Mary Harper, Getting Somalia Wrong? Faith, Hope and War
in a Shattered State
Zed Books, London, 2011. ISBN 978 1 84813 000 0 hb/ pb, 2011 forthcoming
Mary Harper’s informed, perceptive and empathetic book on Somalia could not be coming out at a more apt time, with the country back in the news and now the scene of a major Kenyan military incursion.
This is a work that demonstrates the importance of engaged but impartial journalism and clear, uncluttered thought expressed simply but effectively. It deserves to make a big impact on the understanding of what is happening in Somalia and why – something that is clearly needed.
A journalist with the BBC African Service for more than 20 years and one who had reported from Somalia and regularly visited the country since 1991, Harper demonstrates in her book the qualities that made the World Service the world’s most balanced, fair-minded but courageous news service. Above all else she tries and succeeds in conveying understanding and where understanding is difficult or impossible to convey why.
Starting with a short but clever section on how British children react to the word Somalia, Harper describes the negative images that fight each other to get on TV screens or newspaper pages when events in Somalia are reported – drug-crazed teenagers with guns, cut-down Land cruisers with guns mounted on the back, pirates, skeletal women and children. She rightly says of Somalia that ‘these
images act as barriers to other ways of seeing Somalia” (p.2) and so dominate
the news at the expense to the exlucison of all alese, especially the signs that amid the conflict and crisis, Somalis are themselves inventing alternative
economic and political systems and effective survival strategies.
Somalia is the ultimate image, for many, of the failed state. It has seen almost constant conflict since the overthrow of Siad Barre in 1991. It has also seen, as the author patiently and clearly explains, a series of ill-conceived, poorly executed and severely damaging foreign interventions. These
have been negative rather than positive factors in Somalia’s evolution – from the
disastrous US intervention ending after the now infamous Black Hawk Down
episode, via the brutal US-backed Ethiopian invasion to overthrow the Union of
Islamic Courts (for a brief period a source of stability) to the endless and
largely pointless peace conferences held in plush hotels around the Horn and
These are described clearly in their historical, political and international contexts and show how a total lack of understanding of Somalia, its history, culture and political development led to attempts to force change that were doomed from the start. They amply demonstrated that interventions
not based on knowledge of how Somalia works (which it does when left to itself,
as Harper’s account of the development of politics in the Somaliland area shows)
works against reality. As she explains (p.12), ‘Outsiders tend to find it a
hard place to understand, and there is generally a wide gap between the various
attempts made to introduce solutions to its problems and the reality lived by
This gap in understanding is not just a European or American phenomenon. Somalia differs hugely in its culture, traditional structures, economy and informal but lasting political/social institutions from much of Africa. The clan-based pastoral system that encompassed the economic, social and political spheres makes Somalia a poor environment for centralised government on a Western or hybrid Western/African pattern – so attempts to achieve this have failed.
Siad Barre failed to forcibly centralise the state – though of course it can be argued, as Harper does, that he was attempting both the diminution of clan influence and the hegemony of his own clan at one and the same time. Peace conferences based on the participation of elites distanced from the grassroots, trying to hammer out Western-backed deals involving centralised transitional governments have produced weak governments that have not only failed to end conflict but have all too often (through outside interventions) worsened it.
These attempts are described, picked apart and roundly and cogently
criticised by the author, as is the tendency to view Somalia through the prisom
of the “War on Terror”.
For me, the most valuable section in what is a readable and very well-informed study, is that dealing with Somaliland and its slow, careful and, above all, Somali-generated progress from a break-away state beset by competing clans or movements to one of the most stabe and inventive polities in Africa. Denied international recognition but also largely free of outside interference, Somaliland has developed a working economy and an indigenous hybrid system of representative government that involves but doesn’t just centre on the clans and which is increasingly accountable – (p.133) ‘Because Western models of peacemaking and state-building have not been imposed from the outside, Somaliland has in many ways saved itself from the fate of Somalia. The
example of Somaliland has demonstrated that when left to themselves, Somalis
can form a viable nation state’.
The book deals with politics, economic, culture and society in a clear and uncluttered way. It is written, as you’d expect from an experienced World Service journalist, in a clear and impartial manner and is not littered with jargon that inhibits understanding. The section on piracy is particularly good –
not falling for any of the simple and beguiling solutions or explanations but
talking to those involved and analysing why it is happening.
If there is one criticism it is perhaps that the author did not foresee the scale and
planned nature of the current Kenyan intervention,though she does set out well
the threat events in southern Somalia posed to Kenya and the Kenyan desire to
find a solution.
That minor criticism apart, this is a book that must be read by those who want to
understand Somalia, those involved in any way with the country whether as
policymakers, security “experts”, in NGOs or those seeking to do business
there. It is engaged but balanced and very clear in its well-founded belief that (p.13)‘until Somalia is more clearly understood and a different approach is found, it will continue to perplex, alarm and threaten the international community, and it will be very difficult to find a way forward for the counter which works for the Somalis themselves and for the outside world.’ And, as Mary Harper rightly concludes, the world needs to be more creative, like the Somalis themselves, in its dealings with the country and its people and (p.200) ’ torecognize that Somalis can be very good at doing things for themselves’.