A rejoinder to James Ferguson – Somalia: A failed state back from the dead

By Markus V. Hoehne

On 13 January 2013 James Ferguson published an article in The Independent with the title ‘Somalia: A failed state back from the dead’. While it is great to hear good news from Somalia for a change, this article by Ferguson unluckily did not help to illuminate the current situation in Somalia much. It included a number of seriously flawed and misguided statements about the ongoing political transformation from a completely failed to a recovering state and the background to the Somali crisis.

After having summarized the problems with and plights of statelessness in Somalia for the past 20 years, Ferguson surprises with a really good news: ‘Yet in 2012, Somalis held their first democratic elections in decades, ousting their former Islamist president, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, and replacing him with Hassan Sheikh Mahamud, a little-known university professor who used to work as a consultant for the UN.’ It is certainly true that the presidential elections in Somalia in September went much better than most Somalis and many external observers expected. The new President Hassan Sheikh Mahamoud has at least no record as warlord or militant Islamist. But to call this election ‘democratic’ and present Hassan Sheikh Mahamoud as a kind of liberal educationist is clearly misleading. In fact, the elections in September 2012 were all but democratic. The whole process was steered by a few Somali and external actors including UN representatives. A number of so called traditional leaders, some of whom did not even have real traditional credentials, were given the task to select the parliamentarians who would then elect the president. Money flew from all sides first to the elders then to the parliamentarians until the last minute before the elections. The new president certainly cannot be called a university professor. He rather was in a researcher and civil society activist in the past who also was involved in setting up a local technical university in Mogadishu – certainly not a small task, and he did so successfully. Still, his engagement does not make him a liberal in the western sense. Most probably Hassan Sheikh Mahamoud is not much less of an Islamist than the previous President Sheikh Sharif, who was installed by the US and the UN to take over from the staunch secularist warlord Abdullahi Yusuf in 2009 in order to split the Islamist camp in a moderate and a hardcore wing. Western readers need to understand that Somalia is a conservative Muslim state and those who reject violence in the name of Islam are not automatically moderate. Rather, good Somali intellectuals and ‘enlightened’ leaders still profess a version of Islam that we mostly secularized Europeans would consider fundamentalist. However, this is the way how things are in Somalia and in fact it is the non-violent Islamists who might eventually make Somalia stable and peaceful.

In the remainder of his text Ferguson provides a quite positive account of what is currently happening in ‘Somalia’. However, this sounds only good to anyone who does not know that what is called ‘Somalia’ in Ferguson’s article is actually only Mogadishu and surroundings. The current Somali government is still far from controlling much more than the capital city of a country that is roughly two and a half times the size of the UK. Currently around 15,000 foreign troops are still in the country battling the remnants of the militant Islamist group Al Shabaab in five of the ten regions of south-central Somalia. Rumors have it that the Kenyan troops that took the important port of Kismayo from Al Shabaab also took over the local economy and illegally sell Somali charcoal to the Arab Peninsula. Even in the capital Mogadishu grenade attacks and assassinations take place on a daily basis. This means that the picture Ferguson is painting about the current state of affairs of Somalia is distorted. A realistic assessment of the situation would come to the conclusion that under the current government there is a small chance that the very first steps to stabilize a country that has suffered from more than twenty years of war and foreign military interventions can be taken. It still might take years until Somalia as a whole can be called stable.

Toward the end of his text, Ferguson argues that ‘The Somali state needs rebuilding from scratch, through sustained Western commitment to political, social and economic reform. The question is whether the West truly has the appetite for this mammoth task.’ Here one might have to remind Ferguson and some uncritical readers that it actually was ‘the west’ that with its manifold interferences over the past two decades contributed massively to messing up Somalia further, all in the name of ‘democracy’, ‘peace’ and ‘security’. The last destructive ‘contribution’ by the west was made when Ethiopia, backed by the US and most European governments, intervened militarily in southern Somalia to oust the Islamic Courts Union that had taken control of the area in 2006. The courts, as they were called in Somali, were largely perceived as legitimate political actors by people in southern Somalia. They had been around for a while and had helped bringing law and order to various neighborhoods in Mogadishu and beyond. But for those engaged in ‘counter-terrorism’ anyone with strong Islamic credentials seemed to be an enemy; that is why the courts had to fall. The Ethiopian intervention caused unprecedented violence in southern Somalia and the intervening troops committed massive atrocities against Somali civilians in Mogadishu. This is in fact what made Al Shabaab strong in the following years and until 2010. But no official in Europe or North America stood up and called for respecting the values ‘we’ in the west use to legitimate our political and military interventions in the ‘terrorist’ and ‘rogue’ states around the world.

Finally, it is also worth remembering that it was actually the western protected and armed regime of Mohamed Siyad Barre (1969-91) against which Somali guerrillas rose in the first place in the 1980s, and then the opening of the arms arsenal of the cold war (provided by the usual suspects) that led to the state collapse in Somalia. Now, in 2013, we all shall rejoice about ‘the west’ doing things right, right? This seems like another serious distortion of the facts.


Markus V. Hoehne is post-doctoral research at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Halle/Saale, Germany. Since 2001 he works on Somalia and has spent in total two years in the north of the country. He is the co-editor of Milk and Peace, Drought and War: Somali Culture, Society and Politics.

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