By: Alex de Waal

Reviewed by: Dr. Jemal Muhamed Adem

Book Review/ July 2023

“The Real Politics of the Horn of Africa: Money, War and the Business of Power” is a book published in English by Polity Press-UK in 2015 with 263 pages. The author, Alex de Waal, relies here on his more than three-decade career as both a researcher and consultant in the countries and regional organizations of the Horn of Africa. The book’s main focus is that money is the driving force for the real politics in the Horn of Africa. De Waal’s engagement in the Horn as a scholar in the region for three decades and as a practitioner has enabled him to closely investigate developments in the region, mainly in the post-Cold War global political contexts. He was a member of the African Union mediation team for Darfur (2005-2006) and senior advisor to the African Union High-Level Implementation Panel for Sudan (2009-2012) where he contributed to the work of a comprehensive peace agreement. From his long experiences with key political actors in the region, mainly political elites and security officers, de Waal argues that the real politics in the Horn of Africa are best understood in terms of a political market place that operates under the economics law of supply and demand. He asserts that only the proper understanding of the region’s real politics will enable local, regional, and international stakeholders to solve the multi-dimensional problems in the region.

The intellectual moment of this work goes to its invention of a fresh and alternative perspective that challenges the orthodox scholarship in what is a geo-strategically excellent location and most volatile region of the world. While most previous works attribute the volatility of the region to communal violence, harsh environment, and insurgent movements, de Waal argues that these issues have secondary relevance to the regional volatilities which are mainly the byproduct of political actors and their interactions in the political market place. The socio-political moment of the work rests on its progress and publication in the post-Cold War and 9/11 period global environment, the current political crisis and decay of states in the region (Ethiopia, Sudan and Somalia), with similarity of patterns and interwoven of local, regional, and global settings.

Methodologically, de Waal relies on qualitative analysis of contemporary political ethnography of the region through the theoretical lens of free market economic theory. De Waal utilizes both secondary materials and primary sources mainly through his close discussions with key persons in the region including prime ministers, presidents, and high-level delegates. The book’s intended audience are academicians in the sense that it initiates more questions than it answers and demonstrates more doubts than conclusions.

Keywords: The Real Politics, Horn of Africa, Political Market Place


Book Chapters:

The first two book chapters give a general insight about the theoretical framework of the political market place and justifications for its operation in the Horn of African politics. In the first chapter, he illustrates the decline of personal decency of the political actors as one goes higher, from ordinary membership of the local community to political positions, and as a request to survive in the political market place. He argues that people at the local level are powerless and only have simple humanistic insights into politics. Although ordinary people value personal integrity and human decency of politicians for the health of their society, the trend completely changes when men start to conduct real politics. For political elites and security officers in the Horn of African countries, personal decency or cruelty are not the skills one needs to be successful political businessmen in the real politics. De Waal says that the political elite in this part of the world assume that human loyalties are tradable like that of goods and services in the market.  Money can buy human loyalties in a political marketplace as individuals tend to serve others for reward. He classifies political actors as political businessmen and political entrepreneurs who use the currencies of money and violence to purchase the commodities of loyalties in the political marketplace and to maintain their future survival in turbulent environments.


The second chapter presents the framework of the political marketplace both as a general framework and its functionalities in the politics of the Horn of Africa. He forms an analogy between the Horn of Africa as a political marketplace and markets as understood in free market economy. Just as firms in the market, politicians operate to pursue and maintain power in the intrinsically turbulent and unpredictable system of the Horn of Africa. De Waal argues that all political systems resemble markets in a sense, that as entrepreneurs can find profit from weak and unstable economy, a creative and able political entrepreneur can find new sources of political income through the manipulation of political geography of patronage or exploiting a new means to mobilize a constituency.

He defines the ‘political marketplace’ as a contemporary system of governance, characterized by pervasive rent-seeking and monetized patronage, which takes the form of exchanging loyalty for payment, in the context of pervasive threats of violence and globalization. In this regard, political market is a place in which political business is conducted with forms of exchange including the commoditizing of cooperation and allegiance as determined by demand and supply and regulated by violence and threat of violence. He asserts that politicians’ actions should be understood through a business lens, as political actors are individuals who seek power and material gain of loyalty. He identifies two categories of actors in a political marketplace: political entrepreneurs (PEs) and political business managers (PBMs). PEs are aspirants and clients while PBMs are rulers, patrons, chief executives, and those that they employ as party bosses, security chiefs and financial managers. He argues that rent seeking in the political and economic sectors are the same phenomenon, and that the skills of political business management consist in applying judgment to contingencies rather than applying templates of approved policy.

He identifies four variables through which the deregulated political marketplace operates. The first variable, political finance, consists of those funds that the politician can use at his discretion for loyalty payments or for direct security spending or spending on public goods. When the political finance budget fails to cover the prevailing cost of loyalty, de Waal argues that politicians will either resort to coercion, to chauvinistic or identity mobilization, or will fall. The second variable, control over the means of violence, refers to the tight management over and the distribution of instruments of violence like war, peace agreements and decisions by politicians to develop separate rival security institutions to their regimes. The means for regulating political disputes as a third variable implies informal rules and procedures. The last variable, terms of global integration, revels the integration of rent dependent states in the region to global contexts. Although political marketplace governance systems can be organized in different ways, de Waal argues that sources of political finance, the extent and nature of distribution of control over violence, and barriers to entry all have in common and demonstrate that governance is principally by personal dealings where formal institutions and customary norms are subordinate to the political marketplace; control over violence is distributed or contested, communication is deregulated to the need of the situation, and rent-seeking is pervasive.

The real politics in the Horn of African countries resembles a marketplace where successful politicians operate according to business principles to increase power and fulfill ambitions by limiting the entry of competitors into the market and discouraging rivals, developing customer loyalty through brands using identity politics, and by demonstrating their own long-term commitment, which can be through identity markers.  


The third chapter outlines the contemporary history of the Horn of Africa as a laboratory of conflicts for the last three decades that has resulted in the breakaway of parts of three major countries, Ethiopia, Sudan and Somalia to become independent states of Eritrea, South Sudan and Somaliland respectively. During the Cold War the whole region was entwined in civil wars due to the super power’s (USA and USSR) support of different political groups in the region to advance their own geopolitical interests and to control the global trade routes over the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean between Asia, Europe and Africa. In the post-Cold War period, the regional dynamics were occupied by the emergence of Islamist political groups which contributed to the region’s political marketplace being integrated into the international political economy of the Global War on Terror.


The fourth chapter analyzes the Darfur crises from which he actually developed the framework of political marketplace. Darfur, de Waal argues, appeared close to the perfect political market where several (provisional political and military leaders) were in tough competition to purchase loyalty. He underscores the mistakes committed by the Sudanese government in the process of marketizations of the political life in Darfur that instigated the war in 2003. He affirms that the existence of multiple faces of loyalties transformed the nature of conflict from the level of turbulence required for a political market to a large-scale war hard to manage.


The fifth chapter focuses on the Sudanese national political marketplace. It reveals the structural arrangement of Sudanese politics based on the creation and distribution of political budgets through rent. The accumulation of political budget by rent-seeking Sudanese political elites explains the continuing deterioration of government institutions and the rise of Islamist movements in the internal political dynamics, the process of war and peace negotiations with the decline of political budget, and post-secession disasters that the Sudanese government faced.


Chapter six focuses on South Sudan as a particular instance where political and government institutions failed under militarized patronages. The South Sudanese political system is the direct byproduct and transformation of income from oil spent to purchase political loyalty from massive military personnel, and authorization of corruption. As the kleptocratic system in South Sudan highly depends on a political budget from oil rents for its stable survival, crisis was inevitable with the decline in oil revenues.


Chapter seven covers thirty years of Somalia’s political market when the government was based on a militarized patrimonial system and Cold War superpower rent as a main source of political budget. He argues that the main cause of state collapse in Somalia was the military regime’s failure to regulate political finance and the political market. Successive attempts in Somalia to resemble a government through political finance of rent failed to solve the problem. The brief experiment by Islamist political groups to create a stable and indigenous government was demolished by American forces and its regional patron, Ethiopia.


Chapter eight focuses on the state of Somaliland’s post-crisis resurrection through the political process of bargaining between domestic financers and political and military entrepreneurs in its political reconstructions.

Chapter nine covers Eritrea and shows how Isaias Afwerki’s brutality as a political management skill has enabled him to stay in power despite military defeat from neighboring Ethiopia, a bankrupted economy, and international isolation.

In chapter ten, de Waal examines Ethiopia and how it demonstrates different conditions from other countries in the region due to its strong and sustainable statehood and durable government institutions. He argues that Ethiopia’s experiment of developmental state model against the country’s earlier centrally planned economy and rent-seeking challenges the principle of the political marketplace.


The eleventh chapter shows the relation between the Horn of Africa and global marketplaces.  He argues that the Horn of Africa has become the “global patronage” and integrated part of Western governments’ security formation through anti-Islamist regimes in Ethiopia and Eritrea against Islamist political forces in the region –mainly in Sudan and Somalia. The rise of Islamists in the region in the early 1990s and the US government’s interest and commitment to empower counter forces in Ethiopia and Eritrea have contributed to instrumentalization, internationalization, and dollarization of regional political loyalties under the banner of the Global War on Terror. Security cooperation, oil export and aid were instruments of patronages between the regional and global marketplace. However, de Waal asserts that the post-9/11 fashion of international interferences and patronage formations between local and global actors of marketplace have neither considered local realities nor contributed positively for future developments in the region.  


The final chapter discusses public sphere channels of communication or information in the political marketplace. He argues that political market information or communication as components of real politics are as important as political finance or weapons. Transformations in information systems and communication technologies have increased the efficiency and inclusiveness of the political marketplace. It paves ways for new political entrepreneurs and business managers to join the market. As new aspirants to the political market proliferate, the old elites stick to security apparatus to control new challenges. By the change in communication channel, de Waal doesn’t mean the broader exchange of ideas in the public sphere as in democratic contexts, but rather the rumors circulating in the political market about “who gets what and how much” in secret ways. This secret political channel of communication negatively affects the public sphere and general goods including state-building.


Critical Reflections:

The work is very informative for those who are interested in the regional political dynamics of the Horn of Africa. The book is rich of firsthand information that serves as a living testament about what was and is going on, what links to what, who and what is behind a certain development in a particular country in the Horn of Africa, and its external implications for regional and global settings. De Waal’s message in this work is that monetization of politics deteriorates states, institutions and political legitimacy in Horn of African states and also the stability in the broader region. De Waal’s findings explain that what really matters in Horn of African politics is money. Political actors operate in accordance with the business principle of maximizing profits or earning more political budget to be invested primarily on a political elite’s close circle, i.e. security sector and to buy loyalties, and secondarily on development and public goods. Political actors operate in a turbulent domestic and regional environment which de Waal recognizes as a system that facilitates the healthy functioning of a political marketplace. The turbulence is both the byproduct of deliberate actions of political entrepreneurs and the bases for their survival in power. He argues that identity factors (ethnicity, culture and religion) are facts in any political dynamics in the region; however, they only have subordinate roles to the monetary exchange of loyalties between various actors in the region. In what he calls “the internalization and dollarization”, he argues that the local and regional marketplace are linked to the global marketplace through oil trading and security cooperation. 

Although Alex de Waal’s work provides valuable insights on the role of many in Horn of African politics, his view is reductionist in the sense that he reduces the complex nature of the regional politics to a mere financial factor or commercialization of the broad gamut of politics. Mainstream political science already recognizes the interaction of politics and economics in political economy and has developed concepts such as kleptocracy and patrimonialism to explain how money manipulates politics and the role of informal ties in bending formal procedures respectively.

Secondly, while de Waal adopts a business framework to analyze the politics in the Horn of Africa, he sticks to a neo-liberal model of market which relies on perfect competition and full flow of information among the buyers and sellers about the products in the market. However, in the context of the Horn of Africa, regimes are known for their repression of opposition parties, media, and civil society organizations and thereby dismiss alternative ideas to the public. This puts de Waal’s model of political market short of its own standards. Moreover, the author suffers from directly applying all concepts of market economy to the politics, which by its very nature lacks a single formula both to understand the current realities and predict future developments. The danger of this commercialization and financialization of politics is proven when political actors shift and maintain their allegiance to their identities at the cost of a large amount of political finances. This particularly can be demonstrated by the ongoing political transitions in Ethiopia and Sudan that have resulted from political actors who are (at the core of the regimes) responding to genuine questions of the people like equality, freedom of expression, and democracy which cannot be attributed to political finance.

Thirdly, de Waal analyzes the integration of the Horn of Africa’s local political markets with regional and global markets. However, the political markets in the Horn of Africa are largely the byproduct of encouraging international environments as competing global powers provide political budget to support groups who will support their ideologies in the region. Great political episodes in the region like the secession of Eritrea from Ethiopia, the recent separation of South Sudan from Sudan, and the Ethiopian military intervention in Somalia are the results of external influences from mainly Western countries in the post-9/11 global context. Developments in the Horn are more of a translation of global contexts than local, national, and regional progenies. Although the author himself seeks to be critical of the Islamist movements in Sudan and Somalia and Gulf countries and their Islamic banks as sources of political budgets, he fails to apply the same tendency of criticism to the Western powers—mainly USA and EU for their different political groups in the region that don’t support genuine political negotiations.

Fourthly, the author’s business-framework approach of politics risks normalization of the inhuman political activities of actors by considering their function of creating turbulence as important political business management skills. Although his scholarship is mainly about politics, he refrains to inculcate democratization, human rights, peace and security for the better regional politics. He instead emphasizes ways that political actors gain political budget in turbulent conditions to sustain power, and his evaluation of the success and failure of actors relies on business frameworks. Moreover, his analysis focuses more on actors than grass-roots community level motivations and aspirations. Although the author’s application of a business model gives useful insights on the rules of the game in the regional politics of the Horn of Africa, it reduces politics to money at the costs of socio-cultural, economic, historical factors, and their interactions at various levels.

Overall, this work is a must-read for those who are interested to study various issues in the Horn of Africa including peace, conflict and security, democratization and political legitimacy, and state building.

The article was first published in Geopolitical Bridges (GPB), published by the Center for Islam Studies and Global Affairs (CIGA), Volume 1, Issue 1, Winter 2023.


Alex de Waal:

He is executive director of the World Peace Foundation, Research Professor at the Fletcher School, Tufts University, and Professorial Fellow at the London School of Economics. He has worked on the Horn of Africa and on humanitarian issues since the 1980s as a researcher and practitioner. He initiated the UN Commission on HIV/AIDS and Governance in Africa and was director of the AIDS, Security and Conflict Initiative and was a senior advisor to the African Union High Level Panel on Sudan and South Sudan. De Waal’s recent books include “Mass Starvation: The history and future of famine” (Polity 2018). “New Pandemics, Old Politics: 200 years of the war on disease and its alternatives” (Polity 2021). “Sudan’s Unfinished Democracy: The promise and betrayal of a people’s revolution” (co-author, Hurst 2022).

Dr. Jemal Muhamed Adem:

He is a Non-resedent Researcher at the Centre for Islam and Global Affairs at Istanbul Sabahattin Zaim University. He has a Ph.D. in Political Science and International Relations at Istanbul Sabahattin Zaim University. He has served as an instructor in the department of Civics and Ethical Studies at Samara University in Ethiopia. His research interests include peace and security, conflict management, and democratization, identity politics, and transnational politics in the North-East (Horn) of Africa in broader contexts of the Middle East and international politics.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *