Why is the Horn different?

In this essay for the Rift Valley Review, Christopher Clapham, distinguished historian of Ethiopia, discusses the distinctive features and fraught history of the Horn of Africa, its arbitrary frontiers, its contrasting styles of government, and its hold on the scholarly imagination

Why is the Horn so peculiarly violent? Why is it not a normal part of Africa, like East Africa or anywhere else?  To put it bluntly, what is wrong with it?  In raising this question, I am very much aware that all of independent Africa has had its problems, and that East Africa–especially Uganda–has certainly not been spared. But these problems have proved relatively manageable, compared with those of the Horn, and we can only pray that they will remain so. The history of the Horn countries, in contrast, has been one overwhelmingly of tragic human suffering, to which the numbers of refugees seeking safety in Kenya and elsewhere bear witness. For most of the world, outside the region itself, this part of Africa is familiar in recent years mainly as the setting for some of the worst famines encountered anywhere in the world. These famines, even if they are in part the result of climatic conditions such as drought–and possibly the global problems resulting from climate change–have been made massively worse by human agency, in the form of viciously repressive regimes or, notably in Somalia, the lack of any stable form of government at all.  They have left millions of people in the Horn permanently dependent on outside aid, which in turn has relieved governments in the region of an important part of their own responsibilities.

Famine thus goes hand-in-hand with recurring human conflicts, including two major wars between African states–between Ethiopia and Somalia in 1977/78, and between Ethiopia and Eritrea in 1998/2000. Elsewhere in Africa such wars between states have been rare. The Horn has also been racked by ongoing civil wars, including the war for Eritrean independence, the struggle to overthrow the Derg regime in Ethiopia, and an almost perennial war in Somalia, currently taking the form of conflict between the successor to the Transitional Federal Government (itself a government only in name), and the Islamist forces grouped under the name of al-Shabaab.  One striking indicator of political failure is that the Horn provides virtually the only cases anywhere in Africa–if South Sudan is included–in which secessionist movements, such as those in Eritrea and Somaliland, have succeeded in splitting away from their original states, and setting up independent governments of their own.

The absence of the democratic structures of governance that much of independent Africa now happily takes for granted is itself the result of–and at the same time contributes to–the deep-seated political problems of the Horn. In only one state in the region–ironically, the internationally unrecognised state of Somaliland–has it been possible to create genuinely democratic political structures, which have passed the acid test of an opposition party successfully contesting and winning a free and fair election, and peacefully taking over control of the government. Elsewhere, the norm runs from anarchy to dictatorship, even if the dictatorships are at times disguised by norminally democratic forms of government.  With a lack of democracy, inevitably, goes a pervasive disregard for human rights and welfare (whether this results from brutal government, or from the lack of any government at all,) and a generally very weak performance in terms of economic development, even though present-day Ethiopia may in some respects be regarded as an exception.

'The fundamental problem of the Horn is that it is not part of colonial Africa'

So, to come back to the basic question with which I started, what is ‘wrong’ with this part of the world?

The Horn of Africa is an extremely complex region, in which layers upon layers of potential problems are piled one on top of another.  Not only is much of the natural environment of the Horn extremely forbidding, but vast differences in its environmental endowment – ranging from the plateau lands of northern Ethiopia through to the Somali scrub–create very different kinds of society, with dramatically contrasting values and ways of life.  The region falls on the frontier between two of the world’s major religions, Islam and Christianity, and encompasses a huge range of ethnic groups, languages and cultures.  These differences have in turn been intensified by patterns of colonial conquest (internal as well as external), the creation of highly artificial states, and the uneven incorporation of the region into the global economy, and into global conflicts. The Cold War affected the Horn far more directly and intensively than it did other parts of sub-Saharan Africa, and the region is now again on a global frontline in the so-called ‘global war on terror’. A profound awareness of all these factors, and of how they fit together, is needed before one can even start to understand the nature of its current problems.

But we have to start somewhere, and I would propose a very simple basic answer, onto which the other factors making for conflict can then be grafted: that the fundamental problem of the Horn is that it is not part of colonial Africa; that this leads its peoples and governments to behave in ways different from those that other Africans have become used to, in East Africa or the rest of the continent; and that this in turn makes it extremely difficult to fit the Horn into ‘normal’ African ways of doing things.  I say this with some embarrassment, as a citizen of the state that colonised more Africans that any other and with a deep awareness of all the problems that colonialism has created for the peoples of Africa.  But we have become so accustomed to regarding colonialism, automatically, as the source of anything that we regard as being ‘wrong’ with Africa, that we rarely think of looking to see how things work when they are organised differently, as they are in the two core states of the Horn: Ethiopia, as Africa’s sole indigenous state to survive through the period of colonial conquest as an imperial state, with a long and proud tradition of its own;  and Somalia, as the one state in Africa that sought to establish itself on explicitly nationalist grounds, as the homeland of a single Somali people.

Both of these challenged the way in which African states were created by colonial rule. These states consisted typically of an almost random collection of territorial units, whose frontiers were demarcated by Europeans on maps, with a staggering disregard for the peoples who inhabited the area, resulting in the creation of the most obviously artificial set of states in the world.  One could indeed plausibly argue that creating states in the way that either Ethiopia or Somalia were created, as the product of essentially internal identities and social forces, would make for much stronger and more legitimate states, rooted in their local environments, than the peculiar collection of territories that independent Africa inherited from European colonial partition. After all, empires–in the sense of large contiguous terrorial entities, created by the conquest of surrounding territories by local rulers, not by outsiders from far away, as happened with imperialism in Africa–have been, whatever we may think of them, a very common pattern of state formation. In the past, the Chinese, Mughal, Ottoman and Persian empires ruled much of Asia, and–especially in the case of China—provide an important legacy for their modern successor states.  Only a hundred years ago, the Austrian, German, Russian and Ottoman empires ruled much of Europe, as indeed, in a much earlier epoch, did the Inca and Mayan empires in the Americas, not to mention the Zulu, Songhay and other empires in Africa itself.

On the other hand, nation-states such as the Somalis sought to create have become the normal and recognised way of forming states in Europe, with the result that Germany and Italy were united in the nineteenth century (and Germany reunited at the end of the twentieth), while new nation-states like Poland, Estonia, Hungary, Bulgaria and many others have been created from the ruins of the Ottoman, Austrian and Russian empires. We may very reasonably ask whether a genuinely African way of creating states in the continent would follow a similar pattern, and make the Ethiopian and Somali experiences seem perfectly normal. But even if we were to come up with a positive answer, the fact remains that in Africa, that is not what has actually happened, and states that are different from their neighbours create problems simply because they are not ‘normal’.

'Africa’s frontiers are crazy: lines drawn on maps by colonialists and rulers who had never set foot in the areas they partitioned among themselves’

One striking illustration of such problems is the very process by which the territorial structure of a state is created, the issue of frontiers. Africa’s frontiers are completely crazy: they are simply the lines drawn on maps by colonialists, often on the basis of extremely uncertain information and by rulers who had never set foot in the areas which they partitioned among themselves. So why have there been so very few conflicts between Africa states about their frontiers?  One might plausibly expect these frontiers to be swept away with the colonialists who created them, as soon as independent Africans gained the right to determine their own destinies. But in point of fact, it is precisely because these frontiers are so crazy that independent African states have been so keen to maintain them, and not to ask awkward questions about them. Kenya indeed provides several striking examples of the haphazard nature of African territoriality. Much of coastal Kenya, for instance, belonged in pre-colonial times to the sultanate of Zanzibar, and might therefore have been incorporated in the British protectorate over Zanzibar, and thus in time have formed part of Tanzania; but this area was allocated by the British to Kenya, and—despite some current agitation to recognise its separate identity—it simply remains that way. And while Kenya gained a significant strip of territory on the Indian Ocean, it correspondingly lost a large area, west of the Tana river, which was given by the British to Italy during the 1920s, and is now formally accepted by Kenya as belonging to Somalia. 

Most bizarrely of all, the reason why Mount Kilimanjaro falls entirely within modern Tanzania is because Queen Victoria gave it to her grandson, Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany, as a birthday present. But what matters for our present purposes–and much more important, for the welfare of the peoples of the countries concerned–is that there has been no war between Tanzania and Kenya over the coastal territories or Kilimanjaro, or between Kenya and Somalia over the ‘lost’ territories on the north-east frontier, because all of the states concerned abide by the principles articulated by the Organisation of African Unity on the acceptance of Africa’s colonial frontiers, with the result that Kenya, in nearly fifty years of independence, has never yet been engaged in war, unless you count the recent invasion of Southern Somalia.

In the Horn, it is very different indeed.  Ethiopia regarded the Italian colony of Eritrea as part of ‘historic’ Ethiopia, linked by history and culture to the Ethiopian empire, and ceaselessly and successfully lobbied in the UN after the Second World War for it to be ‘reunited with the motherland’, with eventually catastrophic consequences. Even more dangerously, the government of Somalia claimed that all of the territories inhabited by Somali people should be incorporated into a single Somali nation—a claim expressed with poetic impracticality in the saying, ‘wherever the camel goes, that is Somalia’.  This aspiration placed the Somali state on a collision course with all of its neighbours. Under the Siyad Barre regime that seized power in 1969 it led to war with Ethiopia, and a catastrophic military defeat for Somalia that eventually did much to lead to the collapse of the state itself.

Nor did the re-emergence in the Horn of states derived from the former colonial territories resolve the problem. When Eritrea eventually succeeded in gaining its independence—effectively in 1991, even though it was formalised only in 1993—it took over the frontiers created by Italian colonialism in 1890, and in that respect was no different from other newly independent African states some thirty years earlier. But the new Eritrea was not just a post-colonial state, content to live peacefully with its neighbours. It was a liberated state, sanctified by the blood of the martyrs who had died to create it during a long and extremely costly war against the government in Addis Ababa. Every square inch of its territory was correspondingly sacred, and the new Eritrean government’s prickly nationalism led to conflicts over territory with all of its neighbours, most catastrophically the war against Ethiopia of 1998-2000, over a trivial area of economically useless land, which led to the deaths of probably about a hundred thousand combatants on both sides, and eventually resulted in Eritrea’s defeat. 

The claims to independence of the still unrecognised Republic of Somaliland derive from its previous existence as a British colony (and subsequently, for five days, as an independent state), prior to its unification with formerly Italian Somalia on 1 July 1960, but this territorial definition on the basis of the former colonial boundaries clashes with an ethnic definition on the basis of the Somali clan system that notably leaves two Darod clans, the Dulbahante and Warsangeli, stradding the border between 'Puntland’, in former Italian Somalia, and Somaliland, the Isaaq-dominated former British colony. Furthermore, any revived Somali nationalist movement, like that led by the Organisation of Islamic Courts in 2006, is almost bound to revive claims over territories belonging to a united Somalia, including not only Somaliland, but also the Ogaden region of Ethiopia and large areas of north-east Kenya.

'The Ethiopian empire did not belong equally to all Ethiopians, but was the creation of the Orthodox Christian Amhara and Tigrayan peoples of the northern highlands'

The second great problem that the countries of the Horn derive from their inability to fit into the standard model of African post-colonial statehood is that of governance: who rules and how? The advantage of colonialism in this respect, dare one say it, is that the oppressors came from outside the ranks of the indigenous peoples, all of whom were treated in broadly the same way by the colonial regime (despite some variance derived from their own internal systems of governance and their greater or lesser degree of hostility to the colonisers), and none of whom enjoyed any in-built superiority over their fellows.  Once the colonisers had been removed, therefore, each newly independent state could start from a premise of equality, except for the advantages conferred on some groups by ethnic arithmetic in the case of political parties that enjoyed disproportionate support from particular groups, or by geographical location in some particularly influential area.  

But in an ancient and historic state like Ethiopia, imperialism was internal and not external. It was created by the historic dominance of one of the indigenous peoples over the others, and the extension of their control over what then became internally subject peoples.  The Ethiopian empire did not belong equally to all Ethiopians, but was specifically the creation of the Orthodox Christian Amhara and Tigrayan peoples of the northern Ethiopian highlands, who were then in a position, at precisely the same moment in the later nineteenth century when European states were carving out their African colonial empires, to impose their own centralised state by conquest on their Moslem and other non-Christian neighbours.

The very language of the Ethiopian government was (and remains) Amharic, the language of the Amhara people who have formed the core of the modern Ethiopian state, rather than (as was generally the case in the European colonies) that of the distant colonisers. Getting educated meant learning Amharic, and becoming associated with the ancient state in other ways, not least of which was that Christians (and especially Orthodox Christians) enjoyed an in-built advantage in government over Moslems and others. Land in most of southern Ethiopia, until the 1974 revolution, was allocated as conquered territory to landlords and settlers who were overwhelmingly drawn from the ruling group and those associated with it, which meant that the imposition of a landlord class on Ethiopia’s subject peoples was intimately associated with the imposition of the central state, and provided a means by which, through the often vicious exploitation of the local peasantry, that state could be maintained on the backs of those who suffered most from it—a system with obvious potential not only for violence, but for the rejection of the state itself. 

This structure of inequality could not be removed—as was possible in territories like Kenya which had a colonial settler group of their own–by getting rid of the colonialists who had created it, because the colonialists derived their power and position of privilege from the very existence of the state. That is most basically why Ethiopia, uniquely in Africa, experienced a violent revolution dedicated to overthrowing the structures of internal imperial rule. The Emperor Haile-Selassie, revered in much of the rest of Africa, was by the later 1960s regarded by many younger and more educated Ethiopians as merely an anachronistic obstacle to progress.

'In the Soviet Union, the model from which Ethiopian ethnic federalism was derived, the collapse of the Communist Party was rapidly followed by its dismemberment into separate independent republics'

Yet even the 1974 Ethiopian revolution, bloody as it was, did not revolve the basic problem, because the organisation that then took power, led essentially by the Ethiopian army, itself shared an idea of Ethiopian nationalism that reinforced the dominance of the central government, and assumed that once the social injustices of the imperial regime were removed—notably by the destruction of the landlord class, and the nationalisation of all land—then the way would be open to make all Ethiopians equal citizens of a single national state. Instead, it generated rebellions among the excluded peripheral peoples of the empire, in Eritrea, in Tigray, among the Somalis, and in some degree from Oromos and elsewhere. These, eventually, in 1991, grew strong enough to defeat even the massive armies, supported by the USSR, which the revolutionary regime created to defend itself

The new government, the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front led by Meles Zenawi, which came to power in 1991, therefore set out to create a form of federalism which, uniquely in Africa, explicitly recognised and entrenched the ethnic divisions which most African states have been desperate to suppress and overcome. The new rulers felt that the problems created by the Ethiopian empire could be resolved only if all the peoples of Ethiopia were enabled to run their own indigenous local governments, with the ultimate guarantee, entrenched (to the amazement of other Africans) in the national constitution, of a right to self determination, up to and including the right to secession. How this system is working out in practice is a very different matter, and beyond question the present Ethiopian government has been determined to maintain and entrench its control, restoring in the process some of Ethiopia’s ancient practices of government. But the idea that your ‘nationality’ or ethnicity is central to your relationship to the state, once established, will be very difficult to remove: in the Soviet Union, the model from which, more than any other, the idea of Ethiopian ethnic federalism was derived, the collapse in 1989 of the Communist Party, which provided much of the glue that held the centralised state together, was rapidly followed by its dismemberment into fifteen separate independent republics.

'Somalis had no in-built assumption of inequality: all were equally Somali. Nor did they inherit the culture of dominance built into the Ethiopian empire'

In Somalia, the problems of governance were very different, but equally difficult to resolve.  Somalis had no in-built assumption of inequality: on the contrary, all were equally Somali. Nor did they inherit the culture of dominance and inequality built into the Ethiopian empire: Somali political culture, for men at least, is democratic to the point of anarchy. The problem lay in the clash between the inherent instability of Somali democratic culture and the nationalist mission of the Somali state, which proved well beyond its ability to achieve.  This resulted in the overthrow of the democratic political system created at independence by a nationalist military regime which sought arms from the superpowers to promote its mission of unification, and in the disastrous war against Ethiopia, and vicious repression within Somalia itself, that led to the total collapse of the Somali state in 1991.

In this situation, both in Ethiopia and in Somalia, it was plausible to suppose that the answer lay in breaking up the state that had done so much harm to so many of its own people.  In 1991, therefore—the critical year in the modern history of the Horn—both Eritrea and (formerly British) Somaliland declared their separate independence, in each case following the frontiers previously established by colonial rule. This reinforced, once again, the apparently indispensable role of colonialism in establishing the state structures of independent Africa, and might have been expected to lead to the creation of ‘normal’ post-colonial states in the Horn. Instead, it actually demonstrated, as does the more recent case of South Sudan, that secession, even if evidently unavoidable, is not a final answer to the regional anomaly of state-formation, but leaves problems of its own.

'How has a movement so disciplined and so heroic led to the tragedy that is Eritrea today?'

Eritrea is the extreme case of a post-insurgent state, created by the liberation war, by the courage and dedication of many Eritreans, and by the extraordinary ability of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front, which has to be recognised as one of the best organised and most effective national liberation movements in the history of the world. As a young teacher in Addis Ababa University, in the final years of the imperial regime, I became accustomed to my Eritrean students suddenly disappearing from class, as they went off to join the struggle in the north.  And on my first visit to Asmara after Eritrea’s liberation in 1991, I met one of those students, now working in a responsible position in the new government of Eritrea.  He told me that he had been one of a group of eighteen idealistic young Eritreans who had left Addis Ababa to fight—and that when the EPLF finally marched into Asmara some twenty years later, he was the only one still left alive: the other seventeen had died along the way. I know of no more poignant illustration of the heroism of the Eritrean struggle, and of the costs that it imposed, not only on those who had died, but on those still left behind.

The problem with which that leaves us is, how has a movement so disciplined and so heroic led to the tragedy that is Eritrea today: poor, repressive, isolated, at odds with all its neighbours?  And the answer to that question lies in the liberation movement itself, not just in Eritrea (even though it provides a particularly extreme example), but in other countries ruled by victorious guerrillas throughout the world.  The central problem is that the legacy of the struggle defines the character and rationale of the state that the victorious liberators take over and seek to rule.  The people who led the struggle take over and run the state, by right, and almost inevitably apply the methods essential to running a guerrilla war to the very different task if trying to run an independent state.  Central to these methods is an intense commitment to the discipline needed to win the war, and the instant stigmatisation of any kind of opposition or dissent – especially if this involves compromise, bargaining, or the need to take into account the views of any group outside the central leadership – as treason.  Outsiders, whether foreigners or national citizens seen as not fully committed to the cause, are treated with intense suspicion – a tendency magnified in Eritrea by the perception that Eritreans had fought alone against a hostile world, and achieved eventual triumph by rejecting any possibility of compromise.  And with the legacy of liberation war, too, goes a tendency to resort to violence, even war, as the solution to all problems.  Not until the generation of Eritrean leaders formed by liberation war–and notably Isayas Afewerki–have departed the scene does Eritrea have a chance of developing into a normal state, capable of living at peace with its neighbours, and serving the best interests of its own people.

But it is not only Eritreans, and indeed other peoples of the Horn, who have been traumatised by the tragedies that the region has suffered over recent decades.  So also, in some degree, have those of us who study it. Anyone who has been involved with the affairs of the Horn over any length of time has known far too many people who have died, often quite unnecessarily, as the result of its troubles, not to mention a very great many more who have been forced into exile, and have been unable to make the vital contributions that they could otherwise have done to the welfare of their countries of origin.  To have been engaged with the region – as I have been now for a period of fifty years – is almost of necessity to regard peace, accompanied by government in the interests of its citizens, as the first and greatest of its needs.  But at the same time it is a region of great fascination, of ancient civilisation, and of enduring affection and concern for all of us who have come to know it.