By Judy el-Bushra and Judith Gardner

Mary Harper’s book Getting Somalia wrong? Faith, hope and war in a shattered state paints a picture of Somalia as a vibrant and resilient society, for which statehood is, and may always have been, an unsuitable model.  International efforts to bring it into line with the conventional model of the state are therefore misplaced and counter-productive, and miss opportunities to learn lessons of far-reaching relevance for global strategy and diplomacy.

The key chapters are on Somalia’s history (chapter 2), the evolution of violent Islamism (chapter 3) and on the notion of Somalia as a ‘failed state’ (chapter 4). Chapter 2 outlines Somali history from the pre-colonial period onwards, including a description of the various UN and US peace initiatives, arguing that they have been not only ineffective but positively destructive, being based on poor understandings of the context.

A focal point in chapter 3 is the short-lived success of the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) in stabilising and securing areas under its control (being a bottom-up movement and hence having real legitimacy in people’s eyes,) before being eliminated by international military intervention.  A long section (pp. 85-104) devoted to al-Shabaab presents interviews with ex-members and current leaders of the organisation. Its violent and repressive nature is made clear, together with its capacity to attract and coerce recruits, in Somalia’s current impoverished circumstances.  Chapter 3 sets the scene for the point to be made later that it was international intervention against the UIC, intended to eradicate violent Islamism once and for all, that in reality spawned even more extreme versions and led eventually to al-Shabaab gaining a dominant position.

Chapter 4 is in many ways the core of the book, examining the notion that Somalia is a ‘failed state’, and suggesting that the description signifies merely that its chaotic nature is seen by the United States as a threat to its and its allies’ security.  The argument is that even though basic security, governance and development functions have failed in many parts of Somalia, this does not mean that Somalia as a country has failed.  Mary Harper describes parts of Somalia’s economy as being highly effective, especially the external livestock trade, with telecommunications-based banking being a billion-dollar global industry.  She reserves particular praise for Somaliland, which, despite remaining officially unrecognised by any other country, functions as a state vastly more effectively than Somalia, which has not only been recognised but is also heavily propped up by Western military alliances.  She suggests that Somaliland’s lack of international recognition may have proved an advantage, as its people have been obliged to be self-reliant and find their own solutions to problems of governance – ‘ we are like a tortoise’ as one Somalilander is quoted as saying, ‘We move very slowly but we know where we’re going’ (p. 129).

Other chapters cover piracy and Somalia’s relations with the outside world. In the former, Somali solutions to controlling piracy by exercising sanctions on land are shown to have been more effective than the heavy-handed sea-based response of the international community.  In the latter, Mary Harper explains how the diplomatic ineptitude of the West has effectively tainted the Transitional National Government by its support. The concluding chapter re-states the argument that outsiders have not found it easy to accept Somalia, because they cannot match their models of what a state ought to look like to Somalia’s home-grown models and its ‘“horizontal” way of doing politics’ (p. 201).

The book’s style is fresh and engaging, and it will bring the case of Somalia to life for a broad readership.  The overall argument is the right one, and cogently made.  Mary Harper’s contacts as a journalist allow her to present valuable new material, especially her interviews with former al-Shabaab recruits, the Islamist leader, Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys and with pirates.   However the book misses a number of opportunities to explain the background more deeply, present a richer picture of the current situation, and sharpen the book’s central critique of international intervention.

Chapter one, for example, is an introduction to ‘clan and country’, providing insights into a variety of cultural and social factors including poetry, qat-chewing, the clan system and the concept of Greater Somalia. This could have benefitted from a more in-depth treatment of how the clan system actually works, what its implications are for individual men and women, how its resurgence in the late 1980s articulated with the slow collapse in the structures of the Siad Barre regime, and how, despite its often oppressive and exclusionary nature, it kept many Somali communities more or less going at critical moments through the last 21 chaotic years.

From this post-cold-war vantage point it is easy to dismiss Siad Barre’s regime as an aberration.  However, before it descended into tyranny, it succeeded in introducing policies that might now be seen as forward-looking had they not come to be associated with him.  For example it was disappointing not to see Mary Harper according more credit to the 1973 literacy campaign (p. 54) for its impact on a whole cohort of urbanised, privileged middle-class youth, whom it brought into direct and prolonged contact with the living conditions and values of the majority of the population, setting many of them on a path towards development and service-oriented professions.

The book is upbeat, not to say rather romantic, in its description of the present situation.  While the export trade in livestock may be successful, Somalia’s own livestock production is less buoyant, and the image painted of nomadic society is out-dated – nowadays, grazing enclosure is common and the majority of those looking after herds are more likely to be older women and young children.  Many young and adult men leave, if not to join a militia then to seek their fortune in town, often then getting permanently settled in urban life.

Responsibility for the current situation cannot be laid at the door of the US alone, despite the book’s focus on the US as the principal agent of international intervention. The 2002 – 2004 peace process, which gave rise to the present transitional government, was sponsored by the EU and facilitated by IGAD – the US played very little role in it being preoccupied with by Afghanistan and Iraq. In 2006, European Union member states were as convinced as the US that the only solution was to get rid of the UIC.  Unlike in other humanitarian emergencies, where international involvement has been subjected to intense review, decisions in relation to Somalia have never been scrutinised.  Getting Somalia wrong? might have been more rigorous in calling those involved in catastrophic decisions relating to Somalia to account.

Perhaps the most concerning gap area, however, is in relation to women.  True, the book refers to the suppression of women’s rights by Islamist regimes, and to the perhaps paradoxical welcome some women have given to them for bringing security to the streets, despite the arduous dress codes they imposed.   However, it misses opportunities to enrich the picture the book seeks to present of a tenacious and resilient society by taking a look through the eyes of Somali women.[i] Had Mary Harper widened her informants to include some of the many Somali women struggling for women’s representation in the various administrations and local councils, formal peace processes and other decision-making fora across the country, her description of the clan would have been more complete.  It might have highlighted how the collapse of the state included the collapse of the judiciary, and along with it, laws and legislation providing women with equal political, economic and social rights.  It might have explained how the clan system is experienced differently by women and men, as well as old and young.  Considering women’s roles and interests brings to the fore some of the key questions about clan as the basis for political organisation, and about the sustainability of political processes that are essentially based on exclusion.

Somali women have played, and continue to play, active roles in the pastoral economy, in trade and in commerce.  They have kept families going when men had no means of making a livelihood, set up income-generating projects designed to keep young men from returning to violence, run soup kitchens, and maintained health services.  They have had a serious though generally unacknowledged influence on the conduct of war and peace, urging war when they felt injustices needed to be confronted and peace when they thought the time was right. Having an ambiguous relationship to their paternal clans as a result of preferred exogamous marriage, they have cemented alliances and ensured safe passage to travellers.  Several have gone down in history as peacemakers, such as the late and much respected Sterling Abdi Arush, Noreen Mariano, and Dekha Ibrahim.  They have struggled, and generally failed, to make inroads into direct political decision-making (their abortive attempt to be recognised as the ‘sixth clan’ in the Transitional National Parliament a much-cited example in the international literature on women’s political participation). One wonders whether attention to women’s experiences of Somalia’s crises would have perhaps thrown sharper light on the question of who exactly has paid the price for the collapse of the central state – who exactly are the ‘hundreds of thousands of Somalis [who] live on the very edge of existence’ (p. 113)? The argument about Somali resilience would have been enriched – and perhaps tempered – if their perspectives had been acknowledged.

A similar charge relates to the book’s treatment of youth.  Interviews with former recruits to al-Shabaab show the dire lack of alternatives facing impoverished youth, but there is little exploration of the associated factors that constrain young people (especially young men), which include their subordinate position and political exclusion within clan-based politics (contrasting with Islamism which reaches out to the young), poor quality and lack of secondary and tertiary education opportunities, unemployment, hopelessness for the future, and the prospects held out by migration (often closer to human trafficking) to the West.  These are the factors which permit young men to be exploited by militia groups and those dependent on criminal activities such as piracy.

None of this detracts, however, from the relevance of the book’s overall message.  The emerging agenda of statebuilding, set to be the new focus of donor efforts in fragile and post-conflict societies, has much to learn from Somalia.  The OECD’s recent statebuilding guidelines[ii] stress that statebuilding is an ‘endogenous process’ in which legitimacy and state-society relations are crucial.  Clearly this insight has yet to be applied in the case of Somalia, where legitimacy and state-society relations have been destroyed by inept international interference, and where successful Somali ‘endogenous processes’ have been either ignored or destroyed by the actions of the international community. Essentially Mary Harper’s argument is that it’s the state that is inappropriate to Somalia, not that Somalia has failed as a state.  This is a strong and well-founded argument that the West needs to hear. If the reader had any doubts about the idiocy of the western response to Somalia, such doubts would have been dispelled by the end of the book.


[i] Documented by Somali women in Gardner, J. and El-Bushra, J. (eds.) (2004) Somalia, the untold story: the war through the eyes of women London, CIIR/Pluto Press

[ii] OECD (2011), Supporting Statebuilding in Situations of Conflict and Fragility: Policy Guidance, DAC

Guidelines and Reference Series, OECD Publishing.

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