Freelance journalist (BBC, RFI, magazines), writer (first book on Massive Attack and Bristol), I work with Raoul Peck on his film projects. Born in Paris, I have been based in Prague, Miami, London, Nairobi (covering Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, Somalia) and Bristol, UK. Travelled to Italy, Haiti, Tunisia, Liberia, South Africa, India, Mexico, Niger, Turkey, Iraq... Passions: Africa, Europe, literature, music, arts. This blog is to share thoughts and cultural discoveries from around the world.
Somalia is a considered a failed state by many international bodies and governments. And it has been over 20 years since the fall of its former dictator Siad Barre in 1991. When Somalia is mentioned, it is most likely as a threat whether to itself, its neighbours or the wider world. In recent years, it has become notorious for the rise of Islamic extremism and for the piracy attacks off its coast. It is even considered by some specialists of international relations as a new “southern front” in the global war on terror.
The difficulty of covering events in Somalia has left the country surrounded by many misunderstandings and misconceptions. Mary Harper’s work Getting Somalia Wrong?, published this month by Zed Books, in their the African Arguments series, seeks to shift a narrow vision of the country and broaden understandings Somalia’s situation.
As a BBC journalist and currently Africa Editor at the BBC World Service, Mary Harper has been reporting from Somalia since the outbreak of civil war in 1991 as well as from other war zones across Africa, including Sudan, Liberia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Her interest in Somalia, however, also has a personal dimension. Her mother worked in Somalia as a nurse in the early 1990s and introduced the country to her daughter in a sensitive and detailed way, above and beyond the descriptions offered by short news bulletins. After years of reporting in the Horn of Africa, Harper has developed a rare proximity to the Somali people.
Pride and prejudice
Harper is well aware of the prejudices surrounding Somalia. She writes in her introduction that she realises the country “ticks all the boxes for an African disaster zone”. “It has war, it has hunger. It provides perfect images for the media: gun-wielding, drug-crazed teenagers race around in sawn-off Land Cruisers, while skeletal women clutch starving children, flies buzzing around their faces.” Such images that have recently dominated world television networks during the famine of the past year.
But the whole point of the essay is to show how those images and clichés are barriers to other ways of fathoming a country in crisis but also in constant evolution. Indeed, despite two decades of conflicts,
Somalia has still managed to develop its economy via improvements in technology and money transfer. It has also grown through drastically-changing political phases.
Harper even argues that the rest of the world has a few things to learn from Somalis’ resilience and capacity to reinvent themselves. Alternative systems of business, justice, education and local politics have survived and evolved in the country.
Misunderstanding the situation
It is difficult to talk about a political system when dealing with contemporary Somalia, but even in this area, the country has found its own pattern, insists Harper. Somalia has no central government and is made up of a combination of regions which have more or less achieved semi-autonomy, like Somaliland and Puntland. The boundaries between these territories and the rest of Somalia – “south central” as it is often referred to – are blurred, disputed and shifting. But in many ways, this partition has benefited the population, since there is no conflict in the northern regions of country, while south central Somalia is still undergoing civil war.
What the book demonstrates best is how foreign powers involved in trying to resolve the conflict have often exacerbated the situation. When the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) took control of most parts of Somalia in 2006, ''The USA and its allies misinterpreted these events”, comments Harper. “They mistakenly equated a home-grown form of political Islam with the international al-Qaeda franchise and, by doing so, inadvertently advertised the country as a promising new battle front for jihadists from across the world''.
In reality, what happened in Somalia at that time was that Sharia courts were providing stability, some safety and a form of justice to the people after years of absolute chaos. And the US misinterpretation of the movement encouraged the UIC's fall in 2007 and the rise of al-Shabaab militias, who are violent and represent an actual threat for the country and the whole region.
According to Harper, Somalia has been ''squeezed into the dominant Western post-9/11 narrative'', but it happened without realising that the country would not let itself turn into a field of experimentation for the Western world's war on terror.
Harper admits that Somalia has always been difficult to comprehend for outsiders. But the foreign powers involved in the Horn of Africa nevertheless must now have a better look at its history if they want to understand it.
The second chapter of the book gives the readers a short history of Somalia. Plunging into Somalia's clan-like structure and complex history of invasions and cultural exchanges with its neighbours through the first and second chapters, Harper describes a very complex, mostly nomadic and oral society, as developing its own political models and religious patterns.
The third chapter, dedicated to Islam in Somalia, is particularly striking. Harper reports some of her hard-won interviews with current and former al-Shabaab leaders in order to better understand the interactions between politics and Islamism in today's Somalia. This includes the Islamic leader Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys and former leader Al Ahzari, as well as child soldiers living in Mogadishu or hidden as runaways in Nairobi.
Failed state, failed society?
Harper also describes how much Somalia has evolved into developing its own political and social systems, which are, despite the West's criticisms, somehow functional. Broken into more or less autonomous sub-regional and local entities, Somalia is not actually a state as modern political theories define it, but a collection of different clan and regional organisations. The example of the region of Somaliland shows, according to Harper, a form of possible stability for Somalis.
Also focusing on the issues of piracy in the Horn of Africa and the relations between Somalia and the outside world, the book describes how the country may be considered as a failed state, but is far from being a failed society. Harper concludes that to view Somalia through the prism of al-Qaeda is only a source of further destabilisation of the country and the entire Horn of Africa.
With a provocative analysis, Getting Somalia Wrong? argues that the international community needs to start getting Somalia right, or the consequences might end up being devastating, and not just for Somalia, but for major parts of the world. It is also wonderfully written, appealing and engaging, with numerous references to Somali traditions and poetry, rare virtues for such a serious topic.