Bridging the Gap Between Tradition and Modernity in the Horn of Africa

"It did not matter if the humble Tilapia was caught in the same net with the avaricious Nile Perch...Contrary to the usual belief that Somalia has no language or ethnic variety, the number of languages listed for Somalia is 13.”

The Arbitrary Borders
The Disconnect Between Modernity and Tradition

Basic to Inter and Intra-State Conflicts and Insecurity in the Horn of Africa

A Paper
Presented by
Jacob J Akol

International Workshop on Intra and Inter-State Conflicts and Security
The Horn of Africa

The Nordic Africa Institute
May 25 – 26, 2010


Jacob J Akol
The Horn of Africa
The Horn of Africa is normally defined as consisting of the Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Djibouti and Somalia. However, inter and intra-state conflicts and security in those countries often touch on or are influenced by their immediate neighbours south, west, north and even at times east across the Red Sea.

These neighbouring countries are Kenya, Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Central African Republic (CAR), Chad, Libya, Egypt and Yemen across the Red Sea.

What Have They Got in Common?
Most of these countries, if not all, have a number of things in common: their external borders, including those of Ethiopia and Eritrea, were arbitrarily defined by European colonising powers, mostly in the 19th century. Thus brothers and sisters, clans, tribes and nations, were mercilessly split up in what I call the European’s “fishing nets”. 

It did not matter if the humble Tilapia was caught in the same net with the avaricious Nile Perch. It seemed the greater the variety the happier the fishermen.

Effects of Colonial Borders
The colonial borders affected African social cohesion and coexistence in four fundamental ways: 

1. Many ethnic communities or tribes at colonial borders were split up to the extent that members of the same ethnic communities - and even families - became subjects of two or three different states; taxed and ruled from remote capitals. Good examples are The Afar, found in Ethiopia, Eritrea and Djibouti; the Anyuak Kingdom and the Nuer, both split up between Ethiopia and the Sudan.

2. Some communities, which were big and large nations in their own right, became minorities in their new colonial states. The Azande Kingdom, for example, had her people located in three different countries while their loyalties where demanded in each case by one of the three remote capitals: Khartoum, Bangui and Kinshasa.

3. Normal social progression and development between and among ethnic communities or African nations was arrested or interrupted for generations within the colonial nets called borders. Lift the colonial net, as it happened at independence, and hell breaks loose.

4. The net result was and remains the marginalisation of most African languages, cultural values and identities from centres of power; this has resulted in a disconnect between tradition and modernity and presents a serious problem for African policy-makers.

The disconnect between administrations, set up in remote capitals by the colonising powers, and the traditional authorities of the subjected “nations” or ethnic communities or tribes, began immediately after the intervention of Europeans and continued throughout the colonial period and, to a large extent, throughout the last fifty years or so of independent Africa.

As Dr. Francis Deng noted, “introduced practices have been taken out of their source context; and changes have not been integrated into the receiving culture. As a result, modernisation has been disruptive.”     

Internal Borders

Meanwhile, the internal borders of each state have always been there and still remain within the colonial borders even today. Colonial administrations describe these borders as “tribal” or “ethnic” and therefore insignificant and should be dictated to from “national capitals”, supposedly run by superior and powerful beings.

Western-educated Africans inherited these introduced European powers over the colonised and, by and large, continued the disconnect because they found it convenient to prolong and consolidate their individual, group or ethnic rule over the entire variety of peoples in their net, just like the colonial powers did.

The Peoples: Some Pertinent Facts
*Note these statistics may be out of date or inaccurate. They are simply a guideline.   

The Sudan:
Take the Sudan, a country with a territory as large as the whole of Western Europe, with an estimated population of 40 million: It has 142 languages listed; almost half of them in Southern Sudan alone. Of these, 134 are living languages while 8 are extinct. 

Until the agreement between North and South Sudan in 2005, the official language for the whole of Sudan was standard Arabic, rejected by large sections of the Sudanese communities. There is, therefore, little surprise that the literacy rate has remained at between 20% to 27% for the Sudan, underlined by prolonged conflicts and insecurity.

With a population of 4.5 million, there are 13 languages listed, of which one is extinct. The national or official languages are English, Standard Arabic and Tigrinya. With their literacy rate at 37%, they fair a lot better than many in the Horn of Africa. But, what is happening to the other living languages and the peoples who speak them? Do new policies reflect these?

Ethiopia’s population is close to 68 million (recent figures put it at 80 million). Ethiopia has 89 languages listed, of which 5 are extinct. National or Official languages are Amharic, English, Tigrinya. “Nationalities” can use prepared language as “official” in their states. Literacy rate is listed as 23.4%.

Somali Democratic Republic, formerly British and Italian Somaliland, has a population of over 8,300,000. Contrary to the usual belief that Somalia has no language or ethnic variety, the number of languages listed for Somalia is 13 and “all are living languages.”  Official languages are standard Arabic and English. In spite of instability in that country, the literacy rate is estimated at between 24% and 40%.

But, though notorious for conflict and insecurity, Somalia’s problems are supposed to stem from a clan system. Nevertheless, the continuing relative security in Somaliland (Northern Somalia) is supposed to have come about as a result of connect between traditional leadership of elders and modern means of governance.

Djibouti, the smallest of the nations of the Horn, and which was itself said to have been carved out of Ethiopia and Somalia, has not been free of conflict and insecurity. The Issa (partially in Somalia) and the Afar (partially in Ethiopia and Eritrea) have not yet found a formula to live peacefully together. Part of their problem lies in the fact that they have members of their communities over the borders.

Protecting Cultural Values:
A living language of course implies a people who speak such a language. More often than not, such a people will have cultural values of their own that they identify with and would defend them by any means. States which ignore these real identities do so at the risk of inviting conflict and instability, typical of the nations of the Horn of Africa.

People can identify with a nation that protects them and reflects their values and identities in the centre of power and national events, otherwise they find themselves marginalised and become restive.

Again, taking Sudan as an example, conflict and instability have been the rule rather than the exception in more than 50 years of independence. The conflict between North and South has lasted a total of 30 years. In spite of the “Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA)”, signed between North and South in 2005, the Darfur conflict has continued unabated.

Unstable at home, Sudan has been in conflict with virtually all her neighbours since independence from Britain in 1956.

Post Colonial Policies
The Horn of Africa states, like the rest of newly independent African states in the 50s and 60s, found themselves caught up in the backwash of post Second World War, which produced a new world order, parcelled out between the then Western and Soviet blocks. It left African policy makers dangling between the two superpower blocks and neglecting their own internal reforms.

The result of continued marginalisation of many African languages, cultures and identities from the centre of governance for the last 50 years or so, has, in my opinion, resulted in chronic interstate and intrastate conflicts and insecurity in the Horn of Africa. A new paradigm shift in constitutional thinking is long overdue.

However, the post Mangistu government in Ethiopia has come up with a radical constitution based on “nationalities”. With all its inherent problems of practicality, I think it is a constitutional paradigm shift for Africa. It deserves serious consideration, if Africa is ever to bridge the gap between tradition and modern ways of governance.

Jacob J Akol is Director/Editor of Gurtong Trust – Peace & Media Project and author of BURDEN OF NATIONALITY, Memoirs of an African Aidworker/Journalist 1970s – 1990s, (Paulines, 2006). He can be reached at or

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