable, but are at times ploddy and a little repetitive. Personal portraits of key figures such as Meles Zenawi, who reportedly “forged an intellectual and later personal relationship with economist Joseph Stiglitz in his resistance to the nostrums of the IMF”, give the reader some light relief amongst the barrage of historical details.

The best of the country histories is, as you might expect from Woodward, on Sudan. He writes with obvious intellectual respect for Hasan al-Turabi – ‘the emince grise’ of Sudan’s attempt to construct the first Islamist state in the Arab and sunni Muslim world. Woodward, however, does not shy away from the more violent elements of the ‘revolution’ notably the creation of ‘Ghost houses’ – “places of arbitrary detention, torture, mutilation and death”.

The history of the creation of South Sudan is dealt with in detail including a run-down of the various failures to come to an agreement to end the long-running civil war, despite significant outside assistance. Woodward seems agnostic about the creation of the new state, although closes the chapter with a quote from Sudanese academic Jok Madut Jok, “At the moment, South Sudan is only slightly more than a geographical expression.”

The chapter on regional relations is perhaps the best of the whole book, bringing in details of the history and main players the reader has been introduced to earlier. Hasan al-Turabi appears again as the progenitor of an outwardly projected Islamism aiding insurgencies in Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia in the early 1990s.

Most of the internationally significant issues in the Horn are regional issues – for example the ‘terrorism’ listed in the title may have begun with the harbouring of Osama Bin Laden in Sudan in the mid 1990s and found its most troubling expression with the rise of the ‘al-Qaeda affiliated’ al-Shabaab in Somalia in the mid 2000s, but it has also drawn other East African powers – notably Kenya and Uganda – militarily in to the region. It is refreshing to read a history book that is also largely up-to-date, with reference made to the Kenya invasion of Southern Somalia in October 2011.

In sum, Woodward’s work provides an excellent and intellectually stimulating aid to thinking about the Horn of Africa and the many different interactions between its states, and also the wider world.  But it probably fails in becoming a ‘crossover’ text that will attract anyone but those with a specific interest in the region.

Pastoralism and Development in Africa: dynamic change at the margins, Eds. Andy Catley, Jeremy Lind and Ian Scoones

This collection of essays from the ‘Pathways to Sustainability’ series is an altogether different beast, put together by three academics from the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex. It does however largely focus on the ‘Greater Horn’ region, taking as its focus developmental processes occurring at the ‘margins’.

Despite a seemingly recurring history of drought, and the attendant human tragedies of starvation and destruction of livelihood for pastoral communities, this book argues that “there is much to be learned from development successes, large and small in [the Horn].” Pathways to development in these areas “often remain hidden, under the radar, informal, sometimes illegal, sometimes in contradiction to the priorities and interests of national political elites in the region, and rarely in line with standard, mainstream prescriptions.”

The book seeks to counter received wisdom – for example, border and boundaries, spaces which we might ordinarily associate with conflict and the parochial affairs of ‘untamed’ peoples, are approached as zones of creativity and innovation unfettered by the heavy-hand of the state. The editors might well be seen as being in sympathy with the lives of pastoral peoples who, to use the words of James Scott in his seminal work on the south-east Asian highlands, have “developed the art of not being governed.” The same might equally be said of pastoral peoples in the Horn of Africa.

As with Woodward, the authors do (briefly) attempt to place such ‘ungoverned’ spaces within the dominant global narratives on The War on Terror. In this context, marginal spaces in the Horn have the capacity to strike fear in to the hearts of western policymakers who value centralised control – ‘peace building’, good governance’ and ‘conflict resolution’ – as the preferred method of imposing developmental programmes on such regions . The authors instead call for a new perspective “that sees the margins as the centre, borders as zones of exchange, and borderlands as sites of creativity and innovation in response to adversity.”

Time and space prevent a fuller examination of all the contributions contained within Pastoralism and Development in Africa. The book pursues the general argument described above via a number of different of different case studies from the growth of camel milk marketing in the Somali region of Ethiopia to distance learning strategies for Kenya’s pastoralist communities.

In his ‘endpiece’ Peter Little concludes that pastoralism will continue, but will change – it is not a static way of living, but is impacted by the same processes of modernisation that effect the centre. A sustainable future for pastoralism is possible, and I recommend reading this book to better understand what it might look like.

Magnus Taylor is Editor, African Arguments online.

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