the notion of
Somalia as 'a failed state'
Somalia Wrong, Faith, War and
Hope in a Shattered Life' by Mary Harper
African Arguments ZED BooksLondon and New York.
Pp 217. Bookshop cost of £12.99. Google Amazon.
brilliant, Getting Somalia Wrong, Faith, War
and Hope in a Shattered State was recently
launched at SOAS in London receiving high praise
from her peers, Small wonder.
Mary Harper’s first book is an
important work: Harper, BBC African editor and
journalist has also written for the Washington
Post, The Economist and The Times.
Listeners to the BBC World
Service will be familiar with her voice,
interviewing dissident Presidents, and asking the
questions that other journalist dare not.
With Somalia, a near neighbour
sharing a border, Kenya has grown more and more
concerned as war torn Mogadishu has gone from bad
to worse so Getting Somalia Wrong is
essential reading for those who have lived with
"the Somali problem" for two decades.
As many as 600,000 of displaced
Somalis have amassed in refugee camps in Kenya and
Ethiopia so that now the camps themselves appear
"normal" as do the self imposed enclaves
where Somali’s hang together.
The very word, Somalia, stands
for a ‘failed state.’
Haven for Al-Quaeda;
the worst crisis,
the most corrupt;
the "dodgiest passports
in the world."
Take your pick.
Harper has been reporting on
Somalia since the outbreak of civil war in 1991.
Mary Harper’s Getting
Somalia Wrong, Faith, War and Hope in a
Shattered State was recently launched at
SOAS in London.
That year, her mother, Gay
happened to be working with Save The Children for Unicef
Mother and daughter kept in touch
as often they could by international telephone.
Gay Harper, would reassure Mary,
who could hear sounds of shelling and the whine of
bullets in the background, that she was OK. Quite
Twenty years on, somewhat
ironically BBC African editor Mary Harper
gets calls virtually daily from that same
benighted city when her colleague, Mohamed Moalimu
reports casualties: the deaths, the wounded, the
number of children abducted during the hours of
the latest battle.
Sometimes, Moalimu holds up the
phone so that Harper can hear how close and heavy
Harper’s knowledge of her
subject, with impunity, has entered her
She knows herself how pre-judice
against Somalia "ticks all the boxes for an
African disaster zone."
Yet with ample proof, she suggests
in multiple lucid glimpsesin Getting Somalia
Wrong, that Somalia needs to be looked at
Harper’s uncluttered narrative
also turns out to be a page turner.
• Many, many books and words
have been published on Somaliland.
Quite a feather in the author’s
cap comes from Professor Ioan Lewis, whose
knowledge of Somalia’s culture and history is
highly respected, as a long-time observer who now
proclaims, Mary Harper’s first book …
"The most accessible and
accurate account available of the contemporary
Harper’s message is clear.
Somalis have an ability to survive
in chaos and squalor, lacking modern facilities,
blessed with an attitude as uncom-promising as
their passion for the hostile country, nomads from
They are born talkers,
story-tellers and poets, waxing lyrical about
camels, the stars and the desert, images
contrasting sharply with headline grabbing
coverage of violence.
Film of teenagers (and younger)
brandishing sawn off shotguns; still photographs
of shrivelled mothers holding children so
emaciated that huge eyes, underline the
listlessness of starvation since famine, has yet
again recently dominated world television
By circumventing the pitfall of
condescension, and without heavy analytic judgment
as an "expert" Harper’s accessible
style is a welcome introduction as to why the
majority of European countries, have managed to
get things so wrong, making clear that Somalia is
not actually a failed state as so much one as
mistakenly defined by modern political theories.
Evolving systems of education,
local politics, business and even justice appear
to be thriving.
The Somalis are at heart,
resilient; their survival is unyielding, endemic
to the harshness of their waterless thorn filled
The complexity of the clan sys-tem
is partly responsible.
Each chapter, contains little
known revelations on education.
Islamism, Piracy and Clans.
From the age of eight, children
have a profound knowledge of their lineage.
And "can recite his or her
genealogy through the male line, some twenty or
thirty generations back, to a common
A Somali proverb, neatly sums up
the divisive nature of the clan.
"Me and my clan
against the world,
Me and my family against
Me and my brother against
Me against my
Yet the collection of different
clans and regional organizations, by example, may
well display a form of possible stability for
Nor is the importance of Qat
The natural stimulant, central to
daily existence in Somalia, deliveries arrive by
air, to wherever Somalis exist and are impatiently
This is a habit that Westerners
simply do not (or cannot) understand.
In Nairobi’s Eastleigh, rundown
by –trash, potholes, open drains, flies buzzing
over everything and called, "Mogadishu kidogo"
new buildings in costly reflective glass and
marble flooring, rise from the all but
Water and electricity supplies at
best erratic, where "a special qat street, is
lined with dukas where the addictive green leaves
hang in bunches.
Somalis relax in numerous tea
houses, chewing the cud, - a sort of café society
- grouped like "mini-parliaments"
arguing noisily on politics and world events.
This trade in qat is worth tens of
millions of dollars annually, showing no signs of
dwindling during this drawn out conflict.
The extraordinary concept of ‘pavement
banks’ close by the Dahabstiil multi-storey
operation HQ in Hargeisha was founded by a humble
importer because he needed foreign currency to
The result on the street now-adays
- "Men sit beside wire cages stacked high
with Somali shillings, US Dollars and other
When they want to have lunch, they
simply put the money inside the cage, lock the
door and leave."
Few have forgotten that phrase,
"Black Hawk Down" spawned term by
conflict between General Aideed sparking the first
Battle of Mogadishu in 1993 after two American
helicopters were shot down;
In a frantic military operation to
rescue their countrymen, eighteen US servicemen
were killed; some corpses were dragged through the
Since then, "The USA and its
allies misinterpreted these events", comments
"They mistakenly equated a
home-grown form of political Islam with the
international al-Qaeda franchise … by doing so
inadvertently advertised the country as a
promising new battle front for jihadists from
across the world".
Harper is ever persuasive;
statistics even, do not make her reader’s
"In 1999 the overseas trade
in small stock sheep and goats ("shoats"
as the late Elspeth Huxley called them) from
Somaliland and neighbouring Puntland was larger in
volume, than before the Government’s
• Since them millions of
dollars have been spent on conferences
purporting to have the answer to Somalia; being
seen to be ‘doing something’ outweighed
With vested interests in
pro-longed meetings, when a marathon conference
dragged on for two years in Nairobi, the Kenya
authorities became so desperate they organized a
farewell party - a broad hint - it was time to go
Harper believes implicitly the
rest of the world must surely learn from Somalis’
Most civilians left in Mogadishu,
are there because they cannot afford to leave:
She cites the acumen of one Somali
business man who has left, witnessed while sitting
with him in a London restaurant hammering out
"multiple deals on his various mobile phones,
while consuming Spaghetti bolognaise and sending
endless emails on his Blackberry.
Britain’s Foreign Minister,
William Hague has just returned from installing a
new UK envoy in Mogadishu.
The timing of publication of
Getting Somali Wrong, is perfect.
The Berlin Conference in 1885 was
attended by white faces.
This time Somalis will be sitting
around the carving table on 23 February in London
when the all important conference on Somalia takes
Harper has shown how clan-based
policies in the northwest (Somaliland-the former
British protectorate) and northeast (Puntland),
among others, are already self-governing with a
remarkable degree of success in terms of local
Somalia has never been easy for
onlookers to fathom.
She has pointed out that
re-dressing the notion of Somalia as "a
failed state" is overdue.
Foreign powers involved in the
Horn of Africa need to scrutinize its history
again if they want to understand it.
Harper’s provocative argument
seeking to shift a narrow vision of the country to
broaden understandings of Somalia’s situation
today, is as wise as it is refreshing.
Let’s hope that her insights in Getting
Somali Wrong, are perceptive enough for this
engaging study to become a classic.
There is a good Glossary,
Bibliography, chronology and index though
pagination for the index leaves a lot to be
you read it first at coastweek.com