Less than a year ago, in July 2011, as drought gripped the Horn of Africa, the UN declared that famine had returned to Somalia. For the second time since the Somali state was ripped apart by civil war two decades ago, Somalia children, women and men were unnecessarily dying from starvation. Foreign donors responded with millions of dollars in aid, but it was too late for the tens of thousands who had died and the many more who abandoned their lands to find food and shelter in urban centres or refugee camps in neighbouring states. While Al Shabaab, the militant Islamist group that professes support for Al Qaeda and opposes the internationally-supported Somali government, carries responsibility for the suffering of populations in the areas it had controlled for two years, the return of famine to Somalia was also a consequence of international policy.
The negative consequences of foreign intervention in Somalia is one of the central themes of Mary Harper’s book Getting it wrong in Somalia? Faith, war and hope in a shattered state. Published in February this year, shortly before the London Conference on Somalia and six months before the mandate of the Transitional Federal Government of Somalia is due to expire, the book is a timely reminder of how serially flawed international policy toward Somalia has been in the past two decades. The book describes how the UN humanitarian and peacekeeping mission in the 1990s, despite a massive intervention force, was unable to restore a Somali government, the failure of numerous internationally-sponsored peace meetings to produce a government that has broad legitimacy among Somalis, and how Western counterterrorism strategies served to generate Somali support for Al Shabaab. For two decades this mix of foreign diplomacy, military intervention and aid has been unable to put the shattered state of Somalia back together. In many cases foreign intervention has not only got things wrong, but made matters worse.
One of the reasons for this Harper suggests is the difficulty ‘outsiders’ have in understanding how Somalia works, which produces a critical gap between external attempts to solve Somalia’s problems and the reality lived by Somalis. The book seeks to rectify this by dedicating considerable space to the history of Somalia and the culture of the Somali people. That Harper does this in a very readable and accessible way, making good use of her own material as a journalist covering Somalia, helps to demystify much of what outsiders can find incomprehensible, such as the clan-based kinship system. An appreciation of this history and culture is essential for understanding contemporary developments in Somalia. Harper reminds us, for example, that Somali nomadic pastoralists lived in a stateless society before the modern state was introduced by European colonialists as an alternative way of ordering social and economic relations. The tension between a decentralised Somali political culture and centralised state authority remains one of the obstacles to crafting a functional and legitimate government in Somalia. She also reminds us that there are precedents in Somalia for violent political Islam. In the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century, the warrior sheikh Sayyid Mahammed Abdalla Hassan fought a twenty-year holy war against European colonialists successfully mobilising support around a proto-nationalist and religious agenda. Then – as today – foreign armies used airpower against this Islamist insurgency.
The most important theme of the book, however, is not the catalogue of where and how foreigners have gone wrong in Somalia, but what can be learned from what Somalis have done right. There is a need to rethink old wisdoms. Historically, the nation-state has been assumed to be the loci of development, but for the past two decades in Somalia, the most significant processes of development have been taking place outside the framework of the state and international aid. Viewing Somalia through the prisms of security and aid, as Western foreign policy mostly does, is a barrier for appreciating the real developments that have been taking place. A starting point is to jettison the notion of state collapse in Somalia as simply a “failure” of governance or development, and the inability of Somalis to govern themselves, but to understand it as a process of change and adaptation to global political and economic transformations. As Mary Harper explains, in the absence of a state, Somalis have been extraordinarily resourceful in re-appropriating development, taking modern technologies like mobile communications, to produce one of the cheapest and most developed mobile phone networks in Africa. This has been essential to facilitate the informal hawala money transfer system that allows Somalis anywhere in the world to transfer money to anywhere in Somalia in a matter of hours. Remittances have become the mainstay of the economy and through them Somalis have financed basic social welfare needs, trade, infrastructure development, as well as political projects. In advance of Western countries, Somalis are making great strides in mobile banking, now doing away with cash by purchasing goods and transferring money through mobile phone-based transactions.
And while the international community has laboured and failed to restore a sovereign Somali state, Somalis themselves have fashioned alternative structures of governance. The most successful example of this has been the secessionist Republic of Somaliland. Since breaking away from Somalia in 1991, people in Somaliland have established a polity which has many of the attributes of a sovereign state and has held more democratic elections since 2002 than any country in the region. The second presidential election in June 2010 led to the peaceful transfer of power from an incumbent government to the opposition. This was first time this has happened in this part of Africa since 1967 – at Somalia’s last democratic election. Somaliland’s independence is unrecognised internationally and is an emotionally charged subject among Somalis. The road to political recovery in Somaliland, which was achieved without external assistance, cannot necessarily be replicated in Somalia. But if there is one lesson to be learned from Somaliland it is that Somalis are perfectly capable of making peace and governing themselves peacefully, given the right conditions. One of those conditions, as Harper argues throughout her book, is to recognise the solutions lie with Somalis. With the mandate of the current transitional government due to expire in a few months time, there is an opportunity for the international community to help Somalis get things right this time.
Mark Bradbury has worked extensively in Somalia and is the author of Becoming Somaliland (James Currey 2008). He is the Chair of Conciliation Resources (www.c-r.org) and a Fellow of the Rift Valley Institute (www.riftvalley.net).
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