Sunday, 24 June 2012

Review of my book in African Affairs

African Affairs, published June 12, 2012
African Affairs, 00/00, 1–2 © The Author 2012. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of Royal African Society. All rights reserved
Getting Somalia Wrong? Faith, war and hope in a shattered state, by Mary Harper. London and New York, NY: Zed Books, 2012. 232 pp. £12.99 (paperback). ISBN 978 1 84277 933 0.
Mary Harper’s book is a very timely account of the major aspects of the protracted Somali crisis. In six chapters plus Introduction and Conclusion, Harper puts across one main argument: Somalia is not entirely failed. There are many aspects of the Somali situation that merit our attention and can be described as hopeful, positive developments. A lot can be learned from ‘the Somali way of doing things’ (p. 2). This contrasts strongly with the negative perspectives on everything Somali that dominate current international politics and popular percep- tions. In fact, the word ‘Somalia’ has become a synonym for war, anarchy, terror- ism, piracy, and humanitarian disaster, and the country serves as a warning to all others not to go down the road of complete state collapse.
Chapter 1 on clan and country, and Chapter 2 on history aim to provide the necessary background for readers unfamiliar with Somali affairs. While they go a considerable way toward doing that, these are the book’s weakest chapters. They contain several factual errors or mistranslations of Somali names. For instance, the assumption of a north–south migration of Somalis (p. 45) contradicts the established literature on that subject, and the chapters perpetuate a stereotypical picture of ‘the Somali’ as a ‘nomadic’ and ‘warlike’ people (pp. 23, 45, for example).
Harper is best when she describes events that she herself witnessed or covered in her long career as a BBC journalist involved with Somalia since the fall of the government of Mohamed Siyad Barre in 1991. Her outline of the start of the civil war in Mogadishu (pp. 56–9) is arresting and intense. It is Harper’s great skill to combine her descriptive and analytical account with quotes and anecdotes from Somali actors, be they refugees, businessmen, pirates, Islamists, or colleagues. These strengths come to the fore in chapters 3–5 on Islamism, state failure (with a question mark), and piracy. These chapters provide extremely readable, up-to-date and well-researched introductions to these topics that together account for the stereotypical and, as Harper rightly argues, wrong representation of Somalia and Somalis. There are many things that actually work in Somalia. Some parts of the economy have grown incredibly during the periods of statelessness. The telecom- munications sector and the informal banking systems are symbols of Somali entre- preneurial spirit and ingenuity. Peaceful and increasingly democratic polities such as Somaliland and (to a lesser degree) Puntland show that bottom-up state- building ‘Somali style’ is possible. Nonetheless, the negative representations of Somalia perpetuated by the international media are often taken as the starting point for formulating and justifying misguided policies toward Somalia. Harper underlines repeatedly, and most strongly at the beginning of Chapter 6 on Somalia and the outside world, that such wrong perceptions and policies have dramatically backfired over the past two decades. The most costly and damaging episodes of external intervention were the paranoid treatment of the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) as Taliban-like terrorists, and the subsequent Ethiopian military intervention backed and partly aided by the USA. Each intervention (beginning with the ‘humanitarian’ mission of 1992–5) has not only damaged the credibility of the international community, and cost large sums of money, but also claimed the lives of thousands of innocent Somalis and brought great suffering to the survivors.
It is a minor weakness that the author’s commitment to getting Somalia and Somalis right sometimes leads her to overlook details such as the outrageously self-destructive politics and ‘diplomacy’ of the UIC leadership. It was a clear mistake for the courts to openly ‘flirt’ with Eritrea, to declare jihad against Ethiopia and the West, and to invite fellow jihadists to Somalia knowing that these actions would provoke a strong reaction by its powerful neighbour and Western powers. Harper’s account of Somaliland as the most accomplished and democratic Somali polity is correct only in so far as it refers to the central and western regions of this de facto state. Other parts of the country, notably the eastern regions, are not as stable as they seem. Finally, one should not forget that, despite the impres- sive success stories that Harper narrates, many ordinary Somalis still live in extreme poverty. In particular, youths and single mothers are often faced with tough decisions for survival.
Harper’s point about the tendency of external spectators and politicians to mistreat Somalia and Somalis was proven again most recently, when leaders from more than 50 countries and some Somali politicians with doubtful reputations back home met in London in February 2012 to decide Somalia’s fate without con- sidering the true potential and wishes of the Somali people.
Getting Somalia Wrong? is engaged, very well written, and provides deep insights into Somali affairs in only 200 pages, something most academics could not ac- complish. The book is, therefore, despite the flaws mentioned above, the best con- temporary introduction to Somali politics and humanitarian issues on the market. It should be read by undergraduate students of any subject related to Africa, as well as by aid workers and politicians concerned with Somalia or similarly complex crisis states.
Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology MARKUS VIRGIL HOEHNE doi: 10.1093/afraf/ads043