More to Somalia than pirates, famine and al-Shabab

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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.

Slice of Life as a Mogadishu Humanitarian Aid Worker

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FROM THE FIELD: KEEPING HOPE ALIVE IN MOGADISHU

It is a hot, dusty morning in Mogadishu, the war-ravaged capital of Somalia, and Ahmed Farah Roble is in a makeshift settlement for internally displaced persons (IDPs), listening to a mother tell him about her baby daughter.

Ahmed nods patiently, asks questions and listens attentively. He is in the camp to meet with its representatives, to learn more about their situation. Many have recently arrived from the country’s south, fleeing hunger and conflict. They have very little, and urgently need food and medicine, shelter and health care.

It is hard not to be affected by what he sees and hears, especially as the 45-year-old was born and raised in Mogadishu. As the longest-serving UN humanitarian affairs officer in the capital, Ahmed has heard many similar heart-breaking tales before.

“But it is painful, still. I can say that, before, this was a peaceful city. It was paradise. Now, these people living here have lost everything, their property, opportunities for education. There are not enough health services. There is no safe drinking water in some areas,” he says.

“I’m one of those who was here in the golden days, when the situation was good. These last 20 years, when the country was devastated by endless and continuous conflict, it is really painful for me.”

For much of the past four years, through some of Mogadishu’s heaviest fighting, he was the lone man on the ground for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) – the part of the UN responsible for bringing together humanitarian groups to ensure a coherent response to emergencies.
The situation has been so dangerous that, until recently, OCHA was unable to deploy more staff to join him.

“It was not an easy task to work here then,” says Ahmed. “All of the humanitarian community was targeted, no matter whether they were international or national. You could be targeted, kidnapped and killed at any time.” “It was a critical time, and even for me it was very difficult to get access to the people most in need.”

National staff members like Ahmed make up more than 90 per cent of humanitarian workers around the world, working on the frontlines. Too often, they bear the brunt of violence, as illustrated today with the deaths of two staff members of the UN World Food Programme (WFP) and a colleague working for a partner organization in central Somalia.

The dangers of working in Somalia, and restricted access for internationals, have led to a greater reliance on national staff, as well as local partners.

“International staff bring a wealth of technical experience to this crisis, but the role played by national staff is just as important,” says Marcel Stoessel, the head of OCHA’s sub-office in Mogadishu. “After all, nobody knows Somalia better than the Somalis – and without the local expertise of our national colleagues, international staff couldn’t do their jobs.”

“National staff speak the local language and often some local dialects as well, so they can more easily interact with people. They also understand the clan structure in Somalia, which is important if one wants to be successful in this humanitarian operation. They help us make crucial links with the government.

“Last, but not least, it’s much safer for them to move around Mogadishu than it is for international staff. People like Ahmed are our ‘humanitarian eyes and ears’.”

Ahmed’s family is in a neighbouring country for safety. For much of the time that he has been in Mogadishu, the city has been riven by a fluid frontline dividing the two sides – fighters belonging to the Islamist militant Al-Shabaab movement and troops belonging to the Transitional Federal Government (TFG).

The violence worsened the already dire humanitarian situation for the city’s existing residents, and well as the many new people who sought help and refuge there after famine struck parts of the south in mid-2011.
Since Al-Shabaab’s withdrawal from the central parts of Mogadishu in August, the frontlines have been pushed back to the city’s outskirts – but the situation is still far from secure. The use of roadside bombs, grenades and suicide bombers is a regular occurrence, and on the rise.

“The scale-up of humanitarian aid has done a lot for the situation here. Malnutrition rates and mortality rates have dropped, and access is better in some places – so I have been able to visit various IDP settlements. But there is a need for more help,” Ahmed says. “I see it and hear it all the time.”

Heading back to his car to make his way to the OCHA sub-office is no easy feat. IDPs try to grab his attention with every step. Finally back at his desk, now populated with two new national colleagues and three international colleagues, Ahmed starts preparing a report on what he has heard and seen during his visit.

The report will inform OCHA and its partners about the humanitarian needs of that IDP settlement, allowing the humanitarian system to direct essential aid to its residents.

“I have the sense of a humanitarian. That’s a real driving force which helps me to forget everything, especially when I feel so far from my family, when I am doing this night and day. I’m just happy that I am doing a good thing.”