Somalia: Economy without State

By Press, Robert | African Studies Review, December 2004 | Go to article overview

Somalia: Economy without State


Press, Robert, African Studies Review


Peter D. Little. Somalia: Economy without State. Oxford: James Currey/Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003. xviii + 206 pp. Photographs. Bibliography. Index. $54.95. Cloth. $22.95. Paper.

In an article originally published in 1919, Max Weber assured us that a "state" is "a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory" ("Politics as a Vocation," repr. in H. H. Gerth and C. W. Mills, eds. Max Weber, 1947). Of course, that left lots of room for debate on how this applied to the real world. And Africa scholars such as Jeffrey Herbst have argued that this European template for "state" doesn't always work well in Africa, where states often lack a strong presence near their borders (States and Power in Africa: Comparative Lessons in Authority and Control, 2000). The anthropologist Peter Little raises an even larger question about states in Africa: In the case of predatory states that prey on the people instead of helping them, would the people be better off without a state? There are only a few places to test this in Africa, and Little has chosen one of the most intriguing examples of recent years, Somalia. In 1991 the central government collapsed as a civil war turned into wars between victorious factions. Since then there have been numerous accounts of how people have adapted to life in the cities and a few (e.g., by Ken Menkhaus) of rural adaptation as well.

Little has chosen to focus on rural life, and a narrow but key economic slice of it: the Somali livestock trade. He compares the trade before the state collapse (his 1986-88 research in southern Somalia) and after (his 1996 and 1998 summer research along the Kenya-Somali border). Although his base in the Kenya border town of Garissa for his poststate research allowed him to avoid the uncertainties and dangers of working inside Somalia, as some scholars have faced, the town had its own insecurities and was far from a luxury outpost, with a massive outdoor livestock market distinguished by "swarming flies and clouds of dust" (92). …

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