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Once and future state?

<strong>Understanding Somalia and Somaliland</strong>

<em>Ioan Lewis</em>

C Hurst & Co, 208pp,

Somalia must be the most anarchic, unstable state on earth. Its current condition is desperate. The so-called transitional federal government (TFG), supported for many years by the inter­national community, has more or less collapsed. Its president has resigned and has not been replaced. The Ethiopian military forces that propped up the TFG are withdrawing, having failed to restore any kind of stability (rather the contrary). The African Union (AU) forces that are supposed to help are too tiny to make any difference, and their two contributors of troops - Uganda and Burundi - are also considering whether to pull out. The Ethiopians leave behind them a humanitarian situation of widespread destitution, disease and now, to add to the Somalis' misery, emerging drought.

Meanwhile, various factions are competing and fighting over what's left - territory, ports, trade routes and whatever chance there remains to earn income, legitimately or criminally. Some are animated by ideological and religious fervour, such as the brutal, Muslim fundamentalist al-Shabaab. Islamist groups now control much of the south. Others are simply warlords out for what they can get. Ordinary Somalis, who are desperate for peace and stability, don't get a look-in. According to Unicef, Somalia has the highest level of child malnutrition in the world, approaching famine in many areas. Many children have lost their parents in the violent chaos, and starve on the streets or are recruited into the warlords' militias.

But it is not this story that garners international attention; it is the pirates who recently seized a huge Saudi oil tanker and nearly succeeded in hijacking a 1,000-passenger American cruise ship. There have been lots of silly articles, such as the Guardian's proudly showing a satellite photo (from Google) in which it had located the tanker. The New York Times recently ran an op-ed - its first for some time on Somalia - about why pirates should be designated as terrorists. Although it is now a more organised criminal activity, Somali piracy started out as a means of survival for desperate coastal people. The "international community", which is now so galvanised by piracy (the EU and United States have despatched naval forces to combat the menace), did nothing to protect the fisheries upon which coastal Somalis hitherto depended or to pursue policies that might genuinely bring stability to Somalia and provide better economic opportunities. Indeed, foreign fishing boats took part in the plunder that exhausted the coast's fish reserves, forcing many Somalis to seek alternative sources of income.

International policy on Somalia has been a mess for a long time. The UN and EU, and everyone else, continued to proclaim their support for the TFG long after it was clear that it had precious little support among ordinary Somalis. Hardly a surprise, given that many of its members - including its president - were warlords who had been given membership of the TFG thanks solely to this fact, and no member of the government was actually elected.

The Union of Islamic Courts (UIC), the group that held sway before the TFG, produced southern Somalia's first and longest period of calm and stability since the early 1990s. This the international community, led by the US, chose to ignore, preferring instead to treat the UIC as a group of "terrorists" and getting the UN (including the UK, to its discredit) tacitly to endorse an Ethiopian military intervention to dislodge them. That in turn has returned southern Somalia to an agony of conflict and suffering that is unlikely in the long term to serve Ethiopia's legitimate desire for security on its borders.

The US has engaged meanwhile in a clandestine military campaign against alleged terrorists in Somalia for several years now, conducting ground attacks with special forces, and air attacks with the usual toll, barely reported outside the region, of civilian casualties. This campaign's effect in diminishing "terrorism" can be witnessed with the resurgence in Somalia of extreme Islamist forces such as al-Shabaab. Human Rights Watch recently accused the Bush administration of producing in Somalia the very extremism its policies claimed to be combating. This is a pretty pickle for the new US adminis­tration to take on.

A sober guide to all this, and to why Somalia is much more complicated than most foreigners and diplomats pretend, is Professor Ioan Lewis of the LSE - Britain's, if not the world's, foremost expert on that country. His recently updated Understanding Somalia and Somaliland is an excellent short introduction to the tribal, geographic and historical complexities of a place he has studied, lived in and visited for several decades. Lewis points out that there is a model of how to "save" and govern Somalia in, of all places, Somalia itself - or rather Somaliland, the stable, democratic, peaceful state in the northern part of the old Somalia (the former British Somaliland, for those of a colonial bent). Full disclosure: the diplomatic advisory group I head, Independent Diplomat, advises the government of Somaliland.

While the international community and UN have tried futilely to prop up the TFG and thus contributed to the disaster in the rest of Somalia, Somaliland has quietly, and with little outside help, established a working administration based on democratic principles and the beginnings of a growing economy. Its institutions have grown from local roots, the practices of consultation and local authority that have governed Somali clan society for centuries. Even though Somali­land is not perfect, and still very poor, its example, Lewis suggests, might be helpful for the rest of Somalia. Build the state from the bottom up, to put it simply; include all parties for any hope of success. The International Crisis Group, too, has recently called for the inclusion of Islamist groups in discussion of Somalia's future, not least an urgently needed ceasefire.

Since Lewis's book was published, Somaliland has suffered a major terrorist attack upon its president's and local UN offices as well as the Ethiopian trade mission, probably orchestrated by al-Shabaab, angered by the moderate and tolerant nature of Somaliland's democracy. The international press mostly recorded this as another bout of Somalia's black-hole-like anarchy, when in fact it was different and significant, endangering the one island of calm and stability in the Horn of Africa. But why bother to write about this, when there are pirates to attend to?

Lewis's approach, informed by unparalleled scholarship and experience, is one to which the international community should now pay heed. The need for new thinking is all too evident in the spreading violence in Somalia, in its potential for wider instability in the Horn (and across the Indian Ocean, to give the pirates their due), but above all in the agony of ordinary Somalis.

Carne Ross is a former British diplomat who has also worked for the United Nations. He now runs Independent Diplomat, a non-profit-making diplomatic advisory group:

This article first appeared in the 26 January 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Nixon went to China... Will Obama go to Iran?