Salvadore on Reid, 'Frontiers of Violence in North-East Africa: Genealogies of Conflict since c.1800'

Richard J. Reid
Matteo Salvadore

Richard J. Reid. Frontiers of Violence in North-East Africa: Genealogies of Conflict since c.1800. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. 296 pp. $99.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-921188-3.

Reviewed by Matteo Salvadore (Gulf University for Science and Technology) Published on H-Africa (November, 2011) Commissioned by Brett L. Shadle

Salvadore on "Frontiers of Violence in NE Africa'

Frontiers of Violence is a thoroughly researched contribution to the historiography of the Horn’s many enduring conflicts. It focuses on the contested borderlands between Eritrea and Ethiopia as a way to understand much of the region’s political violence and instability. Reid takes a long-term approach that reaches back to key early modern developments such as the Zamana Masafent, the Adali-Ethiopian War, and the Oromo expansion. The result is a monograph of great interest that should not only appeal to Horn, African, and Middle Eastern studies specialists, but also those interested in failed states, ethnic and religious conflict, and the history of frontier zones.

Central to Reid’s analysis are the concepts of borderlands and shiftanet (Amharic for banditry) which he deploys to explain the many domestic, regional, and international conflicts that have plagued the Horn throughout the early modern and modern era. In his reading, the many conflicts of yesterday and today should be read as the product of “interconnected frontiers of violence” and can best be understood by privileging regionalism over localism and long- over short-term analysis. Reid discounts the importance of the century between the end of the Zamana Masafent and the Second World War and argues that “these conflicts are in fact much more deeply rooted in the past than might be assumed, and are indeed intrinsic to understanding the political and social evolution of the region” (p. 20).

In Reid’s complex narrative, conflicts within and between states are presented as the result of overarching causes intrinsic to the region. Without discounting the influence of colonialism, the Cold War, and the “War on Terror,” Reid focuses on the local “continuous state of violence upon which is founded the modern polity--whether Ethiopia, or Eritrea, or indeed Sudan and Somalia--which is in turn defined by violence” (p. 20). On the one hand, the peoples of the Horn have been suffering from ill-advised processes of state formation that produced violent political centers with unstable borderlands. On the other, they have been suffering the violent interpretations of liberation and politics held by movements that have challenged the center from the borderlands.

Most of the monograph focuses on state formation, resistance, and conflict in and between Ethiopia and Eritrea, but conflicts in Sudan, Somalia, and their respective borderlands are also duly considered. Part 1 maps the complex matrix of the past half century’s historiography dedicated to the controversial topics of nationalism, identity, and state formation in the Horn. Reid discusses the turn that, starting in the seventies, moved the historiographical center from the Christian-Semitic Ethiopian highlands and the notion of Greater Ethiopia towards its restless peripheries. After confessing his sympathy for the critics of the Greater Ethiopian thesis, he does not shy away from criticizing their own ideological excesses and voluntarism. Part 1 then outlines the analytical concept of borderlands, “contested areas between the expanding imperial frontiers of competing polities.” Far from being marginal to their political systems, the borderlands are central since “the margins make the metropole” (p. 22). In Reid’s reading of Horn history, unstable, restless borderlands have historically produced more or less militarized entities bent on contesting the power of the political center and at times occupying it.

Part 2 starts with a discussion of the Zemene Masafint (1760s-1850s), the era of political anarchy and militarism that Reid presents as central to the understanding of more recent conflicts, and continues with a discussion of shiftanet, the Horn tradition of banditry and rebellion central to his thesis. The era’s competition between different polities resulted in the “militarization of political culture” and “vicious total war”: “violence and militarism in nineteenth-century north-east Africa became self-perpetuating and cumulative” (p. 49). Shiftas emerged from multiple borderlands as challengers of the political center: both Tewodros (r. 1855-86) and Yohannes’s (r. 1872-89) ascents are interpreted as borderland-to-center journeys. In this perspective, the Menelikian era witnessed the stabilization of the Ethiopian Empire through violence and cooptation of various borderlands into “modern state that was now precariously balanced, stilt-like, on a series of frontier zones both internal and external” (p. 49).

Part 3 discusses the outcome of the encounter between African and European actors in the era  between the scramble for Africa and decolonization: the formation of the Mereb frontier, colonial Eritrea, the creation of two Somalias, the federation of Eritrea, and its later annexation to Ethiopia. In Reid’s narrative Haile Selassie’s long reign was a continuation of Menelik’s imperial project and a prolonged failed attempt to keep together through sheer repression a state plagued by “restless centrifugal militarism” and “unstable frontiers” (p. 129). The liberation movements that emerged under Haile Selassie’s rule started off as shiftanet only later to turn into liberation fronts, whose leaders were the polished ideologized inheritors of an old Horn tradition. While Reid expresses sympathy for the many grievances that liberation fronts held with the Ethiopian Empire, he also discusses the nefarious consequences that violent and militarized political resistance exerts on the polities of the Horn.

Part 4 discusses the Derg era and Mengistu’s version of violent militarism in the context of the Cold War. Reid successfully manages to make the intricate network of allegiances and enmities between liberation groups and governments intelligible to non-specialists, by laying out the major coordinates of the complicated chess game that governments, liberation fronts, and superpowers played at the expenses of the Horn’s people. In Reid’s reading of recent history, the undemocratic and oppressive nature of the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments and the militarization of civil life is nothing but the natural result of the coming to town of political-military movements born in the violence of the borderlands.

Throughout the volume Reid shows a remarkable ability to stay aloof from the self-serving polemics common among specialists interested in the Horn’s politics of identity. Dozens of studies have attempted to make sense of the many conflicts of the Horn by presenting them in terms of heroes and villains: to the contrary, Reid offers an impressive wide-reaching account that is yet unseen for both its equidistance and scope. The only true object of acrimony seems to be prejudiced scholarship that has infested Horn of Africa and in particular modern Ethiopian studies to this day. The author shows no mercy for the Greater Ethiopia, the Greater Somalia, or the Oromia thesis, or any other ideological delusion.

The volume’s main weaknesses are a function of its strengths: its impressive temporal and geographical scope. Accounting for over two centuries of conflicts over such a vast, diverse, and politically chaotic area is no easy task. The summaries aimed at explaining the genesis and development of various liberation fronts and conflicts read more like study guides than scholarly appraisals, not only for their limited depth, but also for the vagueness and minimalism of the critical apparatus. Along the same lines, it must be added that given the comparative and multifaceted nature of the monograph the reader would have been better served by a subject-based bibliography than an alphabetical one. Last but not least, given the convoluted and fluid nature of group identities, updated ad-hoc maps instead of borrowed ones would have better served the volume. It goes without saying that these minor flaws take little away from this important work of scholarship.

The text is a must read for anyone interested in understanding the political violence that has been plaguing the Horn for decades. Frontiers of Violence will serve as a good introduction to students of the Horn, is sure to fascinate and intrigue area studies and international relations specialists alike, and--last but not least--will certainly upset the many partisans and ideologues defending narrow ethnic interests aptly dissected in this volume.

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Citation: Matteo Salvadore. Review of Reid, Richard J., Frontiers of Violence in North-East Africa: Genealogies of Conflict since c.1800. H-Africa, H-Net Reviews. November, 2011. URL:

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