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  • Frontiers of Violence in North-East Africa: Genealogies of Conflict since 1800
  • Edmond J. Keller (bio)
Frontiers of Violence in North-East Africa: Genealogies of Conflict since 1800, by Richard J. Reid New York: Oxford University Press, 2011; pp. 310. $99.00 hardcover.

This is an excellent exercise in the historical interpretation of one of the most significant contemporary regions of Africa. Not only does Richard Reid focus on the states of the region, but more importantly he focuses on its peoples. Others have written about these matters, but the author approaches his subject in a novel and refreshing manner. He relies on both primary and secondary data to write about state formation and the construction of expanded political communities in the Horn of Africa throughout history.

Reid uses as his analytical focus the violent way in which these polities were historically constructed. He concentrates on military struggles that took place in broadly conceived frontier zones—domestic and regional. The book begins with a prologue that lays out the broad outlines of the theory that guides Reid's analysis. He argues that we clearly need a fuller appreciation of la longue durée (the long view of history) in terms of the history of violent conflict in the Horn of Africa region. This is portrayed as a history that represents the evolution of several cultures of violence among the peoples of the region. To an extent this is a useful approach to reinterpreting history as it highlights the fact that most if not all states were formed through conquest and violence. In a sense, there is nothing new here; but this is the first time that the Horn region has been framed from such a comprehensive perspective.

Part 1 of the book lays out the context of the analysis that follows and focuses on the relevant extant literature on the subject. Reid seeks to interpret the region by concentrating on its peoples from an innovative historiographical perspective. He paints a picture that places at the center of the "zone of violence" the Tigrinya of highland Eritrea and northern Ethiopia, the Amhara of central Ethiopia, and the Oromo and Somali of southern and eastern Ethiopia. He argues for a new historiography, based not on the typical "center-based" analysis but on the "peripheries" or the borderlands of the historic Ethiopian Empire. Reid argues that frontiers frequently produce highly militarized societies—they are fault lines or contested zones. Further, he contends that the Eritrean-Ethiopian frontier zone is the epicenter of much of the region's violence. One is left wondering what [End Page 139] Reid means by "epicenter." This is a matter of perspective. However, what is revealed is the author's continued bias toward state-centered research. In this case, he is most interested in the manner in which the Ethiopian state was consolidated and changed over time.

Like a good number of books focusing on this region, this book traces the history of the region to antiquity: the Axum city state, the development of the habasha polity (the nation of the chosen people), and the new Zion. Ethiopian mythology claims that the habasha people are the descendants of the Israelites and the House of David. The new center of Zion, then, has become the Ethiopian heartland. The book goes on to focus on the interaction of the heartland with peripheral regions including the Oromo frontier. Reid, however, seems not to view as important, as others have, the way that the inhabitants of the Oromo frontier penetrated or were invited into the Ethiopian heartland and in fact became central to it rather than peripheral. One exception is Reid's treatment of Lij (Prince) Yasu and his endorsement of Islam. This made Yasu a heretic in the eyes of the Ethiopian (Abyssinian) nobility (129-31), and thus unfit to inherit the throne.

Part 2 of the book focuses on the "long" nineteenth century and the emergence and consolidation of the imperial state, beginning with Emperor Tewodros in the middle of the century and continuing on for almost 100 years to the demise of the last Ethiopian emperor, Haile Selassie I, in the late twentieth century. Reid in rich historical...


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pp. 139-141
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