Webinar Summary: After the Developmental State, Hajj Hamad and the Geopolitics of the Horn of Africa

Sudan. Photo by Abdulaziz Mohammed via Unsplash.

By Pamela Icyeza

On November 1, 2021, Alden Young, historian of Northeast Africa and Assistant Professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, gave a talk as part of the 2021 Walter Rodney Seminars at the Boston University African Studies Center co-sponsored by the Boston University Global Development Policy Center. In his talk, Young discussed his new book, ‘After the Developmental State, Hajj Hamad and the Geopolitics of the Horn of Africa,’ an analysis of the work of Muhammad Abu al- Qasim Hajj Hamad, a Sudanese intellectual and analyst.

Young began by summarizing Hajj Hamad and the debate around how to classify his work. Based on his historical involvement in the October 1964 revolution in Sudan, the Sudanese protest against the war in Congo (in particular, the idea of American intervention in Congo), his involvement in the idea that Haile Selassie (the former Emperor of Ethiopia) was a key part of the counter revolutionary axis in the region, as well as his intimate involvement in the Eritrean revolutionary struggle in the early 1960s (an involvement that becomes a passion for the majority of his career from the 1960s through the 1990s)— Young originally classified Hajj Hamad as a political economist.

However, Young noted that Hajj Hamad identified himself more as an analyst and a spokesperson. Notably, Hajj Hamad stated, “it is necessary to confirm that I am not an official spokesperson for the Eritrean state, and my observations are the observations of a man who is an expert in the affairs of the region, who lived and has lived for 30 years, so I speak on the basis of my experiences, my expertise and my relationships, and not on the basis of any position or responsibilities, so even during the long years I dedicated to the Eritrean Revolution, I was not working or speaking as a representative of the Eritreans.” In sum, he saw himself as an individual analyst, a spokesperson for his own ideas. He also never joined any political parties, solidifying his role as an outside expert commentator on regional affairs.

Young discovered the work of Hajj Hamad as an outgrowth of his 2017 book, ‘Transforming Sudan: Decolonization, Economic Development and State Formation.’ The book detailed the work and ideas of the first generation of Sudanese economic planners, who sought to grow Sudan’s agricultural exports and use the proceeds to develop the country. At the time, a technocratic government was seen as essential to this plan, one that would invest and develop the core regions of Sudan, and then eventually develop other areas of Sudan. This idea, however, inflamed the antagonisms present in 1950s Sudan, which led to the escalation of armed struggle, forced Arabization and the rise of the resistance movements in Darfur.

In 1964, the military regime was removed and replaced by the Sudanese communist party, which was the largest communist party in Africa at the time. Sudanese intellectuals grew increasingly frustrated with the idea of a Sudanese revolution—questioning whether Sudan would ever develop or successfully democratize. These frustrations grew as the communist party slowly dissolved, resulting in another coup in 1971.

During this period, Hajj Hamad posited that the main problem facing Sudan was that it lacked a national, cultural consciousness, while simultaneously being surrounded by counter revolutionary imperialist forces. In this assessment, any viable solution to the problem of development in Sudan would necessitate a shift in domestic, as well as regional character. This idea was sourced from Hajj Hamad’s belief that for state building to occur, there needed to be a hegemonic project in motion as well. In fact, his belief in the importance of hegemonic, regional development was the reason he dedicated himself to the Eritrean cause.

Hajj Hamad argued that one of the challenging, but beneficial things about Sudan is the country’s geographic location, as a meeting place for many different groups, the ideal starting point for the ‘Greater Horn of Africa.’ To Hajj Hamad, this confederation includes Sudan, Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Somalia, Eritrea and Djibouti, with a regional capital of Asmara in Eritrea. He ardently believed such a confederation would help “realize peace and define the identity, and affiliations and strengthen the unity of interests not in relation to Eritrea alone, but with all of the countries of the Horn of Africa.” Specifically, Hajj Hamad thought the confederation would eliminate conflicting racial and religious divisions in the region. Thus, the Greater Horn of Africa served as his unit of analysis for economic development, as any developmental project of a single unit inside the region would always be undermined unless the regional and integrative development project was prioritized.

Prior to taking on this research project, Young explained he assumed Hajj Hamad was a historical figure that facilitated thought about regional affairs, but he had not thought of him as someone who still actively influences dialogue. It wasn’t until a trip to Sudan in 2018 that changed his mind. Young traveled to Sudan to work with the Center for Democracy and Public Policy (CDPP), a Sudanese think tank, and came into contact with young Sudanese intellectuals studying the creation of a developmental state. In developing their ideas, his colleagues cited the work of Hajj Hamad, specifically, relying on his theory that hegemonic, regional development is essential to any conversation on Sudanese national development. This present day understanding of Sudanese development as a project dependent on hegemonic, regional development, illuminates Hajj Hamad as thinker not just of his time, but one who continues to have a direct impact on current conversations on economic development in Sudan.

Pamela Icyeza is Ph.D. Candidate in Political Science at Boston University and a 2021 Summer in the Field Fellow. Learn more about the Summer in the Field Fellowship.