Book review – Horn of Africa

Broaden the discussion in order to make the topic simpler: paradoxical as it may seem, that is exactly what Kidane Mengisteab does – quite successfully – in his book The Horn of Africa, which aims to deal with two crucial challenges. In the author’s own words, ‘one is to provide a comprehensive and yet concise analysis of the key factors which have engendered various levels of conflicts in the Greater Horn over the last sixty or so years and are likely to render the region prone to conflicts for some time to come’. Subsequently, the second stage ‘is to explore rather briefly new political and institutional arrangements that may enable the region to transform the conflict factors and extricate itself from the devastations that have become its trade mark’.

In dealing with such a hard task, laying down the right premises becomes fundamental: the one Kidane Mengisteab – director of the African Studies Program at the Pennsylvania State University – begins with, is that taking into account the three ‘core countries’ of the region, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia, as many analysts do, is not enough. The Greater Horn, which Mengisteab refers to, includes the eight states that until 2007 – when Eritrea’s membership was suspended – were part of the Intergovernmental Authority for Development (IGAD), which means that Uganda, Kenya, Sudan and South Sudan are added to the picture. This also implies that no simple explanation can be given for the various conflicts in the region which, the author writes, ‘are caused by a complex mix of interrelating factors’, originating, in turn, from ‘two core conditions that characterize the region’, the failure of both the internal and the regional institutional systems to grant – each at its level – peaceful relations.

Horn of Africa_1406CU-2

All the conflict drivers (historical factors, the nature of post-colonial states, the poor management of diversity – mainly ethnic – in the process of nation building, boundary disputes, the intervention of external political actors, environmental degradation) are analyzed in detail in chapters 2 to 7 of the book (while chapter 1 is actually an introduction and chapter 8 focuses on the possible political and institutional solutions to conflicts in the region). Another key step is making clear distinctions, for instance, regarding the different types of conflicts: inter-state wars, intra-state conflicts, civil wars, conflicts among rebel groups, inter-communal conflicts, cross-border community conflicts, and one-sided violence against civilians. Finally, in order to avoid a naÔve approach to the different crises, Mengisteab is not afraid of adding topics that are often forgotten when coming to the region’s problems, or to redefine – using the categories of political science – concepts that at present are often taken for granted, such as that of ‘state’.

In the whole process, Mengisteab seems less keen on going into the details of the various crises than on giving a general framework, in order to understand the root causes of the events, and possibly also those of new conflicts: for instance, the categories used by the author apply well to the latest developments in South Sudan, which are obviously not analyzed in the book. At the same time, the Pennsylvania State scholar is also interested in making clear one point: the only way out of conflict is democracy, (or more precisely a contextualized form of it, which must not ignore the peculiarities of the Horn of Africa) to be reached both through internal changes and regional integration. These two processes, he writes in the last pages of the book, have ‘the potential to reduce conflicts and enhance economic development’ and they can also ‘contribute in freeing the populations of the region from political repression and economic deprivation’. Despite being maybe too optimistic – in particular on the issue of increasing the national leaders’ accountability – Mengisteab here goes at the core of the whole problem, and even tries to identify what he calls the ‘champions for change’, capable of enhancing such a process.

In general, whether one agrees or not with its thesis, The Horn of Africa seems to be a book aimed more to academics and students involved in conflict and security studies, who already have at least a general understanding of what is happening in the region. In fact, due to his mainly theoretical approach, widely based on pre-existing findings, it can be seen as a systematization of older analyses, lacking, on the other hand, a share of field research by the author himself. Even given that, however, the book can be seen as a good starting point and a reference for future debates on the topic.

Kidane Mengisteab

The Horn of Africa, 2014, Polity Press, Cambridge, 272 pp


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