Dehai News Navigating Identity and Boundaries: Challenges in Post-Colonial State Formation in the Horn of Africa

Posted by: Berhane Habtemariam

Date: Tuesday, 07 November 2023

Navigating Identity and Boundaries: Challenges in Post-Colonial State Formation in the Horn of Africa

The post-colonial states in the Horn of Africa have been deeply influenced by their colonial past, with enduring impacts on statehood and identity politics. The arbitrary colonial borders and struggles for independence have created challenges in forming cohesive national identities  (Mamdani, 2001). This essay explores the significant role of identity politics in shaping national identities, considering the historical context, dynamics of identity politics, and their effects on state stability. It aims to shed light on the complexities of identity, nation-building, and regional dynamics in the diverse Horn of Africa region.

Historical Context

The formation of post-colonial states in the Horn of Africa is deeply influenced by its colonial history. The arbitrary colonial borders and foreign administrative structures have had long-lasting effects on statehood and identity politics.

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the region was partitioned by colonial powers, with Ethiopia maintaining independence and expanding its territory. Eritrea came under Italian rule and later federated with Ethiopia, while Somalia was divided into British and Italian regions (Taddia, 1990). The struggle for independence marked a significant shift, with Ethiopia and Somalia envisioning different paths for their nations, leading to clashes among neighboring countries and diverse ethnic groups (Emmenegger, 2021). Eritrea eventually gained independence after a prolonged armed struggle, but tensions between Eritrea and Ethiopia erupted into a war (Bezabih, 2014).

The historical forces of colonialism, territorial conflicts, and fights for independence have presented obstacles to the establishment of post-colonial states. African nations were compelled to construct their countries within the framework of inherited colonial systems, resulting in a prevalence of ethnic identities instead of a more inclusive national identity (Matshanda, 2022). Mamdani argues that the failure to decolonize the legally imposed political identities has significantly contributed to the crisis experienced by nation-states.[1]

The Influence of Identity Politics and Colonial Boundaries in the Horn of Africa

The Horn of Africa is renowned for its diverse ethnic and religious composition, consisting of groups such as the Oromo, Somali, Amhara, Tigray, Afar, and others, coexisting alongside followers of Islam, Christianity, and indigenous belief. This intricate tapestry of identities profoundly influences the region’s politics and socio-cultural dynamics (Clapham, 2017).

Identity politics, rooted in ethnic and religious affiliations, exert significant influence on political mobilization, power struggles, and governance throughout the Horn of Africa (Mamdani, 2001). Groups often align themselves along these lines, striving for representation and protection of their interests. Mamdani argues that identity politics frequently gives rise to political parties and movements based on ethnic or religious affiliations, fostering divisions and power competition.

These divisions based on identity by the European have extensive implications for national unity and cohesion. Mamdani stated that the emergence of Pan-Africanism in response to the crisis in Africa highlights the belief that the problem stems from the arbitrary colonial boundaries that neglected ethnic divisions. These boundaries were created without considering the cultural and ethnic makeup of the continent . Pan-Africanists argue that the political map of Africa should have been aligned with its cultural map, recognizing and respecting the ethnic boundaries that exist. This perspective criticizes the way in which the colonial powers drew the borders, as they were determined without taking ethnic considerations into account. The pursuit of political power and resources often exacerbates tensions among various ethnic and religious groups. Competing historical narratives, cultural disparities, and economic inequalities further contribute to social fragmentation (Mamdani, 2001). As a result of the enduring impact of colonialism, numerous ethnic groups, such as the Somalia-Muqdisho, Ethiopian Somali, and Kenyan Somalia, find themselves spanning international borders between neighboring countries (Mengistu, 2015). These ethnic groups assert their shared cultural identity and claim a sense of homogeneity despite being geographically divided by the borders imposed during the colonial era.

Contestations over National Belonging and Territory in the Horn of Africa

The challenges faced by postcolonial nation-state projects are complex and diverse, varying depending on geography and historical context. The Horn of Africa has witnessed similar disputes regarding national identity and territorial boundaries. The conflict dynamics in the Horn of Africa are unique, with a higher occurrence of inter-state conflicts compared to other African sub-regions (Clapham, 2017).

The states in the region have a long history of lending support to insurgent groups in neighboring countries as a means to undermine regimes they perceive as opposing their interests (Mengistu, 2015). According to Mengistu (2015), Eritrea has offered support to several Ethiopian insurgency groups in their struggle against the Ethiopian government. As a result of this support, the Ethiopian regime retaliated by providing backing to opposition groups within Eritrea, including the Eritrean Democratic Alliance and The Red Sea Afar Democratic Organisation (RSADO).

The Ethiopian  civil war was thought to be the case to better illustrate identity politics. Ethiopian Civil War (1974-1991): The Ethiopian Civil War, a protracted conflict, involved various factions representing different ethnic groups and ideological interests. The struggle for power between the Derg regime, predominantly composed of ethnic Amhara elites, and ethnic liberation movements, such as the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), highlighted the contestations over national belonging and the fragmentation of the Ethiopian state along ethnic lines (Harter,2023; Mengistu,2015).

According to Lyman (2013) and Matshanda (2022), contestations over national belonging in the case of Sudan arose shortly after the country attained independence from Britain in 1956. In the aftermath, Sudan was embroiled in a protracted civil war, which eventually led to the creation of two distinct nations in 2011: the Republic of Sudan and the Republic of South Sudan.


The crisis of post-colonial nation-state projects in the Horn of Africa highlights the multifaceted challenges of constructing cohesive national identities in diverse, multi-ethnic, and multi-religious societies. The legacy of colonialism, arbitrary borders, and historical grievances have contributed to political fragmentation, violence, and contestations over national belonging and territory.

Addressing historical factors, social disparities, and cultural differences is crucial for fostering unity and cohesion. Inclusive governance, equitable resource distribution, and a collective sense of belonging are key to overcoming this crisis. Understanding these dynamics can guide efforts towards stability, peace, and prosperity in the region.

[1] Mamdani(2021) quoted by Matshanda(2022).

Adrian Firmansyah
International Relations student at Universitas Gadjah Mada. I am particularly dedicated to the fields of environmental issues, development studies, and postcolonial studies. These areas of study have enabled me to explore the intricate relationships between nations, people, and our environment, seeking solutions for a more sustainable and equitable world.

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