The Real Politics Of The Horn Of Africa by Alex de Waal

The Blurb On The Back:

The Real Politics Of The Horn Of Africa delves into the business of politics in the turbulent, war-torn countries of north-east Africa.  It is a contemporary history of how politicians, generals and insurgents bargain over money and power, and use violence to achieve their goals.

Drawing on a thirty-year career in Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia, including experience as a participant in high-level peace talks, Alex de Waal provides a unique and compelling account of how these countries’ leaders run their governments, conduct their business, fight their wars and, occasionally, make peace.  De Waal shows how leaders operate on a business model, securing funds for their ‘political budgets’, which they use to rent the provisional allegiances of army officers, militia commanders, tribal chiefs and party officials at the going rate.  This political marketplace is eroding the institutions of government and reversing state building – and it is fuelled by oil exports, aid funds and western military assistance for counter-terrorism and peacekeeping.

The Real Politics Of The Horn Of Africa is a sharp and disturbing book with profound implications for international relations, development and peacemaking in the Horn of Africa and beyond.

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

Alex de Waal is Executive Director of the World Peace Foundation and a Research Professor at Tufts University and in this thought-provoking but depressing book, he analyses the political factors at play in the countries comprising the Horn of Africa through the prism of a rentier political marketplace where loyalties are bought and sold in a high-stakes game that prevents genuine state-building and undermines democratic convention.

De Waal describes his book as a “contemporary historical ethnography” of the “men who conduct real politics in the Horn of Africa” and the political marketplace that they operate in.  The bulk of the book then revolves around the services and rewards that the players demand and receive for loyalty and money and the tools used to regulate that market.  What comes through in the remaining chapters is how politicians seek to manipulate traditional policy goals in return for personal power and money and to the detriment of the state building that’s necessary to improve the situation for the general populace (whose local, tribal leaders in turn get caught up in the same depressing exchanges).  Particularly interesting is how de Waal draws on his own experiences during the Darfur negotiations in 2006 where he saw a lot of this horse trading at first hand but he also brings over 20 years of experience in working in the region, which helps to inform a lot of his chapters and add colour to the text.

Two of the chapters in the book set out de Waal’s framework for the political marketplace and how it works in what is a politically unstable and unpredictable system; a brief modern history of the Horn of Africa – including the partitioning of Ethiopia, Somalia and Sudan – and the current struggles between them (which I found particularly interesting as I knew very little about the region and I found de Waal’s explanations clear to understand and informative).  There is then a chapter that focuses on Darfur as an example of his political marketplace, which for anyone who followed the crisis will be a real eye-opener in terms of the dynamics in play.  De Waal then moves on to individual chapters on each of Sudan, South Sudan, Somalia, Eritrea, Somaliland and Ethiopia with the final chapters look at the main drivers for change and the links between the region and the wider world, especially the role played by oil, security cooperation and foreign aid and finally communications and the sharing of political information.

In many ways this is quite a depressing read – mainly because the situation portrayed by de Waal seems to be entrenched – and I would have been interested to know more of the extent to which the push and pull between the western countries and China is changing or influencing behaviours. However de Waal isn’t all doom and gloom – he does point out how some people within the countries are prepared to hold the powerful to account (and the respect that this brings them) and it is also clear that mobile phone telephony is having a big impact on the region and I’d be interested to see if and how it changes political behaviour.

There is a fair amount of political jargon within the book, but it wasn’t so dense that I couldn’t follow it.  All in all I thought it was a fascinating read and one that gave me an awful lot of new-to-me information and on that basis, I think it’s worth checking out if you’re interested in the region.

Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.

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