GETTING SOMALIA RIGHT (Review Essay)
By Mohamed Haji (Ingiriis)
The author of this slim, well-received book is the Africa editor at the BBC World Service News. She embarked on reporting from Somalia soon after the tyrannical, predatory regime of the dictator Mohamed Siad Barre was toppled by a popular uprising in Mogadishu, albeit it bequeathed to chaos and confusion. Scores of ventures have since been made to reconstitute a Siadist-type of state – a hegemonic, interventionist political establishment that only feeds fellow clan cliques to the detriment of others. Until now, these attempts have continued to fail time after time. Other efforts to re-establish central authority have also met with fierce opposition from mini-state clan proponents, terrorists and local warlords, while the absence of a functioning central government that reinstates rule of law was exposed to a negative outside intervention, sea piracy, Islamist terrorism, widespread warlordism, clan division and sub-clan federal statehood.
Since the advent of the 1969 military coup led by Siad Barre and cohorts, Somali society has been going through a various levels of terrorism – from clan cleansing to suicide bombings precipitated by a hysteric, Hobbesian war of ‘all against all’. For the better part of the last forty years or so, the Somali dominant image has been of famine for food and famine for leadership. Most recently, the most outreach commodity that Somalia exports to outside world has become acts of violence. Owing to such settings, local denizens appears habituated to living under hostility, hunger, intra and inter clan wars, banditry and piracy. All these phenomena have attested to be common trends in the eyes of the public. It is here that the Somali pleasure of murdering inward and outward reminds us of one colonial British official who had exclaimed that the rule of law is a ‘joke’ in the Somali world.
This book, consisting of six chapters plus introduction and conclusion, sets out rebutting Somalia’s current reputation as the world’s most failed state, compounded by the most corrupt government which made a profit on the world’s worst humanitarian crisis worse than Darfur. Harper traces these contemporary developments by exploring the proximal factors that sustain it. Conducting a hectic research at the shelves of the library of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London, coupled with some empirical observations obtained during her frequent visits to Somalia, she does well in providing an overview of Somaliland – a wonderful side of the former Somali Republic – the entity that enabled to overcome clan wars and build a successful, secessionist state. Her thesis departs from the standpoint that, while southern Somalia failed time and again to rebuild state institutions, Somaliland has stand out as an example of democracy; not only it succeeded to establish a viable state, it geared up to emerge as the most democratic state in the conflict-ridden Horn of Africa. Harper is not new in this argument, though. Authors on Somaliland, such as Hussein Adam, Mark Bradbury, Matt Bryden, John Drysdale, Stig Jarle Hansen, Iqbal Jhazbhay, Steve Kibble, I. M. Lewis, Gerard Prunier, Marleen Renders, Andre Le Sage and Michael Walls, have shown that the case of Somaliland could be a model not merely to Somalia, but to the greater Horn. But Harper is more precise in presenting why Somaliland deserves the much-sought international recognition.
Following reductionist paradigm to which she does not directly refer, Harper suppresses works by critics, such as Daniel Compagnon, Roland Marchal and Markus Hoehne, who offer distinct perspectives pertaining to Somaliland state-building structures. With such an incomplete analysis, she does not offer discussion about the discourses of the two seemingly opposing camps. Indeed, Somaliland has surpassed clan politics and progressed towards party politics, when clan rivalry in South-Central Somalia, where each sub-clan now striving for its own mini-state, is at the peak. Somaliland’s advanced political competition compared to the rest is demonstrated that it was democratically ruled for eight years by Daher Rayale Kahin, a former spy under Siad Barre’s rule, who hails from a not so dominant clan. The latter fact remains to contradict to the views emanating from clan interpretation by Lidwien Kapteijns and other watchers, who claim that Somaliland is an ‘Isaaq-owned SNM project’ – Isaaq being the most dominant and, considerably, the largest clan in the territory. These ideological positions fail to consider that Somaliland successfully resisted sea piracy and terrorism, whereas neighbouring Puntland has become the epicentre of piracy and home-grown terrorism.
Chapters 1 and 2 present an essentially Lewisian interpretation of Somali culture, politics, history, clan and country, and carry much regurgitation of what I. M. Lewis, the dean of the English-speaking Somalists, had been writing for more than half a century, originating from the end of the 1950s when he produced his classic, The Somali Lineage System and the Total Genealogy: A General Introduction to Basic Principles of Somali Political Institutions (Hargeisa, 1957). Harper offers no room for debate on how Lewis’s concepts, theories and perspectives failed to portend the catastrophe that followed after 1969 coup and the implication of the Horn havoc in 1976-78. Completely missing in Harper’s references are Lewis’s serious critics, like Christine Choi Ahmed, Ahmed Qasim Ali, Catherine Besteman and Lee Cassanelli. Here, she yields no space for any argument contrasted with that of Lewis. While Harper is a journalist by training, she reaches a not so proven, firm conclusion that Somalia has never had ‘a stable, fully functioning nation-state, democratic or otherwise’ (p. 4). In reality, from 1960-69 Somalia is considered as one of the few democratic African states, with one 1964 research study described it the ‘most democratic country in Africa’.
Harper explains effectively that reuniting Somali communities are ‘counteracted by the clan system, which is inherently divisive. The clan has an almost endlessly splitting structure and poses serious obstacles to attempts to impose central authority’ (p. 11). She goes on to describe the successes of the recent proliferation of clan states in Somalia whereby an insistence on federal system of governance is highly misconstrued. Harper does not seem to notice – perhaps due to bereft of cultural nuance – that the terms ‘federal’ or ‘federalism’ are interchangeably employed to buttress the quest of and demand for clan self-determination on specific territories and to relieve the fear for return of a Siadist-type of totalitarian central state under which some clans were favoured at the expense of others. Lewis propagates – and Harper concurs here – that clan and kinship are part of the Somali daily diet. Indeed, the bond of kinship nourishes sub-clan nepotism and family favouritism under social and political system of which protection and prosperity in the name of state are only provided for fellow clanspeople, as evidenced by the Siad Barre regime.
The clan system, with its extreme chauvinistic consciousness, has occupied the main focus in most debates on Somalia. Not only clannism shapes the lives and feelings of the pastoral nomads, it also guides the thoughts of those supposed to be the modernised intellectuals. Lewis had already made a persuasive point that hardly can a Somali be a professional (or an unbiased) when it comes to clan allegiance. Somalist scholars – both Somalis and non-Somalis – have become so clanised that some are not hiding their preference of a particular clan over other clans (see, for example, the politicised works on Somalia and Somaliland by I. M. Lewis, Lidwien Kapteijns and Abdi Samatar). This tendency is what I conceptualised elsewhere as an ‘intellectual warlordism’ – that is, using pen rather than pistol to implicate in the Somali clan rivalry. Attempts to the point of academic adventurism were made by some of these commentators who, following Mahmood Mamdani’s significant book, Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism (Princeton, 1996), argued that Somali clan system is a colonial construct. Harper seems incognisant of such divergent discourses, but insists her conviction that clan system was in place in Somalia before European colonialism. Such a strong stance would not escape what Edward Said would denote an ‘orientalised’ line of reasoning. This does not, however, imply that the central importance of clan in Somali society as a crucial element can be denied. The concept of clan has a long historical process dating back to thousand years ago before Ibn Said visited some ‘huts’ and recorded the name of a Somali clan residing in Merca town in southern Somalia. Harper understands, nevertheless, that the clan system is a fluid and not a stably fixed entity, stressing that ‘[c]lans divide into sub-clans, which divide again and again, sometimes ending up as a group of just a few families, which identifies itself as a separate clan with its own distinct name’ (p. 11).
The discourse on the clan and its social, economic and political influence on Somali society remain to divide not only politicians and pundits alike, but the public as well. Several Somali individuals interviewed by Harper present a paradoxical, yet commonsensical disputation on clanship. One Omar Mohamed in Mogadishu opines that clans ‘do not exist’ (p. 36), while Aisha Mariam in Hargeysa states that the clan system ‘is the centre of the Somali universe’ which ‘determines everything about us’ (ibid.). Yonis Hassan in Baidoa comes up with the most odd declaration that to ‘view Somalia in terms of the clan is to follow a prehistoric approach’ (ibid.). The eldest individual in the group in Mogadishu differs in positing that the ‘only way to understand Somalia is to understand the clan’ (ibid.). The disparity of their residential location and their differing views tell us something worthy of note that Harper hardly notices – that is, the clan consciousness is deeply fictional in the south, partly because of massive urbanisation and the social transformation organised by the religious Sufi communities – jameecooyin – during the late eighteenth century onwards.
Oddly confusing is Harper’s contention that Siad Barre ‘attempted to break clannism by imposing a form of socialism’ (p. 12). On the contrary, the dictator exploited the way Somalis intermingle with clannism; for instance, he sought to strengthen and build up a strong foundation for his rule on the basis of clan hegemonic policy, further exemplified by Lewis. More often than not, Siad Barre used clannism as suited and espoused by his desires of clinging to power. Harper, as many foreign observers before her, approvingly accepts Siad Barre’s anti-clan rhetoric, pseudo-nationalistic speeches, which stemmed from two contradictory mouth and heart in wrangle. Her attention is apparently diverted by Siad Barre’s mock burying of clannism at the Konis Stadium in the early 1970s. In truth, the clan myth is so rooted in the Somali mindset that even the Somali Youth League (SYL), the most active nationalist movement in Somalia in the 1940s, was viewed as a clan-dominated forum for particular communities.
Drawing on traditionalist school of Somali Studies, most literature on Somalia continues to permeate the notion of Somali homogeneity, despite the recent qualitative and quantitative research studies. Harper’s book is certainly no exception. She accepts at face value – and obviously without critical judgement – that Somali society is a homogeneous nation sharing the same language, ethnicity, culture and religion. Here, she does not consult ethnographic and interpretivistic studies on the south by Ali Jimale Ahmed, Catherine Besteman, Lee Cassanelli, Francesca Declich, Mohamed Eno, Omar Eno, Abdi Kusow, Mohamed Haji Mukhtar and Mohamed Haji (Ingiriis), which have exposed that Somalia is a ‘world in one country’ hosting people separated in every facet, except for Islamic religion, which itself splits up into a number of sects. Lewis’s earlier observation of Somali society as a ‘traditional’ and ‘egalitarian’ people unable to transform itself are contrasted with Harper’s recent examination as a sophisticated ‘post-modern nomads’. Like Lewis, she is fond of the deep connection between Somali nomads and their camels and of the fact that they do not value farming and fishing, although the claim that they ‘refuse to eat [fish] even when nothing else is available’ (p. 2) appears a sensationalist rag. True, pastoralist nomads value for camel, women, their poetry – gabay, and, most recently, Khat-chewing sessions, which further contributed to mental health illnesses as a result of the long-lasting conflict.
Harper’s revisit of how post-independence Somali governments fought to establish the emotional idea of ‘Greater Somalia’ – the grand unification of the Somalis living in the Horn of Africa – is intellectually refreshing, and provokes Somalists to rethink it with new lenses. She does not, nonetheless, add a sufficient analysis on how that idea led Somalia to desolation, though noting that the ‘irredentist claims have led to an almost permanent state of instability in the Horn’ (p. 31). This case was judiciously put forward by Saadia Touval in his classic work, Somali Nationalism: International Politics and the Drive for Unity in the Horn of Africa (Cambridge, 1963). However, another form of ‘Greater Somalia’ was recently established through integration and economic opportunities. Somali communities – from the north to south and east to west – can now freely move by way of immigration and trade. In the past, there was no strong integration between the North-South populate. Neither was within both entities. Until very recently, Boorame residents in Somaliland have had no visible social connection with Buur Hakaba and Baardheere communities prior to refugee exodus from the south moved to the north.
The ‘Greater Somalia’ has now evolved into a globalised Somalia given that the violent terrorism and desperate refugees facing a life-and-death adventure are exceptionally internationalised. Though Harper posits that the dream of ‘Greater Somalia’ rested with the warrior Mohamed Abdulle Hassan, known as the ‘Mad Mullah’, the available historical evidence clearly divulges to the contrary. The Mullah sidestepped to refer to the term ‘Somali’ in his poetry, let alone ‘Somalia’, which was non-existent in his camp. Instead, he used the term ‘Dervishes’ to describe his followers who were mobilised, not along religious lines, but along sub-clan lines, mostly from his paternal and maternal kin groups. As she points out, the Mullah considered himself ‘a wild and stubborn he-camel that knows no harness or bridle’ (p. 47).
Chapter 3 addresses the role of Islam in Somali history. Harper’s evaluation that the Mullah foundered on the first attempt to form political Islam in Somalia is thought-provoking considering how his movement inspired some contemporary Islamists, like Al-Shabaab’s leader, Ahmed Abdi Godane, whose nom de plume is Abu Zubeyr, and who occasionally mimics the Mullah’s violent poems. This reviewer wishes she could go further and draw some parallels with Ahmed Gurey’s jihad against Abyssinian Kingdom. Harper rightly associates Al-Shabaab with Al-Itihaad. Absent of her review is Al-Ittisaam, another Islamist group, which detached itself from Al-Itihaad, and thus seemed less extremist. Monosyllabically, she touches upon Al-Islah, a moderate Islamist group that has links with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. It is odd that she maintains to equate Al-Islah’s ideals with the ‘central tenets’ of what I had embodied in my MSc dissertation as the ‘Siadist Socialism’.
Chapters 4 and 5 tackle the contemporary phenomena of failed state and piracy. Harper’s definition of ‘failed state’ seems globally sophisticated and generally incisive, but suffers significant errors in putting it into Somali context. The state of failed state means to Somalis when state institutions are completely non-existent or dysfunctional, and thus surrogated by clan states and pseudo-institutions, particularly in the case of the former Somalia Italiana in the south. As such, Somalia has been a failed state long before Siad Barre’s fall. Even though there has been a failure in terms of politics, there are other aspects with which Somali society proved successful in their own ways – that is, telecommunications and money transfer system, Hawala. Despite Harper’s assumption that the Somali conundrum lies in politics and economics, the hardest element of it is the social fracture that touched every facet of the society. Harper differentiates what she regards the ‘other Somalia’, which is Somaliland, from that of the ‘Somalia of Mogadishu’. The latter is a synonym for pandemonium, wherein the former is bustling with community-based economic reconstruction, albeit mostly anchored in a material development. One returnee from the West built hospital at a site where the Siad Barre regime used to shoot political prisoners in Hargeisa, Somaliland’s capital (e.g. pp. 130-31). The remark that ‘there are no psychiatrists’ in Somaliland undervalues the sacrifices of highly-educated returnees like Hussein Bulhan, a distinguished Harvard-trained psychiatrist, who returned from the United States to treat mental health patients in Hargeisa. The book does not feature him, though.
Harper conjectures that, owing to the unique nature of the Somali syndrome, the theories on political conflicts in other parts of Africa are not compatible with Somalia. She does neglect to take into account works by notable Africanist scholars, i.e., Jean-Francois Bayart, Mark Chingono, David Clapham, Robert Jackson, John Lonsdale, George Marcus, Robert Rotberg, Paul Richards and Richard Werbner, which can clearly be gleaned from a comparison to further generate fresh insights into our understanding of the contemporary Somali conflict. Furthermore, when describing the Somali rebel groups, Harper follows the dominant literature on Somalia that treats these groups as ‘clan-based’. In fact, the first rebel group, SODAF – later renamed SSDF – was born as a multi-clan movement, but when Colonel Abdullahi Yusuf assumed its leadership, it would abruptly turn into a sub-clan property and feeding centre for his clansmen.
Chapter 6 offers a critique of the outside intervention in Somalia. Harper tends to focus on the ‘two politically useful examples’ – we are reminded here that those two are: the Somaliland administration and the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC), a conglomerate of alliance between Islamist moderates and extremists that organised themselves along sub-clan lines. She is both optimistic and sympathetic to the UIC, which led the 2006 deracination of the infamous warlords in southern Somalia. She examines how the US policy toward the Horn of Africa has contributed to the resurface of the UIC as an Al-Shabaab (youth) movement with links to al Qaeda. Pondering on its security interest in the Horn, and thus disregarding the relative peace that the UIC restored to most of southern regions, the US administration rebuffed to working with them, giving Ethiopia, Somalia’s hostile neighbour, a green light to invade South-Central Somalia, including the capital Mogadishu, on which the UIC’s power was concentrated. Accusations and counteraccusations of terrorism between the UIC and Ethiopian-backed Somali Transitional Government, then based in Baidao, a town situated near the border with Ethiopia, were rife. Harper, intent on proving that the US approach towards Somalia was wrong, overlooks to assess the horrible methods in which the UIC adopted to keep (in)security in the areas they controlled.
The UIC sought the support of some radical Somali academics in the West who gave them a disastrous advice, only to pave the way for their own political rise. Many Somalis hardly believed when the US authorities were reiterating that there were al Qaeda elements in the UIC, as later showed by the killings of Fazul Abdulla Mohammed, Bilaal Al-Berjawi and Saleh Ali Saleh Nebhan. After withdrawing from Somalia in the early 1990s, it seems that the US military strategy is to attack Somalia from the sky, while its whole policy has always been a destructive, moving from propping up dictators to warlords and then to puppets. A counterargument could be made here that the UIC was a threat to the West and neighbouring countries, but it represented a good remedy for the Somali syndrome in that it possessed a stronger ideological message, together with strict Wahabi reading that transcended clan consciousness. Harper argues that the UIC was influenced by clan doctrine. In this statement, she seems to follow Anna Lindley’s similar claim in her book, The Early Morning Phone Call (2011).
Favoured with the dual-track approach – a recent US policy paradigm aimed at bringing back Somali traditional way of mobilisation: forming clan mini-states and then expecting the Western support in turn – Harper does not explicate coherently why the clan-state engagement would be beneficial for future Somalia. She nebulously expounds that the US/UN intervention to Somalia in 1992-95 is ‘the most dramatic example of ‘getting Somalia wrong’’ (p. 62). This involvement culminated in disaster when the humanitarian mission it began was morphed into politics, with the UN, under the authority of the Secretary-General Boutros-Boutros Ghali, endeavouring to impose a federal structure on Somalia, reserving less power for those who ousted Siad Barre whom Ghali had backed.
Overall, the book has several factual errors. First, the Islamic Court in North Mogadishu in 1994-97 was controlled not by president Ali Mahdi. Rather, it operated in a territory under his control, while the Court’s chair was Sheikh Ali Dheere, who later fell out with Mahdi. Second, Harper’s depiction of Sheikh Hassan Daher Aweys as the Somali equivalent of Sudan’s Hassan Al-Turabi has no concurrent meaning considering Sheikh Awey’s powerless position in Al-Shabaab. Moreover, accusing him of promoting ‘clan interest’ is flawed and unsatisfactory. Sheikh Awey’s aspiration, as articulated by his words and deeds, was to ‘liberate’ all Somali territories in the Horn and then put under one Islamic emirate. Third, the ‘declaration of jihad against Ethiopia’ did not lead the UIC to its military defeat. As she herself shows, the US and Ethiopia were committed to destroying the UIC even before it came to power. Fourth, although Harper has not visited central Somalia, it is ironic how she observes that local communities regard the self-appointed clan mini-states as ‘legitimate’ and ‘effective’ (e.g. pp. 109-10). In spite of the fact that Harper is with clan ‘federal’ states – and, as such, places special emphasis on it, misrepresenting the wishes and desires of local residents just to reinforce her argument is theoretically substandard. Harper does not take into consideration that, in a failed state environment as is Somalia, the most rapacious perpetrators come on top in the ruling class. At present, with academics to warlords and businessmen to religious leaders and lawyers to laymen, an opportunity presents itself in this state of turmoil that almost every greedy who feels hunger for power, prestige and wealth can opt to be a president – at least for his clan or sub-clan, if not the bigger corrupt government.
Getting Somalia Wrong? is an optimistic, sympathetic book in that it attempts to (re)construct a different view other than the distorted one held by the US authorities, other western states and many Somalis. Nevertheless, before state is to be reinstated and before Somalis get Somalia right, they should agree on what had really happened and still happening in Somalia. For instance, what is the root cause of the Somali syndrome? When did the civil war start? Was it after Somali-Ethiopian war in 1977? Or after the attempted coup in 1978? Or the year the Somali National Movement (SNM) was formed in 1981? Or the year the Somali Democratic Movement (SDM) was created in 1987? Or the Hargeisa Holocaust in 1988? Or the massacre of Sheikh Ali Sufi mosque in 1989? Or the year the United Somali Congress (USC) and Somali Patriotic Front (SPM) were formed in 1989? Or the year Siad Barre was chased out in 1991? Exactly, when? One responds to those questions according to when the clan to which s/he belongs implicated in the ‘clan’ wars. In sum, Harper’s book is recommended reading for those willing to understand the contemporary Somali syndrome.
Mohamed Haji (Ingiriis) is the Book Review Editor for the Journal of the Anglo-Somali Society. He holds a Master’s degree (MSc) from the Department of Social Sciences and Humanities at London Metropolitan University. He is currently working on a second Master’s degree (MA) in the Department of History at the University of London, Goldsmiths. His MSc dissertation, which was marked to a distinction, explored the interplay between patterns of social transformation and gender development in Somalia, with special focus on Somali women.