Clapham, Christopher. (2017). The Horn of Africa: State Formation and Decay

Book Review:

Clapham, Christopher. (2017). The Horn of Africa: State Formation and Decay. Oxford: Oxford University Press. xiii + 224 pp. ISBN 978 0 19 068018 3

The politics in the Horn of Africa, which is inherently complex and contested because of the region’s diverse identities, diverse geographic features, historical legacies and strategic location along the Red Sea, Gulf of Aden, and Indian Ocean, has been attracting the attention of several scholars from within Africa and beyond, who have produced invaluable works and contributed to the on-going scientific debate on the politics of the region. Christopher Clapham stands as one of the key figures in this scholarship as he has been studying the African continent in general and the region in particular for several years. Clapham has authored some remarkable books such as Haile-Selassie’s Government (1969), Liberia and Sierra Leone: An Essay in Comparative Politics (1977), Third World Politics: An Introduction (1985), Transformation and Continuity in Revolutionary Ethiopia (1988), Africa and the International System (1996), and African Guerrillas (1998). The book chosen for this review, The Horn of Africa: State formation and decay (2017), is only the recent of his seminal publications. The review tries to present the central arguments, summary of the chapters, and the strengths, limitations, as well as relevance of the book to the academic discourse on the subject.

In The Horn of Africa: State formation and decay, Clapham examines the unique dynamics of state creation, secession, and collapse in the Horn of Africa since 1991 through the topography perspective. Viewed from this geography-oriented vantage point, for Clapham, the Horn of Africa presents itself as the “African anomaly” – a conceptual terminology he used to highlight how state-building projects in the Horn of Africa are different and do not fit to the generalizations that are labeled against the rest of the Sub-Sahara African (SSA). The survival of Ethiopia from European colonialism and secession (independence), among others, has been singled out as the salient feature that sets the Horn of Africa apart from the rest of SSA. Accordingly, the major arguments of the book revolve around three points. First, the process of state formation and decay in the region is exceptional that it “may be described as constituting non-colonial Africa” character (pp.2-3) when compared to the SSA that are essentially seen as successors to European colonial state. Second, the dynamics of state formation and decay in the Horn region are essentially internal (home grown) although external influences have been an ever present factor in the region for a long time. Third, geography, or landscape, is the main factor that shapes the dynamics of state creation and maintenance in the Horn.

These arguments have been organized along an introduction and six chapters. While the introduction, chapter one and chapter two deal with the basic assumptions of the book, the succeeding three chapters (i.e., three, four and five) explain these assumptions through the selected cases studies. Finally, the last chapter discusses the region in relation to regional hegemony and its continental and global connections.

In the introduction section, the author outlined the central objective, conceptual frameworks used in the book to define the term ‘Horn of Africa’ and the main arguments of the book. The term ‘Horn of Africa’ in this work refers to those states that manifested regime change (Ethiopia), independence and the creation of new state internationally recognized or unrecognized (Eritrea and Somaliland), or collapse of the state (Somalia) in 1991, a landmark year when all these state formations and decays in the aforementioned states unfolded. The book, thus, covers the politics of Ethiopia, Eritrea, and the Somali territories, including Somalia, Somaliland since 1991. As such, his Horn of Africa did not include the Sudan and South Sudan. Yet, Djibouti is included, albeit as the Horn anomaly for the year 1991 did not figure as the watershed period in this tiny state’s history. Sudan and South Sudan along with Kenya are treated as part of the ‘greater Horn,’ not the proper Horn.

Moreover, the author ventured to demonstrate how the geophysical environment, or the ‘power of landscape’, shapes the dynamics of state formation and state collapse in the Horn. As to Clapham, the Horn is “a region characterized, most of all, by dramatic differences in land forms, immediately adjacent to one another, which in turn have therefore led to the evolution of different modes of livelihood, and thus to different kinds of society, different social structures and values, and correspondingly different forms and perceptions of political power” (p. 7). Following Markakis’ (2011) classification of Ethiopia’s climatic zones, Clapham categorized the Horn’s land scape into three types: the highland core, the lowland periphery, and the highland periphery. While the people in the highland core that includes the Tigrigna and Amharigna speaking parts of Ethiopia and Eritrea (where land is at the center of their lifestyle) lead settled way of life and exhibit hierarchical power relationship that is badly needed for a state, the lowland periphery that consists of parts of Eritrea and Ethiopia and the whole of Somalia territories are generally assumed to lack the basic foundations of a state for they lead pastoralist way of life that prioritizes collaboration and negotiation than hierarchy. On the other hand, the highland periphery is assumed to include peoples in central, southern and western Ethiopia (like the Oromo and the Sidama, Wolaita, Kembata and Gurage from the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples) and Bilen and Tigre peoples of western highland Eritrea. The last group of people, although they have the basic input to establish a state, are understood to have been exposed to the highland core’s suppression and subordination, thus, excluded from the state structures thereof. In fact, for Clapham, it is the people in highland periphery that are seen as the most critical group to the future of the Horn for the way states handle this group’s marginalization issue will determine the future of state survival and maintenance practices in the region.

The author also presented a very brief historical context to the twin processes of state creation and demise in the region up until 1991 that led eventually to on the one hand the independence of Eritrea and Somaliland and on the other hand the death of Ethiopia Tikidem and Somali dream of ‘Greater Somalia’. He tried to show the peculiar nature of state formation trajectory in the Horn by presenting the case of Ethiopia, Somalia, and Djibouti. The author argues that the way states were created in this part of Africa is different and this divergence has come to affect the internal politics of the states created as well as the dynamics of relationship between these created states. At the heart of this anomalous way of state creation in this region lies the survival of Ethiopia that was won at the Battle of Adwa on March 1, 1896 against the Italians. One of the most important consequences of this victory, according to the author, is that not only the Ethiopian state was able expand to the south, south west, and southeast directions under Emperor Menilik II and this expansionist process eventually created internal colonialism that was similar to external colonialism (European) in Africa, but also fragmented states were created by the surrounding European colonies along the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden, and the Indian Ocean that came to constrain Ethiopia from accessing the sea and constrained by the same country from expanding into the hinterlands.

As far as Ethiopia was concerned, Clapham tried to assess the post-1991developments in terms of the transformation of political space that is based on ethnic federalism where political participation is based on collective identity; the transformation of the economy under the leadership of the active state involvement; the challenges that emerge as a result of these political (ethnicity) and economic (developmental state) principles like the prevalence of social and economic inequality, the failure of the idea that ethnicity would wither away with the improvement of the economy, the prevalence of corruption, and above all the delicate governance system bringing all the ‘nations, nationalities, and peoples’ on board while maintaining the hegemony of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary and Democratic Front (EPRDF) party, particularly the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). It also shows the ability of the ruling party to navigate through the prevailing internal and external situations. In this chapter, Clapham tried to read the mindset and thinking of the TPLF on the logic behind the creation of a federal state based on ethnicity, the emergence of the ‘democratic developmental state’ mantra that seeks to build a ‘performance legitimacy’ that the ruling party lost during the 2005 election crisis, and the succession of Haile Mariam Dessalegne, for instance. The main thesis of this chapter, in short, is that Ethiopia under EPRDF has transformed to a level not seen before in the country’s history both politically (ethnic federalism) and economically (developmental state), but the by-products of these very transformations appeared to be challenging to the survival and continuation of the new socio-political philosophy while keeping the status quo of EPRDF’s dictatorship.

With regard to Eritrea, the author ventured to reveal the salient features of the post-independent Eritrea that is characterized by repressive state, where the ruling party Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF)/Popular Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) appear to be the state domestically and isolated internationally. He discusses how the new ruling party has imposed national service and tried to pursue a nation-building project that expected to create a homogenous national identity. It also discussed the cause, course and impacts of the Ethio-Eritrea war of 1998-2000. The author highlighted the grieve mistakes the Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission made. He tried to present the impacts of the war on Ethiopia and Eritrea in comparative perspective. Accordingly, the war is found to have severe impact on Eritrea’s domestic politics which came to be characterized by the resumption of repressive state policies, the return of Eritrean politics to the liberation struggle mentality that placed the survival of the Eritrean nation at the center of its post-war politics both internally and externally. The basic argument of chapter four is that Eritrea has proved to be a tragedy in the modern state era mainly due to the incapability of the EPLF leadership to transform itself from a guerrilla fighter to ruling an independent state whose imperatives are different from the liberation movement. Yet, for Clapham, the existing Eritrean state can be transformed and a new kind of Eritrean state can be born if and only if Eritrea follows such policies as the demilitarization of the state and the dismantling of the structure of state control, opening up the state to the major actors that were hitherto excluded from playing vital roles, and re-establishing a healthy relationship with the international society, Ethiopia being the major one.

In his third case study, the author explored the nature of state in the Somali territories since 1991. Particularly worth mentioning in this regard is the diametrically opposite paths the two Somalis (south central Somalia and Somaliland) took. While the former is unstable, the latter is stable and democratic. South central Somalia has been infested with the emergence of competing armed groups that tried to fill in the power vacuum left by the state since 1991. But as an antidote to this state collapse, several internationally sponsored state-building projects have been launched, but in vain, save the current regime under construction since 2012 in the name of Somalia Federal Government (SFG). Contrary to the south central Somalia, Somaliland proclaimed itself as an independent republic through an internally orchestrated process. The guurti (elders) reconciliation conferences, which removed the army as the main source of power, are singled out as the cardinal elements that made the self-proclaimed independence happen and the transition to democracy possible. Of course, the downside is that, still Somaliland lacks international recognition and has unsettled border problem with its neighbor (Puntland). As such, the state of Somaliland is operating at a minimum level or, to use the words of the author, at “a care-and-maintenance state” level (p. 165), which makes it difficult to identify the true identity of the state. Nonetheless, what is fascinating about the Somalis is that in the absence of a state that would provide public goods such as welfare and security, they were able to establish some form governance which gave them sense of order and stability, for instance, by resorting to their customary law called xeer that helped them conduct businesses and other activities via moral obligations, by focusing on local-level initiatives that aimed at creating a political stability via negotiation among the groups concerned, and finally by using religion where Islam was employed as a rallying cry to mobilize the Somalis beyond the clan politics where the armed groups apparently failed. To sum up, the fundamental argument of this chapter is that the Somali territories, which included Somaliland, Puntland, south central Somalia, the Ogaden (Region 5 of Ethiopia) and Djibouti, have operated in a peculiar social, economic, and political context that in turn also affected their respective governance system and the relative failures and successes scored by them. While state formation in south central Somalia has been so far engineered from outside and has been a total failure as a result, the opposite is true in Somaliland where state-building is an internal process and has been so far successful. While Puntland and Ogaden led an autonomous life in Somali and Ethiopian states, respectively, Djibouti (under a strong control of a family from the Issa clan) is the only stable country in an unstable neighborhood.

Finally, in the last chapter, Clapham argued that Ethiopia is the hegemonic power in the region and international actors, which have been viewing the region via Ethiopia, have consolidated this hegemonic position. Ethiopia’s hegemony is manifested, as to the author, through its peacekeeping missions in the region and the regional integration projects (like Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD)) it is undertaking at the moment. As such, he stresses the fact that any regional state building project that does not take Ethiopia into consideration is doomed to fail. Finally, the rise of Islamic militant groups in the region and its concomitant ‘war on terror’ response has been identified as an agenda that not only appears to downgrade Ethiopia’s hegemonic position in the region, but also as issues that connect the region with the African continent and the rest of the international community at large.

Despite such eloquent analysis of the post-1991 state (re)construction mechanisms in the selected cases of Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somali territories, the book suffers from major setbacks. To begin with, the basic foundation of the book appears to be problematic. To begin with, as the title of the book tells us, the author’s main objective is to show the dynamics of twin process in the selected cases of the Horn since 1991: state formation as well as state decay. His discussion on the diverse methods of state formation in the region works and is relevant as the states have followed different paths towards this end. Yet, when it comes to state decay, the author failed to address such fundamental issues like what are the signs usually assumed to be signs of state decay? and how do we measure state decay? But, if ‘decay’ refers to degeneration or disintegration, then, his Horn states do not show signs of this phenomenon. As the book revealed, Eritrea is under dictatorship; Somaliland is stable and relatively democratic; Somalia appears to rise from the ashes of 1991; and Ethiopia is demonstrating stability and economic growth. Given such scenario, it is not clear which one of these states exhibit signs of state decay. As such, the concept of state decay lacks clarity and seems to be irrelevant, at least since 1991, as it does not explain the nature of states in the region.

As it has been mentioned above, for Clapham, the dynamics of state formation and decay in the Horn region are essentially internal (home grown), while external factor has been identified merely as a catalyst that accelerates the process either negatively or positively that has been set in motion by the internal developments. But, in a region, where external influences have been an ever present factor for long time to focus solely on the internal factor as the determining element in the state reconstruction process ignores the equally influential external factor. His argument appears to downgrade the role of the external constraining or facilitating conditions. The politics in the Horn has been not the result of the internal factor alone, rather the eclectic configuration of the internal and external conditions. Both the endogenous and exogenous elements have been working in tandem to bring changes in the politics of the region. Whichever trajectory states follow and whatever policy elites adopt in their states, it has been influenced by both internal and external developments.

Also, the term the author used, ‘non-colonial Africa, to show the peculiar nature of state formation and demise in the Horn when compared to the rest of SSA, overemphasizes the differences and overlooks the similarities that existed between them. This kind of ‘blunt’ assertion is polemical and appears to overlook the similarities, that even he himself mentions in the work, that exist among the African states as a result of European intervention. In this regard, the most obvious impact of colonialism can be singled out: the imposition of arbitrary boundary that fundamentally led to the imposition of divergent institutions and creation of divergent rewards for the pertinent states and societies. The basic characteristics that define the rest of post-colonial African states like authority crisis, weak link between state and society, weak institutions of government, absence of rule of law, the imposition of power and policies from above, and neopatrimonialism also work for this region. Also, in the author’s own understanding, the need for western style multi-party democracy (pluralism) that came in the continent since the demise of the Cold War is a point of convergence between this part of Africa and the rest of SSA. Even if the way the states in the Horn were created is different, their politics still remains essentially to be just like any other post-colonial Africa. Such blunt assertion, as non-colonial Africa, is an overemphasis of the difference that existed between the Horn and the rest of SSA, too. Indeed, differences exist because Africa is a huge continent that is home to different political systems, history, colonial heritage, level of economic development, population size, geographic size and location, but to take such differences to the level of total uniqueness seems to be misplaced. For the reviewer, the difference does not show the non-colonial character of the region that is shaped by its topography, rather the unique impacts of colonialism in the region that has brought these differences the author highlighted (like secession). Compared to other regions in SSA, it is only in the Horn where secession of states occurred, namely, the secession of Eritrea from Ethiopia, the secession of South Sudan from Sudan, the emergence of a self-proclaimed state of Somaliland out of the dead Somali dream. Nevertheless, such kind of independences states in the region happened as a result of both the legacy of colonialism and the maladministration of the post-1960s leaders of the respective states. Put it otherwise, colonialism in the region has a unique character and its impact has produced a unique state formation and maintenance strategy in the region by the political elites concerned.

Besides, Clapham’s argument that geophysical structure or the landscape has been playing the key role in the destinies of the region’s states formation and decay seems to be ‘geographic determinism’ as geography causes changes in the culture, which in turn causes changes in the politics of the state. Graphically, it looks like this: geography ? culture ? politics. Such argument seems to be nothing, but geographic determinism and linear understanding. Indeed, because the author is so convinced of the power of landscape on the dynamics of state’s survival, he went further to the extent of recommending scholars interested in the region to study this factor thoroughly: “if you want to understand this region, this is where you have to start [studying the physical geography of the Horn]” (p. 9). The author’s geographic determinism appears to be contrary to what Acemoglu and Robinson (2012) argue. In their engaging book, Why nations fail: The origins of power, prosperity and poverty, these authors assert that the paths nations take, to be economically rich and politically stable, is not determined by geography or culture, rather the quality of institutions created which are in turn affected by historical contingencies. Likewise, if we take Clapham’s geographic classification of the Horn, we find the highland cores in parts of Ethiopia and Eritrea as well as all the lowland periphery in the Somali territories. All these groups share the same geographic environment (highland vs lowland) and cultural elements (like religion, Christianity vs Islam), but within the same geographic groups, we see differences in the way states are created, maintained and declined. So, the reason is not geography or culture per se, rather the political institutions (that are affected by the prevailing historical events) of states. Clapham’s geography determinism, then, fails to explain why these differences arise in the first place. Of course, in the book, he has demonstrated in an excellent manner the idiosyncratic nature of state in his cases where historical explanation was important in the process. In short, the states in the Horn are the result of historical events. So, in a way, he appears also to be inconsistent in his application of the ‘power of landscape’ conceptual framework.

Land has been presented as something that is at the center of the lifestyle of the highland core. But, the evidence he presented to support this argument is not substantial and strong. He presented the Ethio-Eritrea war (1998-2000) as a classic case as if it were caused by border dispute. This is contrary to what some scholars have argued. The main reason for Ethio-Eritrea war is not the dusty land in the name of Badme, but economic and political. The author himself has mentioned the attitude of other political forces towards the new rulers of TPLF/EPRDF was “widely regarded as subservient to the regime in Asmara” (p. 83) and popular pressure as to why the war was fought. Medhanie Taddese (2004) see the war as Eritrea’s calculated move, or measured war, to proceed with its unique state-building project that is undisturbed by the competing political systems of its neighbors like Ethiopia’s ethnic federal system. Abdelwahab El-Affendi (2009), in his provocative article titled “The Perils of Regionalism: Regional Integration as a Source of Instability in the Horn of Africa?,” links the Ethio-Eritrea war not to border dispute, but to the failed regional integration experiment. As to John Abbink (1998), the war was not so much about the border as much as it was because of historical and political contexts.

Also, the author mentions the role of land in the politics of highland core now and then throughout the book, particularly in comparison to the lowland periphery. For example, he stated that “in sharp contrast to the territorially defined communities of highland Ethiopia and Eritrea, to whom boundaries are sacred and between whom apparently trivial differences could trigger a vicious war, for Somalis these are merely ignored, unless they create opportunities for bargaining and manipulation…” (emphasis added) (p. 167). But, how a trivial difference can cause a vicious war is not backed by additional evidences, of course except for the Ethio-Eritrea war discussed above. To me, his understanding of the role of ‘agriculture’ among the highlanders, and equally to ‘animal husbandry’ among the pastoralists, is simplistic, static, dichotomous and an over-generalization made to just fit to his own argument. For instance, he stated that “this is a part of the world [the Horn] constantly in flux, in which patterns of state creation and decay form and reform, in response to the ever changing relations between highland and lowland, Christianity and Islam, zones of settled governance and zones of statelessness” (p. 193).

Furthermore, the author’s argument that Menilek’s process of expansion created internal colonialism that was comparable to the European colonialism in the rest of Africa is an observation that did not understand the historical context properly in which this action took place. For one thing, Menilk undertook this expansionist process in the face of the European incursion in the region and in Africa in general. Secondly, what Menilek did was continuing the construction of modern Ethiopia that was started by Tewodros II and Yohannes IV: centralization of state power. How is centralization of power equated to colonialism? This argument not only lacks strong historical knowledge, but also seems to be anachronistic assessment. Also, understanding Menilek’s expansion as internal colonialism appears to support the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and EPLF political groups because as to Merera Gudina (2006) these liberation movements based their liberation struggle on the ‘colonial thesis’ and ipso facto demanded independence from Ethiopia.

The book’s treatment of Ethiopia is confusing as well. In the same page, page 3, the book identified Ethiopia as the only African state that survived the European conquest, yet it also included Ethiopia in the list of Horn states along with Eritrea and the Somali territories that were once ruled by Europeans when he stated that “… the definition of the Horn used in this book as comprising Ethiopia, Eritrea, and the Somali territories that came under Italian, British, and French colonial rule” (emphasis added) (p.3).

In addition, the author appears to be pessimistic about external intervention in the region that tried to install a state structure form outside. This attitude was clearly revealed while the author was discussing the externally-driven Somali state reconstruction processes. For instance, he stated that “Somalia’s prospects of re-establishing any form of governance that could plausibly be described as a ‘state’ have in all probability disappeared “(p. 158). And a semblance of Somali state, which would be according to him “usually well short of anything recognizable internationally as a state” (p.159), would be achieved by isolation, not involvement. This is cynical. How would isolation serve the purpose of state building that is all-inclusive and equally healthy to its neighbors is not clear, however.

What is more, for Clapham, Ethiopia is not only the hegemonic power in the region, but also the key to the region’s stability. This is a bold assertion that on the one hand he exaggerates the power of Ethiopia in the region and on the other hand he seems to ignore the growing and competing role of Kenya in the same region. Kenya has become a constant actor in the state resurrection process either by organizing peace conferences, hosting and supporting transitional governments (like Transitional Federal Government of Somalia), sending its troops as part of AMISOM peacekeeping mission, or fighting al-shabbab unilaterally as a retaliation to its attacks inside the country. Thus, Kenya, which started to pay attention to the political developments that are going on in Somalia, has as much stake as Ethiopia and this has become visible in recent times when Ethiopia and Kenya are competing to influence the politics in Somalia Federal Government to their own advantage. Consequently, true to Buzan’s (1991) “regional security complex” concept, any political solution in Somalia should take into consideration the interests of not only Ethiopia, but also Kenya, and even Eritrea and Djibouti since these states have an interdependent security concern that warrants to study the region as one unit.

Finally, yes, it is true that the author is not strange to the region as he is a seasoned scholar who has been studying this part of the world for decades and has produced several seminal works. Yet, there is nothing novel about this particular work as these ideas have been discussed by himself in his other works and some other scholars from the region and beyond in one way or another, albeit in a fragmented manner.

Despite these limitations, however, what is new (relevant) about this book is that he tried to explore the nature of state (re)construction, possibilities for transformation on the one hand and key challenges on the other hand in those regimes that came to power in the Horn after 1991 (Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, and Somaliland) though via the landscape lens and present it in a concise manner. Moreover, his argument that topography matters in the twin processes of state formation and deformation in the Horn region so much so that the highland core and the lowland peripheries have different capabilities for the formation and running of a state, that Ethiopia is the hegemonic power in the region to be reckoned with, and that the radical Islam movements in the Horn threatens not only the hegemonic power of Ethiopia, but also the global peace and security has been also found to be pertinent to the academics and the policy makers or to theoreticians and practitioners alike. Lastly, this book, written in a lively, elegant, provocative and engaging style, provides the decades-old wisdom and observation of one of the authoritative figures in this region’s scholarship and as such is vital to those individuals that are interested to read a concise introduction to the politics of the selected Horn states since 1991.

Alemu Asfaw, Bahir Dar University


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