We use cookies for site personalization and analytics. You can opt out of third party cookies. More info in our privacy policy.   Got it

Horror & Hope In The Horn


new internationalist
issue 238 - December 1992

The winds of war have blown people far from their traditional homes.

Horror & hope
in the Horn
If the world despairs of any one of its regions it is probably
the corner of Africa which contains Ethiopia and Somalia.
Richard Swift travels there to uncover the causes of
devastation - and the promise of change.

The words trip off the lips all too easily. 'The country is a write-off.' Or maybe 'a basket-case'. These days the object of such glib assertions is frequently Somalia, Ethiopia or one of the other countries in the Horn of Africa. The speaker might be a journalist, a diplomat (speaking off the record, of course), an aid bureaucrat or just a casual observer stirred by images of starvation and armed mayhem. They don't seem to need any particular knowledge of the people of the Horn to come up with these acute judgements. And they will usually be free with their ideas about the causes of African people's plight: tribalism, overpopulation or general backwardness. Yet in a year when we are witnessing the most appalling European tribalism in what was once Yugoslavia we should perhaps not be so quick to judge Africa.

The easy despair of Western observers is usually not shared by the people of the Horn themselves. For them despair is a luxury. Of the dozens of people I talked with in Eritrea and Ethiopia all were hopeful. 'Perhaps the rains will be better this year...' 'Maybe this new way to harvest water will work...' 'Terracing will be sure to stop some of the soil erosion...' 'The new government is bound to make a big difference...' 'This seed bank will really help with next year's crop...' 'If people start feeling secure they won't have to carry guns'.

Granted this was not Somalia in the midst of inter-clan warfare or the southern Sudan ravaged by the militarism of Khartoum. But Eritrea and Ethiopia have just witnessed decades dominated by starvation and dictatorship - hardly breeding grounds for optimism. And there is plenty of optimism at large in Somalia and Sudan too - people labouring long days in relief camps or working against the odds to bring peace and accountable government; families walking hundreds of miles under the desert sun to escape the bullets and track down some food. Without a sense that things can improve none of these things would happen.

The most helpless voices I heard in Ethiopia were those of Western aid officials - forced to find excuses not to help due to the meagre budgets allotted them by Ottawa and Washington. They saw failure everywhere: their lifestyles and 'hardship allowances' allowed them the luxury of this pessimism. Some of them stayed in the Addis Hilton, paying a more expensive rate for a room that did not overlook the neighbouring refugee squatter camp. They were sure that the only hope lay in that old chestnut, 'private enterprise'. As I sat listening to people like this a line from a song by Canadian folk singer Buffy St Marie - 'making the same old mistakes in brand new ways' - kept running through my mind.

The Horn should be fertile ground for the free-market gospel. Everyone is certainly tired of state socialist rhetoric and the 'might makes right' approach to politics that went with it. There is no doubt that the initiative of individuals and communities has been stifled by the state. The use of bureaucratic marketing boards - at least in socialist Somalia and Ethiopia - siphoned off any meagre surplus from small peasants and pastoralists to support hopelessly grand schemes for state farms and industry.

Free-market madness

Refugees outside their camp in Hargeisa, Somaliland.

But the idea that foreign investors will flock to the Horn is just plain silly. Don't you think they will find it a touch... hmm... high risk? Even the local business class makes most of its money in the import/export trade which creates little employment and channels much wealth abroad. So the market will be no magic bullet for the Horn. And in fact production for the world market can be held accountable for many of the region's present problems. Capital-intensive export agriculture helped plunge the region into debt and soaked up resources - land and capital - needed for food production. In a way starvation itself has its roots in market logic. Food is a commodity. And those who can't pay for it - wandering refugees who have already sold their last livestock or farmers without even devalued Sudanese pounds or Ethiopian birr - will have to do without.

The new governments in Ethiopia and Eritrea created after the overthrow of the Mengistu junta are far from being mad devotees of free-market doctrine. Both have their roots in a flexible socialism - one that looks to what works rather than ideology. And some things have worked in Ethiopia in the past. Befekadu Degefe, who teaches economics at Addis University, points out that his country's inflation rate has always been remarkably low by African standards. Also that there were real success stories in public-sector investment before Mengistu came to power: Ethiopian Airlines or the Credit and Commercial Bank, for example.

Degefe, who was imprisoned by the Mengistu regime but is also uncomfortable with the present government, recommends tariff walls to protect the development of labour-intensive small-scale industry. He is suspicious of any modernization that creates few jobs or other spin-offs. He claims that 'for us even the assembly line is inappropriate technology'. He also recommends a free market in land, though this is unlikely to happen due to government fears that desperate farmers will sell off their land cheap and crowd into the cities. But a much freer market in goods is already apparent. And the ingenuity with which everyone seems to find something to sell, from cows to that old standby cactus fruit, is truly impressive.

Salving the Western conscience
But at the government level there is a manifest lack of blind faith in free trade and in privatizing everything that moves which certainly contributes to official Western pessimism about the Horn. And a more general decline of Western interest can be traced to the region's loss of strategic importance in the post-Cold War world. As J Bower Bell, one of those strange American creatures called a 'strategic analyst', put it back in the early 1970s: 'The basic strategic importance of the Horn is not the presence of copper deposits, the fate of democracy or the future of the Ethiopian monarchy; it is simple geography'. During the grand old days of geopolitical struggle the US and the USSR (among others) were happy to pump arms into the region and prop up its unpopular dictators. They bear a heavy responsibility for the current mess of killing and starvation. Today they just shrug their shoulders and walk away, maybe giving a little humanitarian aid on the way out the door to salve their consciences.

The exception here is Sudan, which the West still regards as having great economic potential. It thinks of the untapped oil deposits and minerals and remembers the early 1980s when capital from the Gulf poured in to try and make the country 'the breadbasket of the Middle East'. But the dusty streets of Khartoum are now in the hands of the anti-Western National Islamic Front and their military ally General Omar al-Bashir. This regime is continuing a ruthless and expensive war to Islamicize the African south and gain control of southern resources - oil, water and fertile land. While the West does not have a big stake in Bashir's Sudan, the International Monetary Fund had a large role in the previous two decades. Their formula for a mechanized export-oriented agriculture helped move Sudan from food surplus to food deficit and left it staggering under a huge national debt.

But bad advice and lots of guns from the outside world are not all the countries of the Horn - Somalia, Ethiopia, Sudan, tiny Djibouti and now Eritrea - have in common. They share an arid topography of highlands and desert - interspersed with more fertile areas particularly in the south of the region and in the Nile river valley. In many ways this is one of the world's crossroads - between the Arab world and Africa, between desert and jungle, between Islam and the diversity of beliefs south of the Sahara. The majority of people who live here are dependent for their survival on subsistence agriculture or tending livestock. This makes them poor but not destitute: they have a resilient culture that has allowed them their share of joys and sorrows for generations, even enabling them to cope with the occasional drought.

But their contact with modernity has tended to shatter these traditional sources of security. Tractors have pushed them from their land. Fences have blocked their cattle routes. Marketing boards have told them what to grow and then paid them too little for it. They have been driven out of their villages to become refugees or 'resettled' in distant parts 'for their own good'.

The Horn has been ill served by the grand designs of those with power, whether they come from the West's development industry or from capital cities like Mogadishu and Khartoum. Like many parts of the Third World, this is a region rich in variety. All these diverse peoples, cultural traditions and political aspirations cannot easily be moulded into an obedient sameness to comply with the demands of scientific socialism, the Koran or even World Bank notions of 'integrated development'. The idea that they can is a tragic conceit of those with power, one that continues to cost lives by turning subsistence into destitution.

Ploughing for survival starts early in Tigray. Even the most arid land must be harnessed to feed the future.

Grand ambitions
The dictatorships of Siad Barre in Somalia and Mengistu Haile Mariam in Ethiopia imposed their sweeping schemes for collective farms and state-sponsored industrial development while seeking at the same time to fulfil grand nationalist ambitions. In Ethiopia the entire Mengistu period was marked by a series of wars aimed at preventing the disparate ethnic groups that make up this multinational state (some would say empire) from asserting their sovereignty. Ethiopia has traditionally been highly centralized, with the Amharic people calling the shots from Addis Ababa, but under Mengistu this was compounded by the belief that an autocratic state was needed to drag Ethiopia into a socialist future.

In the country next door it is questionable whether Siad Barre believed his own socialist rhetoric. But even if he did his territorial ambitions for a 'greater Somaliland', to be achieved by annexing the Somali-populated parts of neighbouring countries, doomed his socialism to be drowned in the blood of a brutal desert war in the Ogaden.

Even without these costly military adventures, the centralized nation-state appears to be an inappropriate political form for the Horn of Africa. So it is not surprising that it is falling apart. Somalia, ethnically more homogeneous than any other African country, has already split in two with no sign of a consensus over who should control the national government or even if there should be one. In April 1993 Eritrea will vote in a referendum that will undoubtedly produce a landslide majority for independence from Ethiopia. The new government in Addis, a coalition of the ethnic-based liberation movements that overthrew Mengistu, is promising a radically decentralized political system. If this satisfies groups like the Oromos in the south then Ethiopia may well become Africa's second federal state after Nigeria; if it doesn't the country may break up entirely.

If Sudan is not to face further decades of war between north and south a new political arrangement will also be necessary there. It could evolve into a loose federation with regionally based power centres giving Sudan's major ethnic groups more say over their own fate. Or the country could simply split into two - an Arab north and an African south.

The determination of the regime in Khartoum to impose Islamic law on the whole of Sudan exemplifies what is wrong with political leadership in the Horn. The costs of trying to squeeze a myriad different approaches to life into a centralized strait-jacket are easy enough to see. Millions of dollars worth of wrecked and rusted metal - tanks, shells, armoured cars - litter the regional landscape from Afabet in northern Eritrea to the streets of Mogadishu and the bush of southern Sudan.

As I stood upon a tank turret in Afabet surveying the devastated scene of the Ethiopian Army's greatest rout I couldn't help but wonder what this country would have been like if all those resources wasted on arms had been ploughed into health care, safe water and sustainable agriculture. What the region needs most is peace. And it cannot have it without democratic political reform: arrangements that give the complex diversity of the Horn's peoples their own political voice.

The crisis of the nation-state is not restricted to the Horn. From Canada to the former USSR and the European Community, who holds power and over what is the burning political issue. But it is not enough to have large nation-states fragment into smaller ones with all the same autocratic habits. Political power must be diffused to villages and workplaces, to peasants' associations and nomad encampments. The collective rights of regions and ethnic groups need protection; so too do the democratic rights of the individual.

Innovation and democracy
There are some signs of hope on this front - at least in Eritrea and northern Ethiopia. Village assemblies in Eritrea and the innovative baito system of local self-government in rural Tigray are embryonic forms of popular control from below. There is a strong democratic ethos in the largely Christian highlands of northern Ethiopia as well as in the sophisticated political culture of urban Sudan. And the political atmosphere in Addis, despite tensions between the Government and the Oromos, is freer than most can remember. When I was there the quasi-official Ethiopian Herald even ran an article calling for the formation of a Green Party to address the country's severe ecological crisis. This is the raw material from which a new, less coercive relationship between state and society might be built.

But local political control will have to be buttressed by local economic clout. This must also be built from the bottom up for it will not come as a gift from some transnational corporation or the World Bank. The slow and careful work of some Northern charities and their local partners - rehabilitating the agricultural economy and repairing a degraded ecosystem - is a good start. People will take initiatives spontaneously if the knowledge and tools are at hand - and if peace and security are ensured.

There can be no return to some precolonial state of pastoral harmony with nature. In places the land is badly degraded. Some areas may be overpopulated. Certainly a subsistence-based way of life will no longer support as many as it did and certain parts of the Horn are likely to face food deficits for the foreseeable future. The people of the Horn need to take what is best and most appropriate from modern technology and adapt it to meet their own needs. What they do not need is some outside master plan that will transform their lives without their permission and against their will.

Most victims of famine and drought survive. In the Horn of Africa hunger has affected millions but most struggle on. Starvation is a good deal more subtle than headlines and TV images imply. It is not a single event but a process, a gradually increasing vulnerability that combines physical effects with more intangible psychological impacts - the collapse of age-old beliefs, indignity, and ultimately apathy. Despite that, most people keep their hopes up and some are surprisingly cheerful. There is no shortage of bravery, not just in the liberation struggles against despotism but in the quiet heroism of daily survival. But it was Bertolt Brecht who once made the insightful observation: 'Pity the poor land which needs heroes'. The Horn of Africa has needed more than its fair share.

previous page choose a different magazine go to the contents page go to the NI home page next page

Subscribe   Ethical Shop