Getting Somalia Wrong? Faith, War and Hope in a Shattered State
by Mary Harper
(London: Zed Books, 2012) pp. 232

Reviewed By Prof. Donovan C. Chau, Associate Professor of Political Science, California State University, San Bernardino

Why should one care about events in Somalia? Outside of the people who reside in the place, that is, Somalis themselves, why would anyone trouble oneself with this, seemingly intractable, problem on the Horn of Africa? International politics, particularly strategy in international politics, encourages one to consider problems in different regions of the world from historical and geographic perspectives. For those in the West, particularly Western Europe and the United States, the Horn of Africa has been a location of strategic importance for over a century, sitting astride major sea lines of communication, across from the Arabian Peninsula. The British, the Italians, and the French were the first to learn of the strategic problem on the Horn from the nineteenth century onward. More recently, in the twentieth century, the United States, the Soviet Union, and the People’s Republic of China all have had strategic interests and challenges in the Horn of Africa. Today, therefore, the Horn remains a strategic problem for Somalis as well as peoples and nations around the world.

Thus, a book about Somalia was and remains relevant. Mary Harper’s book, Getting Somalia Wrong? Faith, War and Hope in a Shattered State, adds to the existing literature and is part of a series of short books called “African Arguments.” The series editors are two well-regarded scholars of African studies, Alex de Waal and Richard Dowden, who continue to promote the study of Africa from their respective organizations, the Social Science Research Council and the Royal African Society. I respect their work immensely and have used them in my own research and teaching. The African Arguments series appears to be an attempt to broaden general understanding of Africa and issues on the continent. In my assessment, however, Harper’s book falls short of significant aspects of the series’ aims while, at times, meeting others.

The useful parts of Harper’s book, in line with the series’ aims, including its length, accessibility, and topic. The writing is simple and straightforward, obviously targeted to a general audience. In addition, there is a three-page chronology, four maps, and figure displaying Somali clan affiliations – all concise and helpful. Harper is a BBC journalist with two decades of experience in Somalia who has also written for publications like the Washington Post and the Economist (where Dowden was an editor). The book demonstrates some clear understanding of Somalia in chapters one (“Clan and Country”) and two (“History), from its geography (p. 14) and history (pp.48 and 64) to its people (pp.22 and 42) and politics (p.3, 8, and 38). Harper is at her best in the book when she tells stories, whether it is about Dahabshiil (p.120), a money transfer company, or when discussing who she describes as “Somaliland Pioneers” (p.127). Harper uses her strengths as a seasoned journalist to bring Somalia and Somalis alive to the reader and, for this, she must be commended.

Nevertheless, Harper’s book falls short, and dangerously so, in a number of important areas. While the subject of the book is topical, the work itself lacks in scholarship. There is a bibliography comprising only one-and-a-half pages. The quality and content of chapters three (“Islamism”), five (“Piracy”), and six (“Somalia and the outside world”) reveal this lack of scholarship. Being educated at well-known British universities (Cambridge and the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies), Harper must surely know the importance of scholarship to any work. The book series’ editors, de Waal and Dowden, must take some of the responsibility for this as well. One, however, may attribute the book’s dearth of scholarship to the desire to make the book accessible to the general reader.

But even more disconcerting is the book’s biases which verge on anti-Americanism, at a minimum, and anti-George W. Bush-ism, at a maximum (pp.103, 169, and 177). For example, singling out former Assistant Secretary of State Jendayi Frazer for poor U.S. Somali policy is simply unprofessional and really unfounded, given the nature of U.S. policy making. Also, why no scorn for current President Barack Obama and his administration’s Somali policy, which is a sad example of war by proxy? Perhaps such biases are acceptable in the field of journalism and in the newsrooms of Europe, even for a reputable source like the BBC. Yet for a published book, a work about African politics for the general reader, one finds such polemics dangerously skewed and prejudiced. I would assume the editors of the series did not intend this at all.

Even beyond lack of scholarship and author biases, sadly Harper’s book leaves the readers with many more questions than answers. With a straw man argument about the constant negative perceptions of Somalia (p.105), the author is unintelligible and confusing when she discusses how Somalis may be “beyond the nation-state” (p.200) whose solutions must come from the bottom up (p.179). The entire book may be summed up in a sentence: “The dynamism of Eastleigh, the stability of Somaliland and the relative peace brought about by the Union of Islamic Courts are all examples of how Somalis can ‘get it right’ by operating largely on their own initiative and doing things their own way” (p.195). The sentence is much clearer within the context of the general work yet still lacks in overall substance. People generally get things “right” when they do things themselves. So, what?

Overall, then, the book does not get at the heart of the problem of Somalia and its people. For example, how is Somalia changing, strategically? Who is benefiting from these changes, if any, and, how so? Answers to these questions are much better derived by reading classics works by I. M. Lewis (still, the doyen of Somali studies) and E. R. Turton (there is no mention at all of the latter in the bibliography). Scholars such as these observed long ago that Somalis are at once “excessively hostile and fanatical” and “champions of resistance” but also “clearly rank with the Indians and Arabs and are superior even to the Swahili,” with “capacity for devotion and discipline, and latent powers of organizations.” Perhaps this is what the editors of the series intended, to generate arguments about Africa, in this case, a strategic problem in the Horn of Africa – the problem of Somalia.

This Book Note was republished from the Australasian Review of African Studies 34, no. 1 (June 2013): 150-152.