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Northeast African Studies 7.1 (2000) 167-169
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In this work, John Drysdale, a former British diplomat well known to specialists on the Horn of Africa, brings his more than 50 years of experience with Somali issues to bear on the current predicament in the region. While this is a rather small volume, it has an ambitious agenda. The author presents a broad survey of the history of Northeast Africa, an overview of traditional Somali social and economic institutions, and a discussion of recent political developments. These are necessary to Drysdale's central argument that any attempt to reconstitute a Somali state in the wake of the catastrophic famine and civil war of the early 1990s must be built upon long-standing customs. Drysdale further posits that any real solution must be acceptable to both Somalis and the wider world. In the short term, he provocatively calls for the international community's recognition of the sovereignty of Somaliland. In the longer term, Drysdale advocates a confederation among the shattered parts of Somalia, hoping eventually for the restoration of a unitary Somali state.
An important aspect of Drysdale's analysis is its historical perspective. The author acknowledges that his chapter on the history of pastoralism is a summary of John Reader's Africa—A Biography of a Continent. Here, one might suggest that the reader would do well to consult other works such as Fiona Marshall's less known but more authoritative chapter in African Pastoralist Systems. Similarly, while Drysdale follows I. M. Lewis on the precolonial history of Somalia, readers might benefit more from reference to works by Christopher Ehret and Günther Schlee. Nonetheless, such issues are not critical to the author's thesis. Moreover, when it comes to the history of colonial Somalia, Drysdale is more at home. Here, the author is particularly critical of [End Page 167] the machinations of European diplomats and Ethiopian rulers who treated the stateless Somalis as pawns in a kind of imperial chess game. Although Drysdale recognizes that Somali irredentist aspirations were beyond attainment in their entirety, he is particularly critical of the transfer of the Haud and Reserved Area to Ethiopia in 1954.
Drysdale's treatment of Somalia since its independence is more compelling. He shows that Somalia's problems started right after independence, even when Somalis were calling for unity when the former British and Italian Somalilands merged in 1960. Clan politics and the separate histories of the two colonies already were leading to rifts among leaders of the ersatz state. Official corruption and political ambitions culminated in flawed elections and a military coup in 1969. While the description of Siyad Barre's subsequent regime as "totalitarian" (164) may not be wholly appropriate, one would not contest the author's characterization of it as an era of "unutterable cruelty, torture and mass killings, corruption, and repression" (83). With respect to events surrounding the fighting in Mogadishu in 1992-1993, the reader will find Drysdale's criticisms of "warlord" rapaciousness and Boutros Ghali's impatience to be even-handed and convincing.
The need to respect traditional values is an integral part of Drysdale's thesis, and the author appropriately devotes much space to the subject of xeer, or Somali custom, and social institutions. One need not necessarily concur with Drysdale's ecological determinism that environmental factors are of prime importance to the well-being of Somali society and its livestock-centered economy. Anthropologists will similarly pause at the author's sentimental description of "the proud, upright Somali nomad" (105), and qualify his depiction of Somali society as egalitarian and democratic. Still, Drysdale has an intimate understanding of everyday life and the spirit of the Somali nation, and he conveys this well to his general reader in particular. One finds much promise for the future in the resurgence of tradition that Drysdale writes he has witnessed in Somaliland. Indeed, the Republic's innovative creation of a Council...