Journal of Eastern African Studies, Special Issue: Politics and violence in eastern Africa: the struggles of emerging states, c.1940-1990​

Volume 8, Issue 4, 2014


4 November 2014


Over the 50 years between 1940 and 1990, the countries of eastern Africa were embroiled in a range of debilitating and destructive conflicts, starting with the wars of independence, but then incorporating rebellion, secession and local insurrection as the Cold War replaced colonialism. The articles gathered here illustrate how significant, widespread and dramatic this violence was. In these years, violence was used as a principal instrument in the creation and consolidation of the authority of the state, and it was also regularly and readily utilised by those who wished to challenge state authority through insurrection and secession. Why was it that eastern Africa should have experienced such extensive and intensive violence in the 50 years before 1990? Was this resort to violence a consequence of imperial rule, the legacy of oppressive colonial domination under a coercive and non-representative state system? Did essential contingencies such as the Cold War provoke and promote the use of violence? Or was it a choice made by Africans themselves and their leaders, a product of their own agency? This article focuses on these turbulent decades, exploring the principal conflicts in six key countries – Kenya, Uganda, Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia and Tanzania.​

​Original Articles:

This article explores the uses of organized violence in Somali politics from the late colonial period up to 1980, an era that – on the surface, at least – appears relatively free of political violence compared to both previous and ensuing decades. After considering critical historical and contextual background, the analysis proposes a typology of political violence in Somalia. It then maps the trends in political violence from 1950 to 1980, looking for patterns of continuity and change, and offering possible explanations for these patterns.​

The question of the future status of Abyei remains a deeply contested issue between Sudan and the independent South Sudan. The connection between the political violence in Abyei and eruption of the two civil wars in Sudan is sparsely documented, but this history reveals the character of the Abyei problem. This article provides an analysis of the role of political violence in the emergence of the dispute around the status of Abyei. It charts the evolution of the problem chronologically, first situating the history of the Ngok Dinka population of Abyei, and then mapping the history of violence through the independence period, the first civil war, the early 1970s and the failure of the Addis Ababa Agreement, and finally the second civil war in the 1980s. Political violence in Abyei became central to the large-scale contestation between the south and the north in Sudan, the struggle of the Abyei people contributing towards shaping a southern Sudanese identity and in defining the character of the independent state of South Sudan.​

From 1954 to 1960, the British detained approximately 8000 women under the Emergency Powers imposed to combat the Mau Mau Rebellion in Kenya. Kamiti Detention Camp was the main site of women's incarceration, and its importance has been widely acknowledged by scholars. However, new documentary evidence released from the Hanslope Park Archive since 2011 has revealed the existence of a second camp established for women at Gitamayu, created in 1958 explicitly to deal with the remaining “hardcore” female detainees. This article examines the British struggle to contend with the hardcore Mau Mau women in the final years of the Emergency Period, one that was marked by uncertainty, violence, and an increasing reliance on ethno-psychiatry. Debates about how to deal with this group of women engaged and perplexed the highest levels of the colonial administration, generating tensions between legal, political, and medical officials. At the center of these debates was the question of the female detainees' sanity, with some officials pressing for these women to be classified as insane. The charge that hardcore women were “of unsound mind” was used for a variety of purposes in the late 1950s, including covering up the abuses in the camps. Examining the British approach to these detainees illuminates how ideas about gender, deviancy, and mental health shaped colonial practices of punishment.​ ​​

The Torit Mutiny of August 1955 in southern Sudan did not trigger a civil war, but state violence and disorder escalated over the following years. We explore how the outlook and strategies of the government officials who inherited the state apparatus of the Anglo-Egyptian condominium contributed to this development. They perpetuated authoritarian and violent government practices based on a legalistic distinction between citizen and outlaw, while justifying their actions as part of a developmentalist and nationalistic discourse. The Mutiny created fear of another outbreak of violence which prompted recourse to collective punishment, an expanded intelligence network and bolstered the powers and mandate of the chiefs. However, the authoritarian tendencies were paired with developmentalism and the desire to educate and civilise the southerners. Through education and the justice and penal system, they were to be ‘made to learn’ how to become ‘modern’. This combination of perpetuating colonial government practices and fervent nationalism resonates with analyses of transitions to independence elsewhere in Africa, from which the case of southern Sudan has been largely excluded up to now.

​​During the 1960s and 1970s, the Government of Ethiopia supplied Southern Sudanese insurgents with arms, training and political support. This support has been explained as retribution for Sudanese aid to Eritrean rebels fighting against the regimes of Emperor Haile Salassie and the Derg. This is one aspect of the Ethiopian rationale for this proxy war, but other factors were also relevant. Based on primary sources from the Ethiopian Ministry of Defence and the Nation Archive of Great Britain, this article shows that Ethiopian policy was also influenced by local concern for state control in Ethiopia's Western region of Gambella, by the regional interests of Middle Eastern powers in the Horn of Africa and by the global context of Cold War, reflecting a network of multi-level proxy wars.

The paper explores the extent to which other domestic political matters and post-colonial ties to Britain shaped the Kenyan Government's actions in northern Kenya between independence in 1963 and the death of President Jomo Kenyatta in 1978. The paper has a particular emphasis on the Shifta War of 1963–1967. Disputes between rival nationalist leaders at independence and doubts about the loyalty of the armed forces meant Kenyatta concentrated on protecting his regime from the threat of coups and other challenges than he was with using violence to extend state authority in north-eastern Kenya. That same calculation meant Kenyatta looked to Britain for support, in particular in the form of military backing for his government in the event of a coup or invasion from Somalia. The paper argues that the compromises made between British and Kenyan actors allow us to understand the particular nature of the Kenyan state's actions in north-eastern province over this period.​

​​​In February 1984, soldiers of the Kenya Army mounted a security operation around Wajir in Kenya's North Eastern Province. Having rounded-up all Somali men of the Degodia clan, as many as 5000 were taken to the Wagalla airstrip for interrogation. This was part of the policy of ‘collective punishment’ – a conscious act of state violence against its own citizens. After four days of interrogations at Wagalla, several hundred Degodia lay dead: whether 500 died, or 1000, or more is unknown, but the incident stands as the worst atrocity in Kenya's modern history. This article recounts what is known about the massacre from witness and survivor testimony, putting this together with documentary evidence recently revealed through the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC) and setting the analysis in the wider context of Kenya's treatment of the peoples of its ‘forgotten north’. The conclusion summarises the findings of Kenya's TJRC on Wagalla, and comments on the recent construction of a monument to commemorate the massacre, opened at Wajir on 14 February 2014.​

With Siad Barre's invasion of Ethiopia in 1977, the military regime of the Derg implement policies aimed at the weakening and destabilization of the Republic of Somalia. This initiative was not entirely novel but was based upon precautionary plans first laid down under the imperial administration of Haile Selassie. The defeat of the Somalia army in the Ogaden would in fact herald the beginnings of the collapse of the power of Siad Barre and the Somali state, but the destabilization of Somalia has also destabilized the entire region of the Horn of Africa. This article charts the Ethiopian response to Somali irredentism at this crucial time, particularly focusing on the clandestine operations by the Derg to permanently eliminate the threat posed by Somalia. Previously untapped archival materials from the Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs are used as the basis for this analysis of Ethiopia's foreign policy.​

The Uganda–Tanzania War of 1978–1979 has received little attention from historians. This article uses British diplomatic sources to explore the causes and course of the conflict. In particular, it examines how Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere sought to hide from and later justify to the rest of the world an invasion of Uganda and the overthrowing of Idi Amin, actions that contravened the Charter of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU). Distinct among contemporaneous African conflicts for its noticeable lack of a Cold War context, the war demonstrated the shortcomings of the OAU in resolving African conflicts. Despite some dissenting voices, Nyerere's own disregard for state sovereignty was largely overlooked, as the fall of Amin's regime was quietly welcomed by the majority of Africa's leaders.​​

​Many counterinsurgent tribal militias emerged during the second civil war in Southern Sudan. Existing studies give the impression that formation of these groups was largely a top-down process. Focusing on the rise of the Fertit militia and relying on a series of in-depth interviews with tribal leaders, this article challenges that assumption. The article shows that the emergence of the Fertit militia was principally a grassroots phenomenon stemming from local tensions and conflicts. The article discusses the wider applicability of these insights and, generally, proposes a more nuanced approach to the study of counterinsurgent militia formation. The approach suggests simultaneous attention to state interventions and local interactions.​​

​​This article scrutinizes dynamics and legacies of state violence by the imperial and current government against civilians in the Ethiopian Ogaden, between 1960 and 2010. While conflict dynamics in eastern Ethiopia underwent significant changes in the past half-century, successive counterinsurgency campaigns employed strikingly similar military tactics against local communities. Combining historical accounts with oral testimonies collected among victims of state violence in the Ogaadeen Somali diaspora in the USA, this article draws attention to the distinct temporality and spatiality that emerges from repeat cycles of state violence.​