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  • The Horn of Africa:Between History and Politics
  • Donald Crummey

The peoples and traditions of the Horn of Africa are caught in multiple binds arising from the intersection of history and politics. For almost 40 years, the region has been wracked by wars and famine and the indignities and oppression of misrule. In the last half century, the peoples of Ethiopia have suffered, first, from a personal autocracy, and, subsequently, from the ill-considered and poorly founded rule of two self-proclaimed revolutionary regimes. The peoples of Eritrea endured 30 years of warfare only to end up with a government that has betrayed the democratic promise of the struggle. The Somali people have been afflicted by misrule and an anarchy dominated by violence and the brutal self-interest of warlords. All across the Horn, warfare has been accompanied by famine and pestilence, and its peoples have been caught in conflicts between their traditions and values and the practices of their political elites.1

The failure of political elites may be one of the most notable commonalities across the region, linking highlands with lowlands, farmers with pastoralists, and Christians with Muslims. This failure has many facets, but one to which too little attention has been paid has been the universal attempt, however narrowly conceived and imperfectly pursued, to institute the modern state, with its absolutist claims to sovereignty and territoriality. This attempt has been dysfunctional and productive of great misery. In a cruel irony, as Europe, birthplace of the modern state, moves beyond nationality toward transnationality, the Horn still struggles to achieve nationality.2 This article questions [End Page 117] whether that struggle remains worthwhile and argues that the intellectual traditions of the Horn, generated by its university-based academics, have shared the fate of its peoples. These traditions, too, have been betrayed by the political elites whose aspirations they articulated and helped to define. The article argues that the time has come for an intellectual recognition of the common recent experiences of the peoples of the Horn and a reorientation of aspirations toward transnational goals, toward a more creative and productive alignment of their multiple histories with their political practices. This process of reorientation should engage foreign scholars who have identified with the Horn just as fully as it engages indigenous intellectuals and academics.

A Regional History?

The deeper historical experiences of the peoples of the Horn are ambiguous, at best, in their meaning for the contemporary situation.3 These historical experiences are marked equally by conflict and coexistence, by exploitation and symbiosis, by interaction and separation. But a regional history does seem a reasonable construct, however many components we attribute to it, and even though it fails to include the full variety of cultural expression across the Horn. In thinking at the broader geographical level, much human expression and achievement necessarily disappears from sight.4 We end up with a handful of regular players—the Ethiopian state, the principalities of the coast, the Eastern highlands and the lowland interior; plow-cultivating peoples, pastoralists; Christians, Muslims. Many of these categories crosscut one another to some degree, just as they crosscut the distinction between Semitic and Kushitic linguistic inheritance. For example, the Christian state, although highly associated with plow cultivation, Semitic language, and Christianity, almost always included, as core elements, pastoralists, Muslims, and Kushitic speakers.5 Conversely, many plow cultivators, many Semitic speakers, and even some Christians regularly lay beyond its control. The peoples of the Eastern Horn tell their own stories of its past: stories of herding, fishing, and farming; stories of pastoralism and town life; stories of principalities and clans; and stories of developing, constantly changing Islamic institutions. Nor were the historical experiences of the peoples of the Horn self-contained. [End Page 118] Mutual interaction is a constant motif. So, too, are distinct traditions of orientation toward a wider world, part of which European culture has constructed as the "Middle East" with its centers of Cairo, Jerusalem, Jiddah, and Mecca, but which also stretched to Istanbul, Persia, and India. A good deal of scholarship has revealed the commercial dimensions of this wider reach, but of equal, if not greater importance, were the cultural dimensions, which validated local traditions...