Review of Mary Harper’s Getting Somalia Wrong? Faith, War, and Hope in a Shattered State (London and New York: Zed Books, 2012).

Dr. Menkhaus is professor of Political Science at Davidson College, NC.

Somalia’s twenty year crisis of state collapse, war, famine, extremism, foreign intervention, and more recently piracy has produced all manner of publications and media coverage, including esoteric academic articles, turgid think tank reports, personal memoirs, and sensationalist documentaries and movies. But until now it has not produced an accessible, general account of the crisis since 1990 that a non-specialist can read and acquire a reasonably clear understanding of  what has happened in Somalia and why. Mary Harper’s Getting Somalia Wrong? fills that gap, and will no doubt be a staple read for anyone looking for a general  introduction to contemporary Somalia.

Harper is a BBC journalist who has covered Somalia since 1991, so she is well-positioned to produce a “guide to the perplexed” on the country. The writing style of the book reflects her professional background. The prose is smooth, breezy, and laced with extensive quotes and anecdotes, making for an easy read. The 200 page work can be read in one evening.

It is worth noting that many of the most influential and heavily read books on Africa over the past several decades have been produced by journalists, not academics. Indeed, some – like Joseph Lelyveld’s Move Your Shadow, are timeless classics, while others, like Keith Richburg’s Out of America: A Black Man Confronts Africa and Robert Kaplan’s The Coming Anarchy did more to spark debate over how to interpret Africa’s many crises of war and state collapse in the 1990s than anything academics and think tank analysts could conjure up.  Harper is by no means the first journalist to take a crack at explaining Somalia in a book. But her peers have treated  Somalia as just one case in wider accounts of Africa. By contrast, Harper’s book is solely devoted to explaining Somalia.

Harper also parts ways with most (though not all) of her fellow journalists by taking a more optimistic view of Somalia’s “shattered state.”  Instead of emphasizing misery, crisis, and violent chaos, she stresses local governance, resilience, and adaptation, including accounts of Somalia’s vibrant private sector that at times are so enthusiastic she could almost pass for a libertarian celebrating the virtues of life without a state.  That is not her intent, of course – instead, she is pressing home the point that Somali communities are not passive victims in the face of state collapse and war, but are instead actively forging coping mechanisms and systems of trade and security despite the deep challenges of living beyond a functional state. On this score she is in good company with nearly all close observers of the Somali political economy. The adaptability and entrepreneurism of Somalis over the past two decades have not always been constructive, but they have certainly been impressive.

The author faced a choice as to how best to structure the book –  organize it chronologically or thematically? Harper opted to do both, breaking the book up into two very distinct sections, with an introductory section providing a general overview to the culture and history of the Somali people, while the remainder of the book is devoted to selected contemporary topics. Readers will immediately note the shift in style and depth between the two. Harper’s review of Somali culture and history is almost entirely dependent on secondary academic sources, and in places reads like a review essay. It also draws heavily on a handful of mainly British sources, including the works of noted anthropologist I.M. Lewis. Lewis is a top expert on Somalia, but his emphasis on clannism as the central explanation of Somali social and political life has been the subject of extensive and heated debates.  Many Somali readers will find Harper’s treatment of clannism and traditional Somali culture somewhat objectionable and reductionist.  In fairness to Harper, it is not easy to introduce a culture and a people without dipping into what can look like stereotypes.

The underlying problem with the book’s introductory section on culture and history is structural, not analytic — it is simply very difficult to condense such a complex society and history into 70 pages. The entire 20 year reign of the dictator Siyad Barre is handled in three pages; the civil war and famine of 1991-92 gets three as well, and the ill-fated UN humanitarian intervention in Somalia is accorded a few more. The result is a series of general statements, sweeping explanations, and untreated topics that often do not do justice to the importance and complexity of these periods in the country’s recent history. In some cases the need to summarize this history produces misleading conclusions. This is just the nature of condensed histories of complex places.

The real strength of the book lies in the latter half, in sections treating selected contemporary topics, as it is there where Harper can mine her extensive interviews and field reporting on Somalia. The author devotes considerable space in this section to lengthy direct quotes from Somali actors, allowing them to speak with their own voices, unfiltered by the author. At times this came across as an exercise in cutting and pasting of interview notes, but in general it added texture and nuance to the book.

Harper selected four specific topics for examination – Islamism, state collapse, piracy, and external interventions in Somalia. The choices were predictable, as these are the most sensational stories coming out of the Somali drama.  Each of these topics are also deeply contested issues, with many competing interpretations among Somalis and Somali watchers. Harper treats them through what can best be described as the “sympathetic liberal European humanitarian” lens.  Her analysis is sympathetic in that it tends to emphasize the positive rather than negative aspects of Somali behavior and responses and blames outsiders for most of Somalia’s current crisis. This is part of her stated objective to present an alternative to writing that demonizes Somalia and Somalis. It is liberal in that it celebrates Somali civil society, political decentralization, and the private sector, while painting a dark picture of the extremist policies and practices of Shabaab. It clearly reflects the voices of humanitarian actors in its criticism of what Harper sees as the counter-productive prioritization of state-building and counter-terrorism objectives over relief and development goals. And it is distinctly European in its marked and repeated criticism of American (and Ethiopian) policies in Somalia, while largely giving European actors a free pass. Variations on the sentence, “yet again, America and its allies misjudged the situation” appear multiple times in the book.

The “sympathetic liberal European humanitarian” narrative on Somalia is very popular among most Somalis and the well-established community of Western aid workers based in Nairobi, so it is hardly surprising that this view permeates Harper’s book. And much of it is spot on. But this narrative desperately needs to be subjected to a rigorous critique.  Blaming America and Ethiopia for everything that has gone wrong in Somalia since 2001 has increasingly come to substitute for, not serve as the basis for, thoughtful analysis. There is plenty of blame to go around among external actors (including Europe!) for missed opportunities, flawed diplomacy, and militarized responses in Somalia. But the growing tendency among Somalis and Somali watchers to lay blame on selected external actors has the inadvertent effect of implicitly absolving Somalis of their own responsibility for the twenty year crisis. For all of the mistakes the international community has made in Somalia – and it has made many – myopic and corrupt Somali leaders must still bear principal responsibility for the long-running debacle there.  Harper’s book largely passes up on the chance to speak more frankly about the many Somali predators and spoilers who have also contributed to the country’s impasse.

Finally, books that attempt to cover contemporary crises – especially fast-moving ones – inevitably run into the problem of being rendered partially out of date by events occurring between the last round of editing and the printing and distribution of the book. Getting Somalia Wrong is no exception. Rapid changes since mid-2011 have already overtaken portions of Harper’s analysis, especially with regard to the worsening fortunes of the jihadi group Shabaab.   We now have much more detailed information about internal divisions in the group than were publically available when Harper wrote in 2011.  Nonetheless,  most of the analysis in the book will continue to be timely and relevant for at least several more years to come. Newcomers to the Somali scene will find this the best introduction to the country they can read.

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