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Found: A Somalia we do not know

David L Smith

A newshound gives an astonishing insight into a much-maligned country.

Getting Somalia Wrong: Faith, War and Hope in a Shattered State by Mary Harper (Zed Books in association with the Royal African Society, the International African Institute and the Social Science Research Council)

‘State failure does not mean country failure.”

These are the words of Mary Harper, who believes that Somalia is a failed state but argues eloquently that it is not a failed country.

The reality is that the Somalia most of us know is a place of lawlessness, terrorists, pirates, kidnapping and ransom payments. But in Getting Somalia Wrong Harper does what few others do—she delves deep beneath the surface of the usual stories and presents us with a complex picture of a country that can make sense only if there is some understanding of its history.

I have read books about countries in Africa by people who have not done much more than fly through the airspace of the place they are writing about. The content usually matches the effort made to gather the information. But Harper has travelled around the Horn of Africa for decades, much of the time in her capacity as a BBC correspondent. When she says that foreign inter­vention is part of the problem in Somalia, she says it with considerable gravitas.

Unwelcome presences
Harper thinks that the transitional federal government is part of what is wrong with Somalia—a government elected by nobody and paid for and placed in Mogadishu by foreigners.

The presence in Somalia of armies from at least four foreign countries—Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia and Burundi—is another element of what is wrong. Uganda and Burundi are part of an African Union peacekeeping force—a force, Harper argues, that does little more than prevent the government from being slaughtered. Kenya says its troops are there to hunt down kidnappers and Ethiopia, well, Ethiopian soldiers seem to be somewhere in Somalia most of the time.

Efforts by the international community to fix Somalia from a distance also fit into her category of what is wrong. Conferences held in foreign capitals, the most recent in London earlier this year, to which some of the main protagonists are not even invited, inevitably lead nowhere.

Getting Somalia Wrong
moves to the top of my list of well-written books about Somalia because of how it highlights what works.

Somalia is really three countries. It is south-central, the old Italian Somaliland with the capital Mogadishu and a great deal of ­foreign intervention. It is the semi-autonomous region of Puntland, an area straddling the Horn of Africa where most pirate activity takes place. And it is Somaliland, the former British colony. Somaliland is the part that works: it has a democratically elected government and a developing infrastructure and ­generally it tends to get on with things without international recognition and with little support from the outside world.

Surprising optimism
‘Somalis can be very good at doing things for themselves,” writes Harper. Many of the innovative things she mentions have evolved because of the absence of an effective central government.

Somalia is perhaps the world’s best example of a free-market economy. There is almost no government bureaucracy to prevent people with ideas from going ahead and putting them into practice. The book is full of anecdotes that would give the most committed Afro-pessimist pause for thought—Somalis have among the continent’s best cellphone communications systems, they have perhaps the world’s most efficient money transfer system (based on trust), Somalia exports more livestock than most other countries in Africa and Somalis have a better record of bringing peace and stability to the places they govern than those who attempt to impose it from outside.

For example, the only period of relative calm that south-central Somalia has known since Mohamed Siad Barre was overthrown in 1991 was during the six months in 2006 when the Union of Islamic Courts was in charge. But the Ethiopian army, with United States support, removed it from power.

Ironically, the current head of the transitional government is one of the people removed by the Ethiopians at that time.

Getting Somalia Wrong
is not just an opposing view to the usual horror stories we hear about Somalia—Harper covers the good, the bad and the ugly. What makes this book different and important is that the author does not see her subject as one-dimensional. It is a book that attempts, successfully, in my view, to explain a country by getting to know the people who live in it.

The next time you hear about Somali shops being burnt in Khaye­litsha or on the East Rand and you wonder why they bother staying, Harper’s book will help you to ­understand where those nameless and faceless people come from and why they left their homeland in the first place.

David L Smith of Okapi Consulting in Johannesburg has an interest in things Somali, including launching a radio service in 2010 with the aim of providing a virtual round table for Somalis of all persuasions to discuss the challenges of their country

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