This is an exemplary account of the current situation in Somalia and Somaliland in the Horn of Africa. Drawing on visits to the area over a number of years, and long-established acquaintance with Somalis from a wide range of backgrounds, the author has built up an impressively well-informed and sympathetic understanding of the Somali world.
She is particularly acute in her positive assessment of Somali achievements in such areas as internet banking and cell-phone communication where Somalis play a leading role in Africa.
Her approach is refreshingly positive as she charts the remarkable ways in which Somalis have managed to survive against all the odds. She does not minimise the appalling problems caused by protracted conflicts which seem almost insoluble in Somalia and which, as she clearly concludes, have been generally aggravated rather than alleviated by foreign intervention.
She exposes with admirable clarity the hackneyed inadequacy of the concept ‘failed state’ regularly applied to Somalia which conceals more than it reveals. Although she modestly emphasises her lack of technical expertise in handling the anthropological concept of segmentary politics which underpins traditional Somali society, she in fact gives a realistic and perceptive account of how this works and the limitations it imposes on political solidarity and stable political decision-making. As she rightly observes, clans and other kinship ties exert their optimum influence in times of conflict and their extraordinary flexibility makes them invaluable as the ultimate defence system in the constantly shifting sands of Somali identity.
Harper claims to have not sought to produce a work of scholarship, but in fact she provides the most accessible and accurate account available of the contemporary Somali world - pirates and all. In my view, the result is a work which presents the most useful picture of the current Somali scene, covering all significant aspects of Somali society, and providing a subtle analysis of the interaction between society, politics, economy and religion.
This is a remarkable achievement in a short book that, I think, omits nothing of major significance. I particularly welcome the accuracy and substantiality of her reportage which includes her use of passages from classic and contemporary poetry to illuminate the behaviour and attitudes of ordinary Somali citizens towards the uncompromising Muslim fundamentalists who today, as in earlier periods, sought to impose their control in Somalia.
Harper is particularly successful in reporting the contrast between the former state of Somalia which has not functioned for over twenty years but is still regarded by the EU (including Britain) as the official repository of Somali statehood, and the Somaliland republic (an ex-British Protectorate), which broke away from Somalia in 1990/91 and is contrastingly vigorously alive. As she observes, this stark contradiction is one of the outstanding political mysteries of the Horn of Africa.
Harper rightly stresses how fractured Somalia is a sad monument to the failure of Eurocentric centralised state organisation in Somalia, whereas with its more flexible combination of traditional and modern state organisation, Somaliland demonstrates that despite their strong traditional attachment to un-centralised political units, Somalis are perfectly capable of operating a modern democratic state successfully. Unfortunately, European politicians have such a blinkered, centric mindset that they have so far been unable to grasp this.
In contrast to the usual sensationalist treatment of Islam by ignorant western journalists, Harper presents a measured treatment stressing how wide the gulf is between the Al Shabaab fanatics and traditional Somali Muslims (largely Sufi in orientation). Order and absence of crime in contemporary villages and towns is however attributed by some residents to the Al Shabaab presence. All this contributes to a wide spectrum of contemporary Somali Islamic life that gives additional value to this book.
Finally, in the same spirit, Harper presents an admirably positive picture of the all too brief period, prior to the rise of Al Shabaab, in which the Islamic Courts ruled southern Somalia with a light hand but quite effectively. Unfortunately, as she observes, the Americans misrepresented the Courts as Islamic extremists and encouraged them to invade Somalia, further adding to war and chaos in Somalia.
Finally, a striking and pleasing feature of Harper’s approach throughout this book, is the sympathy and empathy she displays towards her subjects, without romanticising them.
Fellow of the British Academy
Emeritus Professor of Anthropology, London School of Economics