More to Somalia than pirates, famine and al-Shabab

English: Statue of Sayyid Mohammed Abdullah Ha...

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The next book in the African Arguments series is Getting Somalia Wrong by BBC journalist Mary Harper. It is a complex account of a country too often stereotyped by one or two of its most notorious characteristics – recently these being the Islamist insurgency of Al-Shabaab, piracy off its Indian Ocean coast and terrible famine.

Harper’s book has grown out of 20 years working on and in the country, and functions not as a conventional history of Somalia, but rather as a discussion of several key themes central to its present state. Pleasantly surprising was the thread of black humour that runs throughout, created by the description of several historical events that exemplify an admirable, and slightly crazed, Somali independence of spirit. First is the story of the ‘Mad Mullah’ – warrior poet Seyyid Mohamed Abdulle Hassan – who fought the British to a standstill in the early 20th century and described himself as ‘a stubborn he-camel’ from whom the British would get ‘war and nothing else.’ When his troops killed a British commander sent to pursue him, he penned ‘a brutal celebratory poem’ detailing how his dead body would be ‘left to the carrion eaters.’

In a neat historical parallel, eighty years later, warlord General Mohamed Farah Aideed had a $20,000 bounty placed on his head by Admiral Jonathan Howe – commander of the US ‘humanitarian’ mission Restore Hope. Aideed responded by promising to pay $20,000 to anyone who brought him the actual head of Admiral Howe. Whilst such violent reactions might seem anathema to us, they underscore a fundamental self-confidence that Harper clearly respects. Long-time scholar of Somalia, Ioan Lewis, puts it another way – Somalis have ‘an open contempt for other people.’

What Harper is trying to do is to resurrect a basic level of respect in discussions about Somalia. From its portrayal as a lawless place, riven with fundamentalist Islam, and latterly suffering the effects of a terrible famine, she argues that these aren’t the only things that happen in the country. Her real interest, I think, was in profiling modern-day Somalia where ‘more than two decades of conflict and crisis have forced Somalis to invent alternative political and economic systems.’ These innovations in the economy, the livestock trade, money transfers and telecommunications reveal something that will be new to many readers – successful Somalis making money. She also clearly admires the political developments in Somaliland – the northern territory that seceded from the Somalia after the collapse of the country’s central government in 1991. Still unrecognised by the international community, Somaliland has slowly developed its own hybrid democratic system with some traditional structures still in place, and is generally peaceful and heading in the right direction.

In conversation Harper refers to Somalia as being “like a complex mathematical equation” – the moving parts being the country’s bewildering clan system, and although some Somalis reportedly deny its modern-day importance, Harper “would take any Somali on who said the clan system was not relevant.” Whilst clans were suppressed under Siad Barre’s pseudo-socialist regime, and their resurgence in the 1990s is sometimes seen as the cause of the civil war, they remain the shifting bedrock upon which Somali society is built. I ask what she thinks defeat of the Islamist group Al-Shabaab would do for the country. The answer is perhaps surprising – far from ending the violence, Harper predicts that Somalia might, at least initially, take a step backwards, as the more ingrained divisions would resurface and regional clan-based groups take up arms again against each other. Whilst she deals harshly with the violent and reactionary Islam of Al-Shabaab, she states that their presence has softened the influence of the clan in Somalia. Whilst this has been achieved “largely through fear,” she also argues that there might be some things to learn from this about the way Somali society works.

This desire to develop a new ‘take’ on almost all facets of Somalia’s poorly reported public profile is nowhere more in evidence than in her chapter on the pirates. Harper is blunt in her statements to me that Somali pirates are “common criminals”, and does not accept the fashionable counter-narrative that they are coastguards or fishermen driven to piracy through foreign exploitation of their fishing grounds. She seeks to write about Somalia’s most notorious product “on their own terms”, and includes several interviews with people who have been pirates. Piracy is clearly a profitable business, and is a product of both the Somali entrepreneurial élan, and the lack of economic opportunities on land due to chronic political instability, banal as this explanation may sound.

Harper evidently has a love and fascination for Somali people. She tells me that “Somalis give me massive freedom as both a journalist and human being.” Whilst she inhabits a position somewhat elevated from the average Somali women, whose opportunities are limited in what is a conservative, male-dominated society; she doesn’t recognise the real bitterness against this culture characterised in the writings of Ayan Hirsi Ali, and a string of western commentators on the ‘Islamic world’.

In this, and many other topics, Harper isn’t necessarily positive about the country’s future, and is wary of making fashionable predictions, she is however keen to show that not everything about the place is broken.

Magnus Taylor is Managing Editor, African Argumeents Online.

Getting Somalia Wrong is being launched by the Royal African Society at SOAS on the evening of 7th February – click here for more information.

Getting Somalia Wrong: faith, war and hope in a shattered state – By Magnus Taylor | African Arguments.


Busy Day For Yemen


U.S. airstrikes targeting leaders from Yemen’s active al-Qaida branch killed four suspected militants, including a man suspected of involvement in the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole, officials said Tuesday.

Missiles struck a school and a car late Monday in the southern Abyan province, Yemeni security and military officials said. Large swaths of the province have fallen under the influence of al-Qaida as the militants exploit a security vacuum stemming from an uprising against President Ali Abdullah Saleh that began last year.

The U.S. considers the Yemen branch of al-Qaida to be one of the most dangerous arms of the terrorist group. U.S. aircraft have targeted al-Qaida leaders there before, notably killing Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen, last year. The U.S. rarely comments on its air activity in Yemen.

Al-Qaida in Yemen has been linked to several attacks targeting the U.S., including that by the “underwear bomber” who tried to bring down an airliner over Detroit on Christmas two years ago.

Tribal officials in the area said the latest strike hit the militants as they were holding an important meeting at the school. Air strikes also hit targets in the surrounding mountains and a car carrying people to the meeting between the towns of Lauder and Moudia. Another car on its way to the meeting got away, the officials said.

Yemeni security officials originally put the death toll at 15 people but later lowered that figure to four. They also said 12 militants were wounded in the strikes.

They said one of the suspected militants killed was involved in the bombing of the USS Cole in October 2000, which killed 17 American sailors and injured 39 others. They identified him as Abdel-Monem al-Fathani. The attack on the U.S. destroyer was carried out while it was in the Yemeni port of Aden for refueling.

Al-Fathani was the only one of those killed wanted by Yemeni authorities for al-Qaida activities, but he was not considered a high ranking leader in the group, the officials said.

A Western official in Washington confirmed the U.S. carried out a strike against suspected leaders from al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, saying initial indications were that five people were killed. The official did not say where the strike hit or specify whether it was carried out by a pilotless drone or a warplane.

All the officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to release the information.

Security across Yemen, the Arab world’s poorest country, has largely collapsed during the nearly year-old popular uprising against Saleh. The militants have taken advantage of the political instability to step up operations across weakly governed remote provinces, while authorities focused their resources on putting down the protests that were inspired by other Arab Spring revolts.

Also Tuesday, armed tribesmen from the al-Mahweet province kidnapped six United Nations workers — an Iraqi woman, a Palestinian woman, a Colombian man, a German man and two Yemeni men, said the head of the area’s local council, Ali Ahmed al-Zukaym.

A U.N. official in Yemen confirmed the kidnapping, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief reporters.

Tribes in Yemen have historically used kidnapping as a way of getting concessions from the government and hostages are ordinarily well treated before being released. Al-Zukaym said local leaders were negotiating with the kidnappers to release the six.

Yemeni Information Minister Ali al-Omrani escaped an assassination attempt when his car came under fire Tuesday outside the Cabinet building in the capital Sanaa, according to his spokesman, Abdul-Basit al-Qaidi.

More reasons to dump Facebook – ABC News: Facebook update to unearth old posts


Zombie data threatens to embarrass everyone again. Or to upset and offend relatives and friends of the deceased. Not me, I don’t put personal stuff on FedsBook. 😉

online & broadcast media

Facebook update to unearth old posts
The latest upgrade to Facebook has technology experts warning people to clean up their online history or risk having embarrassing photos and status updates re-surface.

Facebook will not say exactly when, but sometime in the next few weeks all user profile pages will be converted to a setting calle…

To read the full story on your mobile please use this link

To read the full story on a PC or Mac please use this link

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On pointlessness

Image: Keystone/Zuma Rex Features

Image: Keystone/Zuma Rex Features

Saturday we heard about several kilos of drugs in UN diplomatic pouches shipped from Mexico via DHL that “weren’t intended for the UN”. Then why did DHL try to deliver them to the UN regardless of a complete lack of paperwork, or even an address label; surely that is against the law? Certainly it makes for failed and pointless security policies designed to prevent parcel-bombs.

Sunday saw Kofi Annan sounding off about the huge threat that the drugs trade presents to Africa’s fragile post-conflict countries. I suppose the doesn’t have the stomach to talk about the mid-conflict countries. The comments section is lit up like a Christmas Tree with pointed remarks about the failed and massively expensive War on Drugs. It also mentions Kofi’s less than sparkling reputation after the accusations against him in 2005 that damaged the UN’s reputation, leaving stains that are still visible today.

On Monday BBC Newsnight interviewed Wael “Mission Accomplished” Ghonim about Egypt’s restarted revolution or “his Revolution 2.0” as the BBC titled the segment (they are actually referring to the title of the book he just wrote. At least, I hope they are). Enough said. Almost. But a comment on the BBC blog, suggesting (tongue in cheek) that Mrs Ghonim might be his “CIA handler” did make me smile. Pointless aside: Wael also created the website for former election candidate Mohamed ElBaradei.

As I write this, it’s Tuesday, and we have just heard from the Arab League at the UN after their extended, then aborted, mission to Syria. Arab League as usual saying nothing of value, and certainly nothing that will help stop Syrian bloodshed or save Syria from a bitter civil war. Surely the biggest exercise in pointlessness of all.

Panetta Has to Think of a Number for US Military Ops. Iran Still Has No Nukes


Iran could build and set off a nuclear weapon within two to three years if it decided to pursue one, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said in a television interview aired Sunday. [my emphasis]

“The consensus is that, if they decided to do it, it would probably take them about a year to be able to produce a bomb and then possibly another one to two years in order to put it on a deliverable vehicle of some sort in order to deliver that weapon,” Panetta said during a profile on CBS’s “60 Minutes.”

Tensions with Iran have mounted in recent months over Tehran’s threat to close the Strait of Hormuz and the killing of an Iranian nuclear scientist. Iran has said its nuclear ambitions are peaceful.

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Panetta, who served as director of the Central Intelligence Agency for two-and-a-half years before heading to the Pentagon, reiterated the Obama administration’s position that it would do everything it could to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power. “If they proceed and we get intelligence that they’re proceeding with developing a nuclear weapon, then we will take whatever steps are necessary to stop it,” he said. Asked if that meant a possible military strike, he repeated a line oft-used by President Obama: “There are no options that are off the table.”

Panetta reflected on the May 2011 killing of Osama bin Laden in the interview, and said he believes government authorities in Pakistan knew about the whereabouts of the al Qaeda leader. “My personal view is that somebody somewhere probably had that knowledge,” said Panetta.

He acknowledged that he had to “stop and think” in response to a question about how many “shooting wars” the U.S. was currently engaged. “I’ll have to stop and think about that, because you know, obviously we’re going after al Qaeda, wherever they’re at,” he replied. “And clearly, we’re, we’re confronting al Qaeda in, in Pakistan. We’re confronting the nodes of al Qaeda in Yemen, in Somalia, in North Africa.”

The secretary has been charged with reducing the Pentagon’s budget by $450 billion over a decade because of spending cuts authorized by Congress. He said he would try to do so without making “the mistakes of the past.” Republicans criticized President Clinton for slashing the military too much during the 1990s as part of a “peace dividend” after the end of the Cold War. “We’ll have to make some very tough decisions about how we do this,” Panetta said. “The last thing I want to do is to make the mistakes of the past. We still have to protect the best military in the world. We still have to have a military that protects us against a lot of threats that are out there, terrorism, Iran, North Korea, nuclear proliferation, problem of cyber attacks, rising powers like China.”