The Real Politics of the Horn of Africa - Alex de Waal - E-Book

The Real Politics of the Horn of Africa E-Book

Alex de Waal

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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 of war 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 statebuildingÑand it is fuelled in large part 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.

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Table of Contents


Title page

Copyright page

Figures and Maps




Preface and Acknowledgements

1: Introduction

The View from the Edge

A Vignette: The Darfur Negotiations

Vernacular Politics in Sudan

From Political Vernacular to Political Theory

Outline of the Book


2: The Political Marketplace

‘No Condition is Permanent’

The Political Marketplace and Real Politics

Political Entrepreneurs and Business Managers

Specifying the Variables of ‘Real Politics’

State-Building versus Political-Business Management

A Story of Men


3: The Horn of Africa

Visualizing the Horn of Africa

A Laboratory of Conflicts

The Contested Political Geography of the Horn

When Things Fell Apart

Africa's Subcontinental War

The New Rentierism and the African Security Architecture


4: Darfur

A Near-Perfect Political Marketplace

Closed Districts and the Thirty Years' War

The Auction of Loyalties

Regulating the Market?

The Functions and Limits of Violence

Implications: the Interwar


5: Sudan

The Unexpected Survivor

The Financial Skeleton of Sudanese Politics

Nimeiri's Chameleon Dictatorship 1969–85

Sadiq al Mahdi's Impossible Balancing Act

The 1990s: Survival Against the Odds

The Oil Boom and Rentier Peace

Post-Separation Sudan



6: South Sudan

The Price of Independence

Garang's Challenges

Salva's Business Plan

The Skeleton of the South Sudanese State

New War, Old Peace

An Alternative Ethic?


7: Somalia

Mogadishu 1992

The Somali Nation and State

Siyad Barre's Security Rentier Kleptocracy

Commerce without a State

Political Rentierism without a State

The Communications Revolution

Islamist Challenges

Globalized Somalia

Piracy and Counter-Piracy



8: Somaliland

Somaliland Exceptionalism

Convening Somaliland

Political Finance

How Was Somaliland Secured?



9: Eritrea

Fascism and Maoism

Militarized Developmental State- and Nation-Building

Funding a Garrison State, 2001–2011

The Seeds of a Rentier Political Marketplace



10: Ethiopia

The Ethiopian Configuration

Meles Zenawi in Government: Theory and Practice

Is State Building (Still) Possible?


11: Transnational Patronage and Dollarization

The ‘Non-Integrated Gap’

The Commodities Boom

Illicit Finance

Aid Rents and Global Governance

Counter-Terrorism Rent

Criminal and Law-Enforcement Rents

The ‘New Peacekeeping’

Peacemaking in the Political Marketplace

Globalizing Patronage


12: Towards a More Perfect Marketplace?

Political Circuitry and the Public Sphere

The Imperial Model: Hub and Spokes

The Politics of Intellectual Life

Transnational Intellectual Careers

Convening and Communication Transformed

Challenges to the Political Marketplace

Towards a More Perfect Political Marketplace

Concluding Thoughts




End User License Agreement

List of Illustrations

Figure 2.1    Michael Porter's ‘five forces’ of business

Figure 2.2    The ‘five forces’ of political business

Figure 2.3    The ‘stationary bandit’

Figure 2.4    The militarized rentier political marketplace

Map 3.1    The Horn of Africa, 1980

Map 3.2    The Horn of Africa, 2011

Map 5.1    Sudan and South Sudan

Figure 5.1    Sudanese government finances and peace agreements, 1965–84


:  World Bank datasets, showing general government final consumption expenditure, net official development assistance and net flows on total debt stock in current US dollars (millions). Note that the famine-relief programme mounted by USAID and the World Food Programme in 1984–5 has been excluded.

Figure 5.2    Sudanese government finances and peace agreements, 1997–2012


:  IMF data, in millions of Sudanese pounds.

Figure 6.1    South Sudan's military payroll


:  Small Arms Survey and SPLA estimates.

Figure 6.2    South Sudan's expenditures driven by revenues, not approved budget


:  World Bank 2013: 4. Amounts in billions of Sudanese/South Sudanese pounds.

Figure 6.3    South Sudan's oil production


  1999–2012: Republic of South Sudan, Ministry of Finance and Economic Development, April 2013; 2012–13: estimates from press reports. Amounts in thousand barrels per day.

Figure 9.1    Ethiopian and Eritrean military expenditure (millions of dollar)


:  SIPRI. Amounts in US dollars.

Figure 9.2    Ethiopian and Eritrean military expenditure (% of GDP)





Table of Contents

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In Memoriam: Meles Zenawi 1955–2012

and for Hiroe, Hannah and Adan

Copyright page

Copyright © Alex de Waal 2015

The right of Alex de Waal to be identified as Author of this Work has been asserted in accordance with the UK Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

First published in 2015 by Polity Press

Polity Press

65 Bridge Street

Cambridge CB2 1UR, UK

Polity Press

350 Main Street

Malden, MA 02148, USA

All rights reserved. Except for the quotation of short passages for the purpose of criticism and review, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publisher.

ISBN-13: 978-0-7456-9557-0

ISBN-13: 978-0-7456-9558-7(pb)

A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

De Waal, Alex.

    The real politics of the Horn of Africa : money, war and the business of power / Alex de Waal.

        pages cm

    ISBN 978-0-7456-9557-0 (hardback) – ISBN 978-0-7456-9558-7 (pbk.)    1.  Political culture–Horn of Africa.    2.  Political violence–Horn of Africa.    3.  Political corruption–Horn of Africa.    4.  Horn of Africa–Politics and government.    I.  Title.

    DT367.8.D4 2015



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Printed and bound in Great Britain by Clays, Ltd, St Ives PLC

The publisher has used its best endeavours to ensure that the URLs for external websites referred to in this book are correct and active at the time of going to press. However, the publisher has no responsibility for the websites and can make no guarantee that a site will remain live or that the content is or will remain appropriate.

Every effort has been made to trace all copyright holders, but if any have been inadvertently overlooked the publisher will be pleased to include any necessary credits in any subsequent reprint or edition.

For further information on Polity, visit our website:

Figures and Maps


2.1    Michael Porter's ‘five forces’ of business

2.2    The ‘five forces’ of political business

2.3    The ‘stationary bandit’

2.4    The militarized rentier political marketplace

5.1    Sudanese government finances and peace agreements, 1965–84

5.2    Sudanese government finances and peace agreements, 1997–2012

6.1    South Sudan's military payroll

6.2    South Sudan's expenditures driven by revenues, not approved budget

6.3    South Sudan's oil production

9.1    Ethiopian and Eritrean military expenditure (dollar amounts)

9.2    Ethiopian and Eritrean military expenditure (% of GDP)


3.1    The Horn of Africa, 1980

3.2    The Horn of Africa, 2011

5.1    Sudan and South Sudan



African Union


African Union High-Level Implementation Panel for Sudan


African Union Mission in Somalia


Central African Republic


Chief executive officer


Comprehensive Peace Agreement


Civil society organization


UN Department of Peace-Keeping Operations


Democratic Republic of Congo


Economic Community of West African States


Eritrean Liberation Front


Eritrean People's Liberation Front


Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front


Faisal Islamic Bank of Sudan


Government of Southern Sudan


International Criminal Court


Inter-Governmental Authority on Development


International Monetary Fund


Justice and Equality Movement


Liberation and Justice Movement


Lord's Resistance Army


National Congress Party


Non-governmental organization


National Intelligence and Security Service


Organisation of African Unity


Popular Defence Force (Government of Sudan)


Protection and Deterrent Force (IGAD/UNMISS)


Popular Front for Democracy and Justice


Peace and Security Council


Rwandese Patriotic Front


Somali Federal Government


Sudan Liberation Army


Somali National Movement


Sudan People's Liberation Army


Sudan People's Liberation Movement


Sudan Revolutionary Forces


Transitional Federal Government


Transitional National Government


Tigrayan People's Liberation Front


United Nations


United Nations-African Union hybrid operation in Darfur


United Nations Mission in Sudan


United Nations Mission in South Sudan


Union of Islamic Courts


US Agency for International Development


United Somali Congress

Preface and Acknowledgements

This book is an outcome of thirty years' research and political engagement with the countries of the Horn of Africa. At its heart is an ethnography of contemporary politics, drawing on both the actions and analyses of its subjects – members of the political and security elite – and my own observations and analyses. My hope is that, in understanding this politics better, there is a chance to change it.

I had originally planned to write a more conventional political science analysis, both of the Horn and of the core concepts of the ‘political marketplace’. Early drafts of this book spent much space and effort clarifying where I agreed with, and where I diverged from, leading scholarly accounts of the countries of the Horn, and the literature on conflict and state formation. At the risk of offending the many writers who have toiled away at this particular coalface, and who might justifiably expect to be credited here, I decided instead to invoke the ethnographer's privilege of theorizing from observation. The book opens up more pathways than it can travel, and raises more questions than it can answer. It is a reflection and an exploration intended to provoke debates and open new avenues for research, including my own.

To enumerate the personal and intellectual debts of the last three decades would require a long chapter in itself. However, let me single out some of those without whom this book would not have been possible.

Meles Zenawi, the ablest political intellectual of his generation, played a major role in provoking my thinking and writing: this book is in part a response to a challenge he laid before me. Among his comrades in arms, I have particular debts to Mulugeta Gebrehiwot and Tsadkan Gebretensae. For more than twenty-five years, Abdul Mohammed has been an unstinting force of creativity and optimism for the entire region. Among Sudanese and South Sudanese, my greatest debts are to Yoanes Ajawin and Abdel Salam H. Abdelsalam, who showed how it is possible to retain integrity amid the fierce turbulence that is Sudan. Other Sudanese and South Sudanese who have shaped my thinking include Yousif Kuwa Mekki, Suleiman Rahhal, Abdalla Hamdok, Suleiman Baldo, Francis Deng, Abdel Wahab al Effendi, Gamal al Tom, el Taj el Banan Tajelassfia, Hafiz Mohamed and Godfrey Bulla. My main guides for Eritrea have been Paulos Tesfagiorgis and Dawit Mesfin. For Somalia they have included Rakiya Omaar, Hussein Mursal and Abdi Baafo. Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem was an irreplaceable fount of political commitment, energy and frankness. I have also learned a huge amount from the African leaders with whom I have had the privilege of working: Thabo Mbeki, Pierre Buyoya, Abdelsalam Abubakar and Salim Ahmed Salim. Others involved in peacemaking, less prominent but no less wise or capable, include Elghassim Wane, Boitshoko Mokgatlhe, Pauline Olunga, Barney Afako, Dawit Toga, Itonde Kakoma and Vladimir Zhagora. Jennifer Klot has been a model of intellectual activism. Julie Flint has been invaluable to my engagement with the Nuba Mountains and Darfur. Neha Erasmus has been a voice of humanity for South Sudan.

Others without whom this work would not have been possible include my colleagues Kahssay Gebreyesus, Wendy Foulds and especially Lisa Avery. Nimco Mahamud Hassan has a special place.

Among my many academic mentors and collaborators, I must begin with Wendy James and Ahmed Karadawi, who were instrumental in setting me off on this intellectual journey. Among scholars of the Horn, I have learned much from Rogaia Abu Sharaf, Mark Bradbury, Richard Brown, Mark Duffield, Lidwien Kapteijns, David Keen, Andrew Mawson, Michael Medley, Alula Pankhurst, John Ryle and Eddie Thomas. A number of recent colleagues were particularly important in helping me shape the concept and arguments, including Jacek Kugler, Peter Uvin, Noel Twagiramungu, Isaac Williams, Laura James, Sarah Nouwen, Dave Mozersky, Bridget Conley-Zilkic, Tim Allen, Mary Kaldor, Tatiana Carayannis, Koen Vlassenroot, Marielle Debos, Sarah Chayes and Claire Smith. Rachel Ibreck has contributed especially thoughtful comments and ideas.

1IntroductionObserving the Business of Power

The View from the Edge

The small town of Kurmuk lies under a rocky hill, a stray outcrop from the Ethiopian escarpment that is just across a small riverbed, inside Sudan; 25 miles to the west is the boundary with South Sudan. Development has bypassed this town: it has no two-storey buildings, no metalled roads. Kurmuk is on the edge – or on several edges. But it is also the cockpit of the Horn of Africa, where armies from those three countries – and also Eritrea – have been sent to fight battles that have determined the fate of the entire region. The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, just 50 miles to the north on the Blue Nile, is also a pivot for the future of the Horn and the Nile Valley, including Egypt. Just as the escarpment dramatically separates Sudanese plains from the Ethiopian mountains, so too the ethnic, religious and political lines are drawn sharply through this land. Here we find Muslims, Christians and followers of diverse traditional religions; people who identify as ‘Arab’, and others who assume a range of other labels including ‘African’. Sudan's Blue Nile State was, in the 1990s, the place where Islamist cadres pioneered a total Islamic society and, after the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), where proponents of a democratic ‘New Sudan’ tried to build a model of equitable development.

Near Kurmuk is the customary land of a small community known as Uduk. They were caught on the shifting front lines of several wars and compelled to adapt as best they could. The Uduk are invisible in the high politics of the Horn of Africa, but their long-time ethnographer, Wendy James, has given them a voice. She reflects on a ‘kind of tolerance towards persons’ that applies not only to Uduk individuals who made their choice to join one army or another, or seek protection by marrying across religious lines, but also to the soldiers and administrators posted to their area:

I have rarely heard, at the local level, of individuals in the front-line zones being blamed for supporting one side or the other … individuals on whatever side were praised for personal decency or blamed for personal cruelty, but not for being caught up in one or another armed organization.1

From the most powerless people we have a simple, human insight into the nature of politics. Similar observation and judgements are made by local commanders, administrators and chiefs, or by their superiors in Khartoum or the headquarters of the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA). The view from the wrong end of the telescope is unexpectedly clear: people see real politics – pithily defined by Lenin as ‘who, whom’.2

Throughout this book the focus of this telescope is turned to the men who conduct real politics in the Horn of Africa. It is a contemporary historical ethnography of these men: their power, their relationships with one another, and their norms and ethics. The dominant, and growing, system that orders their behaviour is what I call the ‘political marketplace’. For the region's political entrepreneurs and business managers, this is not a metaphor. They actually exchange services and rewards, loyalty and money, for prices that are set by the elementary principles of supply and demand, and also influenced by whoever is able to regulate the market. Men who belong in different political camps, or who organize lethal violence against each other's followers, do not hate each other, any more than business rivals may dislike or feud with one another. People with no power simply do not feature in their calculus. These men may have political motives and goals – protecting communities, pursuing beliefs about a better society, or building states – but their political fortunes depend on how well they operate in the political marketplace.3

These politicians share one norm with the Uduk villagers, which is the value they attach to personal character. Ordinary, powerless people value personal integrity and human decency: when they imagine a better society, they think of ‘better people’ in positions of authority.4 But for political bosses and security chiefs, decency or cruelty are less important than skill and reliability in political business. Members of this elite work on the assumption that human allegiance is tradable: individuals will serve others for reward. They are not always right, but they are correct for enough people enough of the time, that a system based on exchanging loyalty for money works. As we move from lower to higher levels of political business, the ethical codes change: political-business managers are more remote from ordinary people, and less amenable to sentiments such as community and humanity. In fact, the more that a political entrepreneur can discard humane norms and instead adopt a market-based calculus, the more likely he is to rise to the top and stay there. We will also see that, over the last decades, this auction of loyalties has been liberalized, dollarized and internationalized. This is the change I try to describe and explain in this book.

Political entrepreneurs operate in the political marketplace using money and violence. A politician needs money that he can use at his discretion without having to report or account for it – a ‘political budget’. Every politician, in any system of government, needs such a political budget: in marketplace systems, getting this money and spending it is the very essence of political business. It is a complicated business, as this book will show. Most of this fund will be spent on buying (or renting) other politicians, especially those with armed followers. The public budget is the sideshow. Political-business violence is also complicated: the politician needs to own or hire its machinery and utilize it in a politically effective manner. Guns are themselves a currency.5 Their political calibre is the power they can dispose through extortion, killing or destruction, which are demonstrations of their owner's power and determination. For the politician, the ideal is to have an armed unit whose members are personally loyal (for example, family members), but to operate at scale he will need to hire practitioners of violence. A recurrent trait among political-military business practitioners is that they overestimate their skill in using violence and make costly mistakes.

The marketplace has buyers and sellers, trading loyalty for resources. Each buyer is also a seller: a political entrepreneur or business manager will aggregate the loyalties he has bought or rented, and sell the package to a higher-level trader. In doing so, he tries not just to bundle them together but to add value. The market operates in essentially the same way from local to international levels. The political-territorial domain of each political merchant expands or contracts depending on market conditions and his business model and skill. Violence is intrinsic to the market: it is a means of bargaining and signalling value within the marketplace.

The Horn of Africa is an excellent place to investigate political markets. Political bargaining and political entrepreneurship can be seen naked, stripped of the flattering wardrobe of democracy, rule of law and state-building. Political budgets and the price of loyalty can be measured. The Horn is sufficiently diverse that it serves as a laboratory for different political-business strategies, some carried out under extreme austerity and others with relative opulence, some with intense and unregulated competition, others with attempts at tight control. It also is the location of serious efforts to challenge or reverse the marketplace, notably in Ethiopia. The Horn of Africa is important in its own right, but also, I suggest, its advanced political markets reveal emerging patterns of monetized politics elsewhere in the world.

I find this political system fascinating and repugnant. It is intellectually fascinating because it challenges important orthodoxies of political science, development and related disciplines. It is repugnant because it is fundamentally inhumane, reducing human beings to mere instruments and commodities, mutating public goods into private ones, and co-opting good intentions to achieve malign outcomes. We see politicians manipulating commendable policy goals such as state-building and peacekeeping as mechanisms to accumulate power and money, while perpetuating those same miseries that gave rise to those policies in the first place. But in accordance with the Gramscian precept of pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will, it is essential first to understand and diagnose the pathology before starting treatment. Similarly, my challenge to theories of state-building is empirical, not normative. States, especially democratic ones, are a better way of meeting human needs. But in the contest between the most determined state-builders and the logic of the political marketplace, the state-builders are not winning.

A Vignette: The Darfur Negotiations

Shortly before dawn on the final day of the Darfur peace negotiations in Abuja, Nigeria, on 6 May 2006, I travelled from the venue of the talks within the grounds of State House to the Chida Hotel where the delegations were staying, sitting in the back of a car with the leader of the Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM), Abdel Wahid al Nur. Also dispersing after an all-night session were the assembled mediators: Salim Ahmed Salim, former Secretary General of the Organisation of African Unity who was leading the mediation team, the Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, who was hosting, and the US Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick, who had arrived to help seal the deal. Squeezed into the back seat of the car, speaking in English, Abdel Wahid told me all the reasons of principle why he would not sign the deal on the table. The deal was, he said, deeply unfair. Shortly after arriving in his hotel room, he took a call on his mobile. ‘They offered me $30 million!’ he said to his interlocutor (whom he didn't identify) in Arabic. ‘I demanded $100 million. But I will negotiate.’ He was referring to the first instalment for the fund for compensating the victims of the war, which, it was understood, he personally would allocate.

Later in the day, back at the hall, one of the more memorable moments of the negotiations occurred. Abdel Wahid had been consulting with his delegation at the hotel. The majority was in favour of signing the document – the Darfur Peace Agreement – on the table, but Abdel Wahid was holding out for a better deal, and especially one that gave him more than his rival, Minni Arkoy Minawi. He imagined that the Americans were bidding in the auction for his loyalty: his chief advisor, a Canadian citizen of Sudanese origin named Ahmed Mohamadein, had flown to Canada the week before, promising to go to Washington, DC, and get a better deal than that offered by Zoellick. After talking to his friends in the Darfur advocacy movement, Mohamadein phoned Abdel Wahid and advised him not to sign anything before he returned to Abuja. His call was intercepted by a CIA officer attached to the US delegation, who shared this information with the mediators, and later that week Mohamadein also bragged to me about his role. But at that moment – just after midday – all I could see was Abdel Wahid's defiant body language as he stepped out of his car and walked towards the hall, with his team following.

Not wanting Abdel Wahid to speak to the cluster of journalists on the steps of the hall, I went to intercept him halfway along the side of the building. Taking him by the hand, I said, ‘I need to speak to you,’ and pulled him through a side door. By sheer chance, Obasanjo was behind the door. The Nigerian President turned and confronted Abdel Wahid, jumping into the pose of a boxer with his fist in the Darfurian rebel's face. ‘You let me down, boy!’ he shouted, taking him by the collar and dragging him into a nearby room. Obasanjo had paid at least $1 million personally to Abdel Wahid a couple of days earlier. I discovered afterwards that Abdel Wahid had asked the Americans for hard cash as well, and had been rebuffed.

An hour later, with Abdel Wahid intransigent in the face of promises and threats from both the chief mediators, Zoellick asked me whether there was something psychologically wrong with the man. Abdel Wahid was vain and was vacillating, but he understood one of the fundamentals of Sudanese politics: if he joined the political establishment without enough money in his own pocket, whatever document he had signed would be worthless. If he could not reward his followers, his value would go down. However much the Americans promised development aid for the people of Darfur, this did not solve his political need. In fact, large-scale aid might even make Abdel Wahid's predicament more difficult, as others would become brokers for these funds and could threaten his position. As the day progressed, Abdel Wahid looked like an alcoholic desperate for a drink, offered everything but the one thing he craved, but could not admit he needed.

Over the previous five months, the peace talks themselves had been arranged according to a standard format. Tables in the main conference room downstairs in the Chida Hotel were arranged round a rectangle. The mediators sat across one, shorter side, with the government delegation on their right and the rebels on their left, facing one another. Representatives from the international community sat on the fourth side. The proceedings were formal, consisting of moderated exchanges of views on documents drafted by each side and by the mediators. Often the Sudanese negotiators made lengthy statements, usually for the benefit of an imagined public gallery, and sometimes they exchanged insults. There was a lot of posturing but little real negotiation – which was why the mediators were compelled, under the pressure of deadlines imposed by the UN Security Council, to prepare and present the proposals themselves.

Meanwhile, upstairs in the claustrophobic rooms of the Chida Hotel, political business was conducted differently. The discussions were of course all in Arabic, and while much effort was expended trying to generate an atmosphere of secrecy, almost all of what went on among the rebels was known to the government delegation.

The government's chief negotiator, Dr Majzoub al Khalifa, was a hard bargainer. He had been a trade unionist, the chief negotiator for the doctors' union, and it showed. He had a file on every individual in the hotel, and not only the rebels. He was as distrustful of his colleagues as he was of his adversaries, and was also keenly interested in the members of the mediation team and observers.

The Darfur rebels joked that Majzoub was a ‘jellaba politician’, with reference to the class of traders known as jellaba, originating from the Ja'aliyiin and Shaygiyya tribes of the Nile north of Khartoum, who had spread out throughout the Sudanese provinces (and beyond) with small shops and lorries. Selling soap, matches and other basic consumer goods at slender profit margins, far from home, the jellaba nevertheless managed to accumulate capital that they invariably remitted back to the riverine regions.6 In English, the best term for Majzoub might be ‘retail politician’, with reference to the way in which he bargained over the price of each individual on a case-by-case basis. He employed junior officials as thrift-store bargain hunters, who scoured the ranks of the junior rebel commanders looking for the abandoned and underpriced. Two terms they used were al sanduq al siasi (‘political budget’) and al suq al siasi (‘political market’).

Abdel Wahid did not sign that day. But he continued to negotiate for a week after the formal ending of the talks. Majzoub returned to Khartoum while Abdel Wahid stayed in Abuja, though he moved with his delegation to an even more dingy hotel where cockroaches scuttled across cigarette-burned carpets. They communicated by phone and by documents passed through the last remaining member of the mediation team in Abuja (me). Both men hoped that they would be able to agree an addendum to the agreement, one that raised the price payable marginally but sufficient for Abdel Wahid to join. The SLM leader did not see a future fighting in the mountains of Darfur. But neither of them foresaw the echo chamber of Darfurian public opinion, facilitated by mobile phones and the internet (perhaps a harbinger of the potential of social media in just a few years' time). The government's announcement of the peace deal, spun to appeal to its core constituency, was heard by leaders of the internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Darfur, who were bewildered and angered. That version was echoed and amplified by the agitation of diaspora rebels, prompting the AU mediation team to issue a public letter explaining the content of the peace deal – too late.7 This resulted in demonstrations in the IDP camps against the African Union, and vociferous critiques of the agreement by western activists. Abdel Wahid seized the opportunity, repositioning himself as the principled opponent of making any deal with Khartoum. He became, over the following years, the exemplary ‘hotel guerilla’, moving from Nairobi to Asmara to Paris to Kampala, campaigning everywhere except in Darfur. Majzoub dismissed him as a hapless clown with an over-inflated sense of his value.

Vernacular Politics in Sudan

A few weeks after Majzoub and Minni signed the DPA, I went to see Majzoub, at his office in Khartoum next door to the presidential palace. In his home terrain, his operating procedure was plain to see. The office resembled a doctor's surgery (in professional practice, he had been a dermatologist), with the patients sitting outside waiting to be summoned in, one by one, to be given their prescriptions. Each supplicant was given detailed personal instructions, and a note to be redeemed for payment.

Majzoub had repeatedly complained during the talks that the rebels were overpriced: they were demanding too much and, if he complied, other constituents in Sudan would demand more. He was alternately baffled and angry at the way in which Chad, Libya and the Americans inflated the rebels' price. ‘The price must come down,’ he assured me, as a matter of political-economic fact.

One of Majzoub's motivations was not to repeat the mistake of his rival, Vice President Ali Osman Taha, who in dealing with southern Sudan had abandoned retail politics in favour of a wholesale deal: the CPA. For twenty years, Khartoum's security officers had run the war in the south by hiring the services of discontented members of the southern provincial elite one by one. This worked well enough to ensure that the SPLA's rebellion, headed by Colonel John Garang, was entangled in a series of bloody and destructive internecine wars. But they were not able to buy off Garang, who was astonishingly stubborn, and had built himself a series of regional and international alliances to compensate for the weakness of his internal mobilization. Garang would not be content with a provincial deal: he wanted power in Khartoum, where the real money was. In 2003, Ali Osman decided to deal directly with Garang and make an offer that was both political (power sharing) and financial (nearly half of the enormous funds becoming available through Sudan's oil boom). But, according to Majzoub, Ali Osman had overpaid and the government would regret it in due course. He made the case to President Omar al Bashir that the Darfurians could be bought off much more cheaply, and promised to prove this. Majzoub's political-business plan is standard for the Sudanese political and security elite, and it is unsurprising that he prevailed over Ali Osman.

An essential skill for a political leader in such a system is extremely wide and detailed knowledge of people. Bashir, who emerged as an unusually deft manager of his country's system, is well known for having an open door at his residence in the evening (at least for army officers), an extraordinary memory for people and events, and great sociability, including a famous sense of humour. Another skill is anticipating multiple possible configurations of people and circumstances, and taking them into account. When I discussed with Majzoub, I could almost see his brain calculating how each scenario would play out with the multiple actors whose machinations he had to consider. I had few encounters with Bashir, but I noticed the same characteristic. However, while Majzoub was usually bluffing when he spoke about his ‘red lines’ beyond which no compromise was possible, Bashir was both sparing and deadly serious when he marked out these boundaries.

Another accomplished practitioner of retail politics was the long-time director of the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS), Salah Abdalla ‘Gosh’. He was so capable that his political budget and the loyalties he rented thereby were a challenge to Bashir, who dismissed him in 2009. But one of the hallmarks of an astute operator is that his political funds, networks and intelligence persist whatever his formal position, and Gosh remained powerful even though his office was now a private consultancy. Opening a conversation in November 2010, I asked him, ‘So, what is the price of a Darfur militia today?’ Without blinking, he told me the going price of the day and how it had changed from the previous week. Gosh then went on to echo Majzoub's misgivings about the southern Sudanese: he said they were demanding too high a price for their cooperation. Their sense of ethnic nationalism (he used the term) and money from oil made them unreasonably expensive, he said. But, for Gosh, it was not a matter of different rules of the game, but simply that the tactical market conditions were not right. He was confident that playing divide-and-rent would work again in due course.

The vernacular of everyday politics in Sudan uses the vocabulary of the market. This is really how Sudanese politicians transact their business. And it is on this basis that it is necessary to construct a framework for how Sudanese politics actually functions.

From Political Vernacular to Political Theory

Since I first travelled to Sudan in 1984, the global organization of resources, violence and communication has changed substantially, such that political leaders in countries such as Sudan face immense difficulties preserving those public goods that exist, let alone creating new ones. The public goods in question include institutional political order, peace and security, and economic development. Over thirty years, the level of provision of public goods, and the source of those goods, has fluctuated wildly. But, on the whole, there has been a decline in the quality of public institutions and their command over the political sphere. This is true beyond Sudan: most members of the political elites of north-east Africa have failed to create basic public goods, and many have abandoned the effort and come to resemble gangsters rather than civic political leaders. Even those who are principled and selfless must contend for survival in a system that rewards those with ruthless political-business skills. In the strict sense of the word, as first applied to Nigeria in the 1960s by Stanislav Andreski, these are kleptocracies in which ‘the functioning of the organs of authority is determined by the mechanisms of supply and demand rather than the laws and regulations’.8

Like many students of my generation interested in refugee issues, I went to Sudan because the University of Khartoum was the global intellectual centre for the study of humanitarian issues. Intellectual capital was produced in two modest buildings either side of Sharia Jamaa, the Institute for African and Asian Studies and the Commissioner of Refugees of the Sudanese Ministry of the Interior. From here, the academic product flowed to the academies of Oxford and elsewhere. Sudan was the source of scholarly and policy innovation in the field. Since then, a combination of academic penury and repression has meant that African universities have fallen far behind their European and American peers. Meanwhile, the Horn of Africa as a whole has become a fascinating crucible for political experimentation, and the best analysts of those realities have been the men and women who have to grapple with their political systems on a week-to-week basis. Unfortunately, too many of the creative thinkers of north-east Africa have been forced to live and work elsewhere, or survive through taking on consultancies for international organizations. Much of the creative vigour that used to characterize another modest place on Sharia Jamaa, the University of Khartoum Faculty Club, has been lost. This book is also an effort to encourage students in the region to regain the intellectual courage to study their countries' problems starting from their lived realities.

One of the region's most important political thinkers was Meles Zenawi, whom I had the privilege of knowing for nearly twenty-five years. The earliest drafts of the chapters of this book were written for, and discussed with, Meles. As a student activist, a liberation fighter and then head of government, Meles represented a different kind of political intellectual from the Sudanese politicians I have described above. For example, when I discussed with him a model of political bargaining developed by Jacek Kugler, Meles's response was to appreciate the predictive power of the model, but to ask about the theoretical precepts on which it was based.

My encounters with Meles began at dusk in November 1988, when I crossed Sudan's eastern border into part of northern Ethiopia held by the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF), and climbed on to a Soviet-built Zil truck captured from the Ethiopian army, at that time led by Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam, a military dictator allied to the Soviet Union. On the truck were several members of the TPLF leadership, including Comrade Seyoum, head of foreign relations, and Comrade Meles, in his pyjamas, returning from medical treatment in Khartoum. All travel was at night because of daily overflights by Ethiopian MiG fighter-bombers and the occasional helicopter gunship. During the day we rested under trees or in caves; during the night we travelled on roads hacked out of the mountainside by the guerrillas. Some of the hairpin bends were so tight that the truck had to make three-point or even five-point turns on the corners, the wheels just inches from the precipices. Near government garrisons, the drivers switched off their headlamps and drove by moonlight and keen eyesight. The journey was equally memorable as a travelling seminar, in which Meles, Seyoum and others discussed the history of European revolutions, theories of warfare, and peasant survival during famine and theories of economic development. At one point we stopped for almost an hour while Meles argued with some hunters we met by the roadside, on the importance of conserving endangered species.

Meles later gained fame and controversy for his prowess in grounding political practice in political theory. But others in the leadership, including Sebhat Nega, Mulugeta Gebrehiwot, Abadi Zemo and Tsadkan Gebretensae, were also fine intellectuals. They followed the principle that each problem they faced – political, military or economic – needed to be thoroughly analysed and understood, and a consensus established on this analysis. Having achieved this, accomplishing the task that followed was a straightforward matter. Tsadkan, the TPLF's leading logistician who went on to command the forces that captured Addis Ababa in 1991 and then became chief of staff of the national army, remarked to me that ‘war is primarily an intellectual exercise’.

Among the decisions taken by the TPLF leadership, in 1984 as famine gripped Tigray and the survival of the rural populace was in doubt, was to give priority to famine relief.9 Hundreds of thousands of villagers were evacuated to refugee camps in Sudan, and later brought back, and military operations were scaled back, with important exceptions such as a raid on a food depot near Lalibella in which they opened the storehouses and distributed the food, which the military government had been rationing to supply its militia and those farmers assigned for resettlement, to the general population. This organic connection between the welfare of ordinary people and security policy was later manifest in Ethiopia's white paper on national security, written by Meles.10

Meles possessed a detailed knowledge of his country, and of individuals who were politically active or who had positions in the administration. He was also a master of tactical manoeuvre, a skill that had allowed him to survive – by the narrowest of margins – an internal challenge to his position in 2001, when the TPLF was split down the middle. However, Meles's thinking was never solely tactical, but rather derived from a theoretical framework, which joined politics, economics and security in an integrated whole.

Twenty years after my first meeting with Meles, I was a member of a group that regularly convened small seminars in his office in Addis Ababa, to debate his theory of the ‘democratic developmental state’ and issues of peace and security in the Horn.11 In this seminar I presented an early draft of the framework of the ‘rentier political marketplace’, and Meles commented:

[This] is a powerful tool for the archetypical African state, which demystifies politics on the continent. It needs to be elaborated further. It mostly deals with the political elite, it should bring in the mass in the rural and urban areas, how are they affected? We need to know which social forces generate deeper rent seeking, and which can assist us in finding a way out.12

His concern with the ‘archetypical African state’ was principally how it could be superseded: how best to stamp out rent-seeking and replace it with an ethos and practice of value creation – the ‘democratic developmental state’.

Meles's analytical starting point was that Ethiopia (and indeed Africa as a whole) lacked comparative advantage in any productive sector. Ethiopian farmers could not produce and bring to market cereals to compete with Kansas, and Chinese workers manufactured textiles at a ninth of the cost of the work done by Africans. Only in boutique products such as cut flowers and upmarket coffee, or in natural resources such as hydropower, was Ethiopia competitive, and those sectors had no prospect of supporting a population approaching a hundred million people. In Ethiopia's small, open economy, exposed to the global market forces, local businesspeople faced vast hostile odds against success. Among those adverse odds was the likelihood that some minor tremor in the world economy would collapse their businesses completely.

I was pessimistic that any African government could tame the world's economic and political turbulence sufficiently to create the conditions for building an institutionalized state. Instead, I argued that marketized politics was an effective adaptation to the global political economy, and it might well overwhelm institutionalized political orders. Meles countered that he did not have the luxury of pessimism when national survival was at stake, and prescribed an ‘activist state’ dedicated to ‘democratic developmentalism’. He was a deliberate, deliberative and ruthless state-builder. But one of the paradoxes of Meles's state-building effort was the extent to which it relied on him as an individual. It is an ironic testament to the pervasiveness of the political marketplace that Ethiopian state-building was driven less by world-historic forces, and more by the energies and capabilities of an individual who briefly succeeded, through intellectual power and political skill, in centralizing control over rent in his office.

In our discussions, Meles liked to steer the topic away from current affairs into history and theory. One time when I complained that my duties with the African Union High-Level Implementation Panel for Sudan (AUHIP) had prevented me from redrafting my paper on political markets, Meles responded that the intellectual work of theorization was no less important than the practical work of mediation, and proposed that when he retired from active politics we would have the opportunity to develop our respective frameworks in tandem and as a debate. I argued that the globalization of political finance meant that the political marketplace was set to triumph, and Meles promised to prove me wrong. We never had the chance to complete our debate, and this book is a contribution to that unrealized aspiration.

Outline of the Book

Chapter 2 lays out the framework of the political marketplace, exploring it both as a real phenomenon found in certain countries, and also as a general principle of political life. It introduces the key problem of the book: how politicians operate as political entrepreneurs and business managers to seek and maintain power in an intrinsically turbulent and unpredictable system. I do not argue that all politicians operate in accordance with political market principles all the time, and still less do I claim that they all explain their actions in this way. Rather, I claim that the most skilled and successful politicians operate in this way, and understand perfectly well what they are doing. Quite often, politicians make mistakes, and some of those mistakes mean their political agendas fail, and other errors ignite violence that is excessive or counterproductive. Sometimes politicians try to resist the logic of the market, appealing to different principles, but the market will usually judge them harshly and they will either accommodate their political projects to the market, or they will fail. Very often, external actors fail to see how real politics functions in these countries, and doom their own projects to failure.

Chapter 3 provides an overview of the modern history of the Horn of Africa, as a laboratory of conflicts, unfolding over three acts, during which time each of the three large countries – Ethiopia, Somalia and Sudan – has been partitioned. During the Cold War, the entire region was embroiled in interlocking civil wars, while economies and governmental systems reached the point of collapse. In the 1990s, a contest between political Islam and an alliance of new revolutionary governments reconfigured the subcontinental struggle for supremacy. The third act, from the millennium to today, is a contest for position in a regional political marketplace, in the context of a rentierist global political economy.

The framework of the political marketplace initially derived from experience in Darfur. Chapter 4 analyses Darfur as a near-perfect political market, characterized by multiple purchasers of loyalty and fierce competition among provincial political-military entrepreneurs. It recounts the process of the marketization of Darfurian political life, the political-business management errors by the Sudanese government that led to war in 2003, and the way in which that war subsequently mutated into a multi-sided auction of loyalties.

Chapter 5 addresses the national Sudanese political marketplace, showing how politics has been structured around the generation and allocation of a political budget based on rents. This explains the long-term process of the decay of political institutions, the growth of the Islamist movement, the internal political management within the ruling elite, the dynamics of war and peace and the post-secession crises as the country's ruler faced a dramatically reduced political budget.

Chapter 6 takes South Sudan as a case study of an extreme and revealing exemplar of a polity in which institutions are fully subordinated to militarized patronage. It recounts how South Sudan's leaders developed a political system that translated oil revenue into political loyalty, by funding a vast military payroll, and licensing corruption. Such a kleptocratic system was possible only for as long as budgets were increasing, and when oil revenues stalled, crisis was inevitable.

Chapter 7 explains how Somalia has functioned as a political market for the last thirty years. In the 1980s, the Somali government was run as a militarized patrimonial system based upon superpower rents. Unable to regulate the private flows of political funds, President Mohamed Siyad Barre found himself priced out of his own political market, and government collapsed. Every subsequent attempt to put together a government has been based on rentier financing and has faced the same problem, and failed to resolve it. The Islamists' brief experiment in setting up a government based on Somali business financiers was destroyed by Ethiopian and American opposition.

The case of Somaliland shows how a viable political system can be established in these circumstances. Focusing on the circumstances and processes whereby domestic financiers struck bargains with political and military entrepreneurs, chapter 8 recounts how this came about.

Chapter 9 deals with Eritrea, explaining how President Isaias Afewerki has stayed in power despite military defeat, international isolation and an insolvent formal economy. It is a case study of skilled but brutal political-business management, and how Eritrea has transitioned to a criminalized rentier system. It is a sad illustration of how political projects succumb to the material logic of the marketplace.

Throughout the Horn of Africa, the political market is making it impossible to build states in the conventional manner. Chapter 10 turns to the country that has made the most sustained efforts to establish a developmental state and a working set of governance institutions, namely, Ethiopia. The demographic majority in the Horn consists of 90 million Ethiopians and their country has a strong claim to enduring statehood. Ethiopia's experiment in ‘democratic developmentalism’ – at once a reversion to central planning as practised in an earlier era and an assault on pervasive rent-seeking – poses the principal challenge to the logic of the political marketplace. In this chapter I briefly examine this experience and its prospects for success.

In the final two chapters, I explore the drivers of change across the whole of the Horn and beyond. Chapter 11 links the Horn to a global political marketplace, showing how the region is integrated as part of a global patronage system, in which political loyalties are instrumentalized and dollarized. I suggest that oil exports, security cooperation and aid have contributed to a ‘shadow globalization’, and that new models of peace support operation are becoming instruments of security patronage.

The final chapter deals with the public sphere – the politics of ideas and democratic debate – and political circuitry – political market information, convening and communication. The latter is a component of real politics no less important than finance or firepower. As political markets become more efficient, junior members of the political elite find it more advantageous to participate in them. This makes the market more competitive and inclusive, but also more firmly entrenched, thereby making ideas and public policy less relevant than money to political outcomes. This chapter also identifies resistance to the political marketplace, emerging from other social logics and practices.



    James 2007, p. 100.


    Geuss 2008.


    Compare how an ethical business in a developed economy may be run with the intention of promoting fair trade or environmental conservation, but will prosper only if it meets basic tenets of commercial viability.


    Cf. Uvin 2009.


    Firearms have been used as a currency in many parts of Africa over centuries. See Guyer 2004, pp. 43–4.


    Mahmoud 1984.


    ‘Explaining the Darfur Peace Agreement’, an open letter to those members of the movements who are still reluctant to sign from the African Union moderators, May 2006, at: <∼/media/Fletcher/Microsites/World%20Peace%20Foundation/Explaining%20the%20Darfur%20Peace%20Agreement.pdf



    Andreski 1968, pp. 108–9.


    See de Waal 1997, pp. 127–31.


    FDRE 2002.


    These encounters began when Paulos Tesfagiorgis, a veteran Eritrean freedom fighter, patriot and staunch advocate for human rights and peaceful cooperation, approached Meles discreetly in 2007 to explore possibilities for peace between Ethiopia and Eritrea. Meles asked Paulos to convene a small group to engage with him on a wider range of issues, in a confidential but frank setting. Other members of the group were Abdalla Hamdok, Charles Abugre and Andre Zaaiman.


    Author's notes, seminar, 16 October 2010.

2The Political MarketplacePolitics is Business and Business is Politics

‘No Condition is Permanent’

The ‘political marketplace’ is a contemporary system of governance in which politics is conducted as the exchange of political services or loyalty for payment or licence. The Horn of Africa is an advanced and militarized political marketplace, characterized by pervasive rent-seeking and monetized patronage, with violence routinely used as a tool for extracting rent. It is integrated into regional and global circuits of political finance.

To elaborate this, let me begin by drawing upon Jane Guyer's analysis of the West African economy, integrated into the Atlantic economic order over several centuries and exposed to recurrent shocks to the extent that instability is the norm. Guyer challenges the ‘intellectual “homing instinct” towards equilibrium, systematicity, and slow directional growth’ and observes, ‘[t]he logic of theories that index to Western experience would predict eventual total social incoherence for any society that was subjected for any length of time to the conditions expected in small open economies.’1 She contrasts today's dominant paradigms in social science with William James's philosophy of ‘pragmatism’ that had its roots in the disturbed experience of post-Civil War America:

The stable, cumulative, and systemic concept of institutions is a reflection of a later Western world, more sure of its direction. It becomes, however, blunt and illogical when applied to a reality that seems, to those who live it, altogether less settled. Like pragmatists, they have to apply reason and judgment to horizons of contingency rather than applying a narrow calculative rationality to given variables.2

The premise of an unsettled world is summed up in a favourite slogan painted on West African trucks and taxis: ‘no condition is permanent’. This can also be described as ‘turbulence’, a term taken from fluid dynamics that refers to the way in which a system is unpredictable and chaotic from one moment to the next, lacking discernible pattern, but still maintains a recognizable structure over a longer period of time. Turbulence can be visualized as the currents, swirls and eddies of a fast-flowing stream, which produces moments of calm and tranquillity, before plunging into another vortex. Let me augment this with three other aquatic metaphors. The businessperson or national economic planner in a small open economy is like R. H. Tawney's peasant, up to his chin in water, who can be drowned by a mere ripple3 – which could be caused by the wake of a distant ship plying its normal trade. Also, the national leader is like Robert Jackson and Carl Rosberg's early post-colonial ruler, for whom ‘governance is more a matter of seamanship and less one of navigation – that is, staying afloat rather than going somewhere’.4 Third, just as physicists and chemists find it much easier to investigate the properties of solids rather than liquids, so too social and political scientists prefer to study institutions and regularities, rather than individuals, transactions and contingencies. The scarcity of scholarship does not mean that the subject matter is less important.

Politics is fractal in the sense that the same patterns of authority and bargaining are reproduced at all levels: local, provincial, national and interstate. The turbulent and fractal characteristics intersect insofar as a disturbance at a lower level may generate an unpredictable change at a higher level. This is the political version of the climatologist's ‘butterfly effect’ whereby a miniscule phenomenon such as the breath of air caused by a butterfly flapping its wings can be the trigger for ever-larger weather phenomena ultimately creating a hurricane. Politics is also an open system: it is amenable to innovation. In the same way that a business entrepreneur can find profit within a weak and unstable economy, a creative and able political entrepreneur can find new sources of political income, change the political geography of patronage or exploit a new means of mobilizing a constituency.

Turbulence means that politics is often confusing and apparently patternless. It means that the newly posted diplomat or rookie journalist is easily excited by what appears to be imminent change. Turbulence gives rise to the standing joke about Sudanese political life: it changes from week to week but if you come back after ten years it is exactly the same. Short-term fluctuations obscure longer-term trends. Nonetheless those trends are there, some of them indeed shaped by the persistent patterns of political life, in the way that a turbulent stream can carve a channel through a hillside.

Political markets are well adapted to systemic turbulence. This gives us insight into one of the enigmas of modernity in Africa and the Greater Middle East: the parallel proliferation of governance institutions and a lack of popular confidence in those institutions. In most countries, there are far more governmental institutions than forty years ago, and they have a more intrusive impact on people's lives. The World Bank's 2011 World Development Report found that progress on key state-building indicators has not only been sustained, but has been even more rapid in recent history than previously.5