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Is The World 'Getting Somalia Wrong?'

Nov 29, 2012



I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, a video that's going viral on the Internet is urging Africans to dig deep to help Norway. We'll find out what that's all about, in a few minutes.

But first, we turn to an African country that the world is frequently asked to help. It's often described as a failed state. It is seen - when it's seen - mainly as a haven for terrorism; a source of refugees and pirates; and a location for one of this country's most traumatic foreign experiences, the deaths of 19 service members after Black Hawk helicopters were shot down there.

Of course, we're talking about Somalia, and our next guest says that that picture, while rooted in truth, has a lot missing in it; and she's trying to complete the picture, in a new book. It's called "Getting Somalia Wrong?" Her name is Mary Harper. She's covered Somalia for the BBC for many years now, and she is with us now.

Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

MARY HARPER: Thank you very much for having me.

MARTIN: The full title of the book is "Getting Somalia Wrong? Faith, War and Hope in a Shattered State," so I want to start with the hope. What is the source of that hope?

HARPER: The source of that hope is something that, from my trips to report on the country, I also saw lots of other things that gave cause for hope and optimism, such as the incredible dynamism of the Somali people, especially in terms of their business. And, also, there are some parts of the Somali territories that are basically forgotten about in news reports, such as Somali land, which broke away from the rest of Somalia more than 20 years ago and basically functions, even though it's not recognized as an official country. It functions as a normal place. It's just had elections, for example, and it's really one of the more stable democratic areas in that part of Africa.

MARTIN: OK. Well...


MARTIN: Well, let's take some of that and talk about some of this piece by piece. You sent us some tape of a businessman explaining how he had to send his suits to Kenya to get them dry-cleaned. I'll play it.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Most of the people here take their suits to Nairobi every time they get dirty, so they have to collect it, pack it in a bag and send it to Nairobi to get dry-cleaned and returned back here, from the president to the lower people like the businessmen here.

MARTIN: So what did he do?

HARPER: Suits are very, very popular in Somalia, even though it's a hot country and he decided to set up a dry cleaners, so he packed up his belongings in Dubai, went back to Mogadishu and opened a dry cleaners there and he's doing a roaring trade. I just spoke to him on the phone and he told me that the new president even brings his suits to be dry-cleaned in his dry cleaners now.

MARTIN: So that suggests that - what? There's kind of a - what? A confidence now, a sense that there's enough stability that you can safely invest and set up a business, a physical business without, you know, worrying that you're going to be a target?

HARPER: I must say that I get quite surprised by Somalis who, like the dry cleaner, go back and set up businesses and, in fact, when I asked him, isn't it difficult? Or I was expecting him to say the main challenge is the fact that people are throwing grenades and shooting, which is true and there's plenty of suicide bombs still going off. And he said, no. The biggest problem I had was finding a property to rent because everywhere has already been rented.

And it's the same with property prices. They've gone up dramatically in recent months with so many people rushing back to invest in residential and commercial property.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. We're speaking with the BBC's Mary Harper. She has a new book out. It's called "Getting Somalia Wrong?" We're talking about the current state of Somalia and what factors in its history have led it to its current position.

So I think - let's go back to kind of the core issue here about what has gone wrong in Somalia and why it's gone wrong. In the book, you describe U.S. and U.N. military interventions of the 1990s as, quote, "probably the most dramatic example of getting Somalia wrong. It represented the archetypal wrong-headed exercise in building a state with foreign soldiers and good intentions."

Now, obviously, this is a conflict story, which is why you wrote a book about it, but can you just give us an example of - where were some of the critical wrong turns? Is there a way they could have gotten it right?

HARPER: I mean, it's interesting that, in that initial military intervention in the early 1990s, which was done primarily to help people who were starving. And, initially, it did work relatively well and I think that's been forgotten about because it turned so bad so quickly.

But I think what the United States in particular didn't grasp was they didn't really understand the way that Somali society works. There were so many different armed groups controlled by warlords and clan leaders and so the reaction to that was just to treat the Americans and the U.N. as another enemy force. So I think it was the fact that they didn't really spend enough time trying to understand Somali society and the way it works and that all backfired tremendously and they lost troops on the ground to the Somalis.

MARTIN: Well, you point out correctly, I think, that this was an extremely traumatic experience for Americans who will remember seeing on their television screens the naked bodies of service members being dragged through the streets by jeering Somalis and I think that the American instinct in that regard would be to say, then leave. But you're also critical of that approach. In fact, you say in the book, Somali was largely left to its own devices and, as the world turned its back on the territory, fishermen turned into pirates and moderate Islamists became al-Qaida-linked militants.

What is the kind of the meta-message here, though, of why the international community in general - and the U.S. in particular - should remain engaged at all?

HARPER: I think that the U.S. has lots and lots of reasons why. Some of them are probably exaggerated and others of them are very real why they've remained engaged with the Somali issue.

Number one is that, after the events of 9/11, Somalia was seen through the prism of al-Qaida. It was like the African front in the war on terror and the United States, by seeing Somalia like that, rather misjudged the situation on the ground at the time and saw to it that the - an Islamist force that was in control of much of the south of the country and the central regions was expelled and defeated. And the movement emerged after that that was linked to al-Qaida, so there is that threat.

There's also the fact that there are significant Somali Diaspora living in the United States in places like Minnesota, Columbus, Ohio and some of them have been radicalized. A few dozen of them have gone back to Somalia and, indeed, one of them was described as America's first suicide bomber. He blew himself up a few years ago and there's been a number of other Somali Diaspora originally from the U.S. who joined the al-Qaida-linked group there.

And then, also, when you have things like piracy that threatens all international shipping through the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean. That obviously hurts America's commercial interests.

MARTIN: We do hear a lot about the dangers of a group like the al-Shabab having lost Mogadishu in the main port there. What is the status of their involvement with the country now?

HARPER: Yes. I think that the media likes to tell us that al-Shabab is kind of finished in Somalia, but if you look at a map of the country, they might have lost their urban strongholds, but they still control huge parts of the south and the center and, also, some of them have retreated into a mountainous area in the north that is actually really near to Yemen. And, also, al-Shabab has become much more of a regional movement now, so it's very active in places like Kenya and it has been conducting a tax in East Africa, not just in Somalia, so I think it's just changing the nature of its operations rather than being a movement that is completely dead.

MARTIN: Based on your experience in the country going back over these many years, what is the antidote to this? I mean, you're very critical of foreign involvements because you point out how easy it is to get things wrong, not understand the culture, rub people the wrong way, have very negative unintended consequences. But you're also very critical of disengagement. What's the right balance, then?

HARPER: I think the right balance is to give Somalis more credit than they've been given. I think a lot of outsiders are just scared of Somalis and they don't understand them. You know, there are approaches where the outside world can help Somalis, but they have to do it by respecting the Somalis a bit more, giving them more authority. And, if you look at places like Somali land where the Somalis have basically devised their own ways of doing things, even though they might not be very familiar for outsiders, they do work. And I think that, you know, sort of taking a back seat, but still having an intelligent interest is the way that the outside world can work with Somalis.

MARTIN: You've been very critical in the book of the media and I'm very interested in that. What is it that you think is driving this misinterpretation of what you see?

HARPER: I think - I mean, I, myself, have been guilty of this. For western audiences and western journalists, they're particularly guilty of seeing - just applying one narrative to Africa and now the media is slightly changing the way it looks at Africa. It's all like Africa rising. You know, Africa's the continent where - of economic growth, of opportunity, and that is just as narrow and incorrect as the old way of covering Africa as a place of war and famine.

MARTIN: Mary Harper is the author of "Getting Somalia Wrong: Faith, War and Hope in a Shattered State." She was kind enough to join us from the BBC studios in London.

Mary Harper, thank you so much for speaking with us.

HARPER: Thank you very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.