The recent Economist article headlined “Most-failed State” is perhaps better understood as a Most-failed Story than an actual reflection of Somalia’s social and political reality. The article grossly oversimplifies a complex 25-year political history (1991-present). More importantly, it further entrenches the overly simplistic narrative of a politically insoluble, terrorist-filled, foreign-intervention-indebted “failed-state.” Equipped with a more accurate and empowering narrative, Somalia’s recent triumphs in state-building stand to gain rather than lose momentum.
(1) The headline, Most-failed state, undermines Somali citizens and civil servants supporting government efforts, while subtly offering a convoluted (and normative for a particular type of statehood) reason for continued foreign interventions. On that latter point, note the recent NY Times piece, In Somalia, US Escalates a Shadow War – if Somalia’s already a mess, no harm can be done by escalated intervention, right? Wrong. Moreover, while Somalia ranks #1 on the Fragile States Index (FGI) created by the DC based Fund for Peace (Somalia earned 114 this year with South Sudan 2nd at 113.8); an FGI rating based on 12 factors authored by armchair political scientists is hardly justification to classify a state as “failed.” The rating is also in stark contrast to the Quartz article headlined “Democracy is thriving in Somalia…upcoming election” published 13 days after the Economist written by an ethnic Somali.
(2) “After a quarter-century of costly foreign intervention, Somali a is still Africa’s most-failed state.” This implies that (1) past foreign interventions were altruistic in nature, and worse (2) Somalia is indebted or beholden in some sense to prior interventions. Conveniently ignores the catastrophic destabilizing effects of the cutting of U.S. aid flows to Somalia imminently preceding 1991 state collapse and arguably the support of the 2006 Ethiopia led invasion.
(3) “At no point since 1991, when the despot Siad Barre was overthrown by rebels, have Somalis had a government worthy of the name.” “Worthy of the name” to whom? The author? Other governments? Somali people? Hillary Clinton recognized Somalia’s federal government in 2013. Similarly, the Islamic Courts Union’s enormous local (Mogadishu) popularity and efficacy in ’06 is omitted as potentially “worthy”, and instead characterized as “Islamist” later in the article.
(4) “That is not to say there are no successes. At Villa Somalia, the bullet-pocked Italian-built Art Deco presidential palace, Mohamed Sheikh Hassan Hamud, the police commissioner, says that things have got better. A few years ago, at least one police officer was dying every day, he says. Today, it is five to ten a month. But his officers still cannot do much beyond escorting VIPs and guarding government buildings. Again, the opportunity to balance the perspective offered (one of doom and gloom so far) is passed up on despite the paragraph’s first line. Not even an entire paragraph is dedicated to balancing the narrative on Somalia’s positive gains. A notable achievement in political institution building is the increase from 135 elders selecting the Somali Parliament in 2012 to 14,000 delegates this year, as discussed in the Quartz article.
(5) Finally, perhaps most infuriating, is the final line: “But the real prize—a Somalia with a functioning government and safe streets—seems as distant as ever.” Prize? Who benefits from the safe streets and functioning government? Perhaps early investors (like this wall streeter) in the natural beauty and resources of a country where the UN now warns of 300,000 children under the age of five are severely malnourished and require urgent assistance. And of course, “distant as ever” is a final call for readers to leave their “Most-failed state” perception of Somalia untouched.
Somalia is not a failed state. It is a changing state, like all states, though perhaps at a different point in it’s cultural and political evolution towards statehood. The way forward is not to nullify the collective efforts and progress made by Somali citizens, but rather to acknowledge both the failures and successes of a complex past, whilst maintaining a grounded optimism for the future. It’s time to move beyond narratives that begin with “failed-state” and “anarchic East African nation” and into the reality of steady, however tenuous, steps towards strengthening a state which exists in international law and more importantly the minds of increasing numbers of Somali citizens.
By Sahnun Mohamud