The Horn of Africa as Common Homeland: The State and Self-Determination in the Era of Heightened Globalization

By Abbink, Jon | African Studies Review, December 2005 | Go to article overview

The Horn of Africa as Common Homeland: The State and Self-Determination in the Era of Heightened Globalization


Abbink, Jon, African Studies Review


Leenco Lata. The Horn of Africa as Common Homeland: The State and Self-Determination in the Era of Heightened Globalization. Waterloo, Onterio: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2004. xi + 219 pp. Maps. References. Index. $24.95. Paper.

The author of this book stated in an interview (http://info.wlu.ca/~wwwpress/Catalog/ Interviews/lata.html) that this is "the work of a political activist motivated more by the search for answers to practical questions than scholarly theorization." The book indeed bears the mark of a strongly committed political commentator with specific views on the issues of nationalism, ethnic identity, and self-determination in the Horn of Africa in a global perspective. But it also contains a well-informed and very interesting, sometimes provocative, analysis of the Horn and its historical background, based mainly on secondary literature and personal experience. A central place in the account is accorded to the old concept of self-determination, seen here in primarily ethnic/national terms and not in those of popular sovereignty and democracy, as it originally emerged before and during the era of the French Revolution. Leenco Lata is a former member of the Ethiopian Transitional Government (1991-92) and of the Oromo Liberation Front, an armed movement fighting the Ethiopian state, and now resides in Canada as an independent consultant and scholar.

The literature on the political history and contemporary politics of the Horn of Africa is already voluminous, but I found Lata's book an original and engaged contribution to the debate with new thoughts on politics and conflict in the region, to which a brief review cannot do justice. It contains a historically based examination of the nature of state failure and oppression in the tormented region of the Horn, of the interdependence of intraand interstate problems, as well as of the potential of state (re)formation. Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti, and Somalia all have a record of highly problematic and violent politics and show a serious lack of legitimacy and national integration-despite the large differences among them. Ethiopia, for example, has a very long central state tradition and a history of partly conflicting, partly shared power arenas, in contrast to Somalia, with an inbuilt, essentially antistate, centrifugal clan-based politics.

Part 1, "Self-Determination in History," ranges over self-determination as popular sovereignty, a concept that emerged in feudal France in the early eighteenth century; decolonization in Africa characterized as "aberrant self-determination"; post-Cold War trends in the nature of the state; and recent trends in self-determination. Part 2, entitled "Resonance of Conflicts in the Horn of Africa," focuses on the five countries of the Horn, with the emphasis on Somalia, Sudan, and Ethiopia. The author sees self-determination as the quest for the (political) correspondence between "state, nation, territory, people and sovereignty" (4, 16, 27, 85, passim), a precarious and perhaps impossible thing even in the best of circumstances. The most problematic units are of course "nation" and "people," because they cannot be clearly defined or delineated in any exclusivist sense. Also, ideas of "sovereignty" must be decentered. The country histories in chapters 5 and 6 are often controversial and revisionist and are written from a perspective primarily shaped by contemporary concerns. I was also struck by the fact that in chapter 7 on Ethiopia, the successive Ethiopian governments up to the present are blamed for every conceivable wrong in the country's recent history and not seen as having any merit whatsoever-perhaps an unfair and unhistorical analysis. …

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