Exploring the trifecta of capitalism, conflict, and exploitation in the Horn of Africa


Exploring the trifecta of capitalism, conflict, and exploitation in the Horn of Africa

Friday February 16, 2024

As civil war rages in Sudan, arrangements for December’s COP28 meeting in Dubai have gathered momentum. If there is a link between these events, it is not climate change. More to the point, prior to the Covid pandemic, Sudan and Somalia were together supplying 90% of the animal protein consumed in the otherwise chronically food-insecure Gulf States. While undoubtedly an underestimate, at its peak this export trade was worth $1.4 billion a year. A remarkable economic feat for two poor, war-devastated countries. Indeed, since the 1970s, Horn livestock exports, predominantly sheep, have increased in concert with the rapid urbanisation of the Gulf. These trade figures, however, belie a deepening crisis among Sudan and Somalia’s agro-pastoral communities. Concealed behind the data is the spread of what can be called ‘militarised ranching’ in these countries. Through this practice, a violent transnational extractive economy links the Horn and the Gulf States. The phantasmagorial fossil-urbanisation of the latter has been at the expense of a widening cycle of destructive immiseration in the former. A toxic embrace that looks set to deepen.

There are many reasons why the social and ecological devastation underlying the livestock trade remains hidden. In liberalism’s parallel universe there is a predilection, albeit selective, to interpret raw violence in terms of its transgression of human rights and the creation of humanitarian disasters. Violence is understood in terms of its moral and social effects. For example, as creating dilemmas and moral challenges that typically foreground practical and political issues relating to rights, humanitarian need and the responsibility to protect. This view tends to conceal that, for capitalism, war and warlike violence is an active and essential economic relation. Since the 1970s, the Horn of Africa has been gripped by end-to-end extractive civil wars. The liberal default presents this permanent war as a series of essentially ‘natural’ humanitarian disasters. The violent de-development of first Somalia, and now Sudan, are without question unalloyed tragedies. The liberal default, however, obscures the active process behind the rising livestock exports and the deepening chaos, displacement and human suffering we witness.

Primarily involving sheep, militarised ranching is a social and environmentally destructive mode of production. It is necessarily expansive, land-hungry, livelihood destroying and population displacing. Sustained violence, livestock exports have attracted little outside attention despite being at the core of the Horn’s political economy. In a region once dominated by agro-pastoral subsistence economies, changes in the ownership, rearing and export of livestock reaches down into the social bedrock. Violent land clearances, livestock theft and armed grazing have devastated life-chances over vast swathes of territory to a greater extent than any other form of commodification. These changes embody the terror of the Gulf’s expanding food frontier and the human tragedy of not only Somalia and Sudan, but conjecturally, a growing number of contiguous countries as well.

The old agro-pastoral economies of Somalia and Sudan can, at the risk of simplification, be heuristically divided into mobile ‘herders’ and sedentary ‘farmers’. Historically, the long-distance seasonal transhumance of herders was negotiated with farmers to maximise use of crop residues and allow for the barter and sale of livestock, milk, crops, handicrafts and services between these groups. While friction could develop when, for example, animals strayed into fields or livestock were stolen, there were compensatory processes to maintain a mutually beneficial system of exchange between sedentary and semi-nomadic communities. Indeed, such reciprocity lay at the heart of rural self-sufficiency.

During the last decades of the twentieth-century, the shift from subsistence to commercial modes of production among farmers and herders was intensifying conflicts over water and land as desertification drove herders further south. While often characterised as ‘Bantu versus Somali’ or ‘African versus Arab’ in the case of Sudan, these increasingly heavily armed exchanges were in reality two historically complementary modes of rural self-reliance being confronted with the emergence of fossil capitals’ inexorable demand for meat in the post-1973 urbanisation, construction and population explosions in the Gulf States. Booming economies that opened new opportunities for livestock traders and their military patrons, fixers and owners of the major ports along the Red Sea coast.

By the 1980s, the monetisation of the economy, together with the decay of collective forms of agricultural production, had propelled the agronomic practices of small farmers into a period of change and intensification. Especially, into ecologically unsustainable time and labour-saving practices. For example, shortened rotations, increased mono-cropping and water table depleting irrigation. Among herders, similar monetising pressures were compounded by the loss of rangeland and water rights due to the spread of mechanised agriculture schemes and, in places, the settlement of river banks by farmers. Similar to the intensification of subsistence farming, there was a compensatory shift from ecologically balanced livestock management towards more commercial, that is, export-oriented, forms of herd composition. That is, a growing focus on relatively fast maturing sheep.

In Somalia and Sudan, there is a long history of denying ‘Bantu’ and ‘African’ farmers respectively any civil or political rights. The deepening social civil war in both countries has thrown up competing ownership claims, exclusionary practices and even assertions of race superiority. For the winners, those being dispossessed, displaced and killed are newcomers, interlopers or apostates that have no rights anyway. The resulting de-development has created a modern living-hell where life can hardly become cheaper, more disposable or further exposed to new forms of bondage and slavery.

By the time of the NGO invasion of the Horn in the mid-1980s, a neoliberal mode of primitive accumulation had emerged. Having much wider implications, the inner secret of this hyper-destructive form of accumulation was to transform the earlier reciprocity between farmers and herders into a relation of permanent war. A social civil war which humanitarians have self-servingly normalised as an inevitable outcome of scarcity, ignorance and environmental stress.

Based on the principle of buying cheap and selling dear, there is an historical affinity between merchant capital and raw violence. Merchants extract tradable wealth at the lowest possible cost. Unchecked, this can include theft, extortion and bribery. In the Horn, military and militia violence has been the main means of inducing and shaping the social civil war between farmers and herders into a lethal extractive economy. It is no accident that, time and again, imperial powers have legitimised what are little more than armed gangsters when seeking to negotiate ‘peace’ or ‘reconstruct’ a so-called failed state. In terms of maintaining the Gulf’s violent food frontier, they are hand in glove.

Separated by a decade or so, the social civil war in Somalia and the protracted genocide in Darfur marked the consolidation of a new militarised mechanism for acquiring, herding and grazing livestock, especially sheep. Initially conducted through camel and horse mounted militias from the respective marginalised herders of both countries, this violence quickly converted profits from selling on animals stolen from politically disqualified farmers, into fleets of motorbikes and Toyota ‘technicals,’ that is, pick-ups mounted with heavy machine guns, to facilitate rapid and far-reaching land clearances. These bloody clearances have freed up the land and mechanised borehole water supplies that have facilitated the expansion of coercive sheep ranching.

Over the last three or four decades, besides helping sustain the urbanisation of the Gulf, militarised ranching has created millions of displaced and permanently dispossessed people. Apart from swelling the burgeoning ranks of the migrant-dependent international shadow and gig economies, those remaining struggle to survive through non-remunerative agricultural labour, the informal urban economy, sporadic NGO electronic-transfers of token (non-dependency creating) amounts of cash and occasional in-kind handouts during periods of officially declared ‘drought’ and ‘famine’. Many are housed in internationally financed but ill-protected IDP and refugee camps. As the respective experience of banana and gum Arabic production in Somalia and Sudan suggests, these centres of concentration are better understood as bonded-labour camps.

Rather than underdevelopment, mindless kleptocrats or climate change, the crisis in the Horn of Africa is rooted in how the wealth of its peoples is being internationally plundered. Unfortunately, this crisis looks set to deepen. As Sudan fragments, any checks on a violent transnational mercantilism that a unitary state may have afforded have disappeared. At the same time, the Gulf is embarking on a new round of fossil-urbanisation. At the end of the day, people still need to be fed.

To read the full article in ROAPE please click here.

Mark Duffield works on the political philosophy of permanent emergency, including, the datafication of the current global crisis, the expansion of remote management systems and the growing antagonism between ‘connectivity’ and ‘circulation’. Nicholas Stockton describes himself as a recovering aid worker, now in semi-retirement.