Editor’s Note: Mary Harper is not new to Africa. As the Africa Editor at the BBC World Service, she has reported on Africa for over two decades and has a special interest on Somalia. In essence, she has extensively covered the country’s civil war, famine, militant groups, piracy, economic growth, foreign intervention, humanitarian aid, and more. Mary is the author of Getting Somalia Wrong? Faith, War and Hope in a Shattered State, published in February 2012 by Zed Books. Not only has Mary Harper covered Somalia, but she has been to hot zones in Africa, such as Algeria, Sudan, Sierra Leone, and Congo. Her articles have appeared in The Washington Post, The Economist, Granta, The Guardian, and The Times of London, to mention just a few. Mary has also lectured on such topics as Somalia, migration, and the international media at conferences, symposiums, and events organized by the United Nations, Oxford University, University College London, and Médecins Sans Frontières. Mary is a graduate of Cambridge University and the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. This interview was conducted by WDN’s own Hassan M. Abukar.
WardheerNews (WDN): What inspired you to become a journalist?
Mary Harper: I think my natural curiosity and love for reading, storytelling and writing inspired me to become a journalist. I never made a conscious decision to become a journalist; rather I followed my instincts which have always pushed me in the direction of finding things out and communicating them to other people. I started my career by finding out what I didn’t want to do, working briefly in the academic and development fields. I then trusted my instincts, followed my passion, and became a journalist. I don’t really see journalism as a job but as a wonderful opportunity to do what I love best, every day of my life.
WardheerNews (WDN): How did you become interested in Africa, and especially Somalia?
Mary Harper: I grew up in Kenya, where my father worked at the University of Nairobi. When I came back to the UK, I always found myself being pulled back to Africa. I focused on the continent in my studies to postgraduate level, and all the work I have ever done has been connected with Africa. I became especially interested in Somalia because of my mother. When I first joined the BBC African Service in the early 1990s, she was working as a nurse in Mogadishu, which was being torn apart by war following the ousting of the government of President Siad Barre. She had rare access to a satellite phone so I had a hotline to the country and access to up to date information. I worked closely with my colleagues at the BBC Somali service, learning from them and reporting on a daily basis what was happening in the country. I was then sent to cover events on the ground by my boss, the editor of the Focus on Africa radio program, Robin White. He told me not to have any preconceptions, saying ‘open your eyes and report what you see’, one of the best pieces of advice on journalism I have ever received. I found Somalia fascinating and complicated, a bit like mathematics, a subject I love. I became addicted to the country, and try to understand and discover a bit more about it every single day. I am still only at the beginning!
WDN: How long have you reported on the continent in general and Somalia in particular?
Mary Harper: I have reported on Africa and Somalia for more than twenty years. I have seen good things, bad things, beautiful things and ugly things. I have seen the continent simultaneously lurching backwards and leaping forwards, although in the past few years it has been more forwards than backwards.
WDN: Why is it hard for Somalia to shake off all the negative labels that have been attached to the country, such as being called a ‘failed state’ or considered a bastion of terrorism and piracy?
Mary Harper: I believe many policy makers, media practitioners and others have locked Somalia into a set of stereotypes, seeing it as a land of pirates, Al Qaeda linked extremists, corrupt politicians and starving people. Although all of these elements exist in Somalia, there are many other stories to tell. Many people seem unable or unwilling to see anything positive about the territory. They see it is a ‘failed state’, full stop.
WDN: In your book, Getting Somalia Wrong, are you challenging the conventional wisdom of how the world should view and approach Somalia?
Mary Harper: My book tries to present a more complete picture of what is happening in Somalia, drawing on what I have seen on the ground, what I have learned by speaking to Somalis and experts on Somalia and from reading about it. I believe that since 9/11 much of the world has been unable to see Somalia outside the prism of Al Qaeda, which is limiting and in many ways destructive to Somalia and Somalis, and to global policy in general. Although there are a lot of sad, bad things happening in Somalia, there is also a tremendously positive, dynamic and entrepreneurial spirit there, which is often ignored.
WDN: What have you learned from covering Somalia and talking to, as you said, “From presidents to pirates, millionaire businessmen to those who have lost everything?”
Mary Harper: I have learned that almost no Somali thinks that he or she is better or worse than any other, that the society is more horizontal and democratic than many others in the world. I have learned that relationships of trust, often based around clan networks, are central to the Somali way of life and the success of its economy. I have learned as much from nomads I have met in the middle of nowhere as I have from presidents in their palaces. I have also learned that every Somali has his or her story to tell, a story that might be very different to that of the next Somali I speak to, especially when it comes to politics.
WDN: Why do you argue the Somali economy has shown vitality and growth given that the country has had no centralized effective government for over 21 years?
Mary Harper: I based my discussion of the economy on what I have seen on both the ground within Somalia and in Somali communities abroad, as well as from studies and reports on the subject. It appears that the collapse of central government has in some ways contributed to the growth of the economy, because business has been freed from the often restrictive conditions imposed by the government of President Siad Barre. Somalis do not operate in an easy business environment due to the lack of infrastructure and the occupation by militias of many parts of the territory, but they have an amazing confidence, imagination and dynamism.
WDN: Why do you argue that the Union of Islamic Courts’ (UIC) brief rule of Mogadishu was effectively positive when the group had the dangerous al-Shabab militant wing?
Mary Harper: Many Somalis have told me that the period of UIC control brought a higher degree of peace and safety to some parts of central and southern Somalia than that prevailing since 1991. Al Shabaab emerged as a more powerful and dominant force after the Ethiopian forces invaded Somalia and chased out the UIC in the early months of 2007. The UIC was by no means perfect, but from what people have told me, it seems to have provided a breathing space, at least in terms of security, despite introducing restrictions on many areas of life.
WDN: Do you think the American government miscalculated the UIC when it helped Ethiopia invade Somalia and thus actively undermined its rule of Mogadishu?
Mary Harper: The US government appeared to believe the UIC represented a more violent and sinister threat than it did in reality. This is partly because the US was fed a line by a group of warlords who opposed the UIC. They knew how to touch a nerve with the Americans, largely by suggesting the UIC was linked to Al Qaeda.
WDN: Why do you say the world is better off leaving Somalis alone to solve their own problems with no intervention from the international community?
Mary Harper: I do not believe the answer is for Somalis to be left entirely to themselves. That approach – which was in some ways practiced during the 1990s after the withdrawal of the US and UN – did not lead to stability and safety. However, most international interventions have backfired, although the current involvement of Turkey in south-central Somalia appears to be making some progress. The endless international involvement in Somalia means that, in many ways, Somalis have been able to get away with not taking responsibility for their own problems.
WDN: Why is Somaliland more stable than southern Somalia?
Mary Harper: I think one reason why Somaliland is more stable than southern Somalia is that it has not encountered the same level of foreign intervention and interference. Somaliland built itself up largely on its own from the rubble of war into a functioning entity that is in many ways the most democratic in the Horn of Africa. It has done this from the grassroots, blending the traditional Somali style of governance with a more modern, Western system.
WDN: Do you think the traditional way of governing Somalia had before the colonial period can reconcile with the modern way of governance?
Mary Harper: I believe the self-declared republic of Somaliland has shown that this can work. I am not sure a similar model could be replicated in south-central Somalia because the period of instability there has lasted for so long. Many people say traditional structures, including the important role of the elders, has been destroyed in the south. It is possible it will be revived to some degree in the new political dispensation due to come into being from August this year.
WDN: What do you think of Somalia’s Roadmap and the government’s attempt to adopt a constitution?
Mary Harper: It is too early to tell whether the new constitution will work, or even come into being, as Somalia is in the middle of a process. Previous attempts to create some kind of functioning political system for the country have failed. A lot of people have vested interests in the perpetuation of the transition and indeed of the conflict, so I do not imagine this is going to be an easy process. I would not be surprised if there were delays, and I am aware that there is already a great deal of political bickering and game playing going on.
WDN: What do you predict for Somalia after August 2012 when the Transitional Federal Government term expires?
Mary Harper: It is as yet unclear whether this deadline will be met. If it is, I cannot imagine the process will be smooth or simple. However, there seems to be a momentum and a will, from many inside and outside Somalia, to come to some kind of functioning arrangement. It is possible that as more power is devolved to the regions, and as more parts of Somalia become stable, frictions will develop between these regions, similar to the problems between Puntland and Somaliland. It is possible that the complexion of Somalia’s conflict will change, to one of violent competition between powerful regions. It is unclear what the discovery of oil will do to the situation apart from bringing into the mix the interests of more outside powers, including India and China.
WDN: Thank you
Mary Harper : You are welcome