Getting Somalia Wrong?

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Mary Harper

Somalia is always portrayed as an African nightmare zone in the media. Stories about drought and famine, violent civil war, piracy and terrorism are all part and parcel of the media discussion of the country. Mary Harper's new book is a welcome introduction for anyone looking to get to grips with the real Somalia beyond the myopic newsreels and international security concerns, but it is not without faults.

Harper is critical of intervention, showing how the US invasion of Somalia in 1992 and the 2006 US-backed Ethiopian invasion further destabilised the country. However, one of the book's biggest weaknesses is that, despite her opposition, she takes the pretexts for intervention at face value. The justifications for the US invasion of Somalia in 1992 are accepted as legitimate concerns of a "humanitarian intervention", rather than situating them in the context of post Cold War US imperialism seeking to assert its dominance.The book's greatest strength is how it demonstrates that a "failed state" does not necessarily mean a failed society. Harper unwittingly discovers Trotsky's theory of combined and uneven development. She explains how Somalia has the cheapest and most advanced mobile communications network in Africa. Even in the remotest provinces nomads are able to check the latest prices on the market for their livestock via mobiles.

Harper highlights how specific regions of Somalia have achieved far greater degrees of stability than Mogadishu. The autonomous Somaliland in the northwest has a functioning state structure but is unrecognised by the international community. Interestingly, Harper argues that lack of direct foreign intervention created the space that allowed relative stability to develop in some regions.

The rise to power of the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) in 2006 is identified as a pivotal moment. For the first time in 15 years, a central governing authority defeated the warlords. But this glimmer of hope was short-lived as Ethiopia launched an invasion supported by US aerial bombardment.

Harper is correct to be critical of the overthrow of the UIC, but she seems almost too sympathetic to the US when she states that the reason for the regime change was the US wrongly indentifying the UIC as a terrorist threat. It becomes another "bad policy decision", rather than the US seeking to assert its geo-political interests in the region.

But Harper must be credited for demystifying Somali piracy which has been such a focal point for international media. She illustrates how foreign trawlers, including those from Europe, illegally rinsed Somali waters of their fish reserves since the collapse of Siad Barre's government, forcing fishermen to take up piracy.

Even so, this can't entirely make up for some of the clumsy assumptions of Harper's analysis - such as her conflation of Seyyid Mohammed Abdulle Hassan's resistance to British colonialism between 1900-1920 with contemporary "Islamist" movements.

Harper's book is thorough and challenges the usual characterisation of a failed state with little more than starving people, pirates and terrorism. She draws out the complexities of Somali society and highlights successes which show that aspects of society can still function without a state if organised in different ways.

The greatest shortcoming of the book is that while the author is unequivocally critical of the consequences of foreign interventions she fails to situate intervention in Somali within a broader understanding of imperialism. Still, Getting Somalia Wrong? should be highly recommended as a first point of call for anyone looking to understand the real Somalia.

Getting Somalia Wrong? is published by Zed Books, £12.99