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February 23, 2012

Getting Somalia Wrong and other background reading for today's big conference

February 23, 2012
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On 3 February, the UN declared that there were no longer famine conditions in southern Somalia, but six months since that famine was declared, Somalia is still in the throes of its worst humanitarian crisis in decades. Nearly a third of the population remain in
crisis, unable to meet essential food and non-food needs. Key governments and institutions from the region and the wider Islamic and Western worlds are meeting in London today to chart a way forward. So expect the usual grim media coverage and talk of failed states and famine. Oxfam summarized the state of the famine response and the need to move beyond foccusing only on terrorism and piracy to put Somali peoples’ interests at the heart of a sustainable peace process in a paper published yesterday.

But there’s a lot more to Somalia and Somalis than is likely to surface in the media coverage today – for a quick intro try reading Mary Harper’s excellent new book, ‘Getting Somalia getting somalia wrongWrong: Faith, War and Hope in a Shattered State.’ Harper has reported for the BBC on Somalia since the outbreak of civil war in 1991, and she has little time for the usual story. Some extracts:

‘These images and labels act as barriers to other ways of seeing Somalia. More than two decades of conflict and crisis have forced Somalis to invent alternative political and economic systems. They have enthusiastically seized modern technology, fusing it with pre-colonial traditions to create some of the most advanced and effective money transfer systems on the continent and one of the cheapest, most developed mobile phone networks in East Africa.

Somalia has never had a stable, fully functioning nation state, democratic or otherwise. A new model of statehood needs to be developed for Somalia, perhaps one that combines traditional and modern types of governance, and also one that gives a degree of autonomy to the different regions.

The perspective of the country as a ‘failed state’ is dangerously limiting; in spite of the apparent chaos and lack of central authority, there are aspects of society that have continued to function effectively, even in the regions most badly affected by conflict. Some such as trade and communications, have thrived, particularly in the money transfer, mobile phone and livestock sectors. [more on that here]…. Large areas are quite peaceful, with their own administrations, legal systems and economies.’

Crisp, accessible chapters cover the clan system, history, Islamism, Somalia as failed state, piracy and Somalia’s extensive Diaspora and links to the outside world (especially the Gulf states and ‘Greater Somalia’ in the Horn).

Harper’s conclusion?

Somalia‘Portrayals of Somalia as the world’s most comprehensively failed state, inhabited by pirates, Islamist extremists and starving people, have exacerbated the problem and have, in all likelihood, contributed to many misguided policies.

Approaches to Somalia were squeezed into the post-9/11 paradigm, leading to a blinkered perspective; Somalia became part of the ‘War on Terror’ narrative.

For more than twenty years, outside powers have struggled to sort out the problems of Somalia. Perhaps, like the Somalis themselves, the approach needs to be more creative and adventurous. The rest of the world also needs to recognize that Somalis can be very good at doing things for themselves.’

A much needed corrective. Wouldn’t it be great if today’s conference started with what is working in Somalia, rather than another round of foreign blueprints? Alex de Waal says more or less that in the New York Times. Plenty more coverage on the Guardian development site.

3 comments

  1. I suppose in discussing Somalia, such conferences need to examine Somaliland, which seems to be flourishing despite the clan systems in existence.Puntland has a relatively stable government too. Creating a ‘Jubaland’ in the south as some suggest, may help reduce power wars around Mogadishu.I guess secession a la South Sudan may very well be the final solution.

  2. @george Somaliland and puntland are inhabited and ruled by single tribal confederations..
    your comment is filled with nothing but ignorance of and ill will towards the Somali people
    you know how ridiculous you sound talking about jubaland you idiot

  3. @Abdulhafidh. I concede talking about Jubaland is a bit passé. But haven’t others sub-regional authorities emerged in south-central Somalia lately? Plus, having extensively studied Somalia, it’s not correct to state that Somaliland or Puntland are inhabited and ruled by single tribal confederations: what about the early-90s tribal war(s) in Somaliland? And what about the Sool and Sanaag situation with the Harti confederation? Wasn’t the “international community” criticizing the early Somaliland democratization process for reproducing ethnic faults lines?!
    Plus, when someone rises the question of federalism (sub and infra regional power centres), don’t call him an idiot: it shows that he’s obviously much more interested in and documented on your country than the average guy praising ill-fitted interventions…

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