James Fergusson

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INTERVIEW WITH James Fergusson
(Journalist, Author of “The World’s Most Dangerous Place,” a book which unveils the problems, risks and solutions for Somalia - http://www.jamesfergusson.info/index.html)

Somalia is one of the poorest countries in the world: its Gross Domestic Product at Purchasing Power Parity (GDP at PPP) is $5.9bn (USA’s GDP at PPP is $15,290 bn) and its GDP per capita (at PPP) is $600 per year (in the United States it is $49,000 and in Quatar $104,300). Somalia is a land of war, where the army, clan-based armed opposition groups and Islamists have been fighting to take the power since 1991. Moreover, Somalia has recently (2010-2012) experienced one of the severest drought in its history, which, worsened by the ongoing civil war, sparked a deep famine that killed about 260,000 people, half of them children under the age of five. The conflict may now be coming to an end, but many problems remain. What distinguishes the civil war in Somalia from other civil wars? What is Somalia’s destiny? Can another famine be avoided? What is the key to a rebirth of this country? James Fergusson travelled widely throughout both the homeland and the diaspora in a bid to answer these and other questions.
James Fergusson started out in journalism in 1989 on the London“Independent” newspaper. He has written for many publications since, covering current affairs in Europe, North and East Africa, the Far East, the Caribbean and, especially, Central Asia and Afghanistan. For three years he was also the political features editor of Robert Maxwell’s ill-fated newspaper, “The European”. He has written several books, including the award-winning A Million Bullets, an account of the first British military deployment in southern Afghanistan in 2006.  His latest book, The World’s Most Dangerous Place (Transworld, January 2013), deals with Somalia and its diaspora, and the security threat that the newest battlefront against Al Qaida poses to the West.

INTERVIEW - (July 2013)
The interview was realized in July 2013 and published in September 2013 - (Original interview in English)
Subject: Somalia - civil war, Al Shabaab, diaspora and solutions to its problems
Question 1: As described in the premise, Somalia is one of the poorest countries in the world. Could you describe the main social and economic characteristics of this country and what are the main obstacles to its development?

Somalia has had no properly functioning central government since the overthrow of the Siad Barre regime in 1991. The twenty years of civil war that followed caused some 2m people, perhaps a quarter of the population, to flee the country. Somalia’s physical and social infrastructures were utterly destroyed, earning it the monicker ‘the world’s most failed state.’ The country broke up into a patchwork of clan-based, semi-autonomous statelets that persists today. The plan now is to turn Somalia into a confederation with (probably) very loose control from the centre, with support from the UN and the African Union (AU).
A desert nomadic society, Somalia was never a very rich country, with an economy traditionally based on herding, some mining, fishing. Expanding these economic areas remains difficult, though, thanks to the continuing insecurity in many parts of the country, notably the south; while both fishing and international sea-trade have been badly affected by the rise of piracy along the north and central coast. Unemployment remains extremely high among a population with a median age of just 17.8.

Question 2
: The title of your latest book is “The most dangerous place of the world”; the place the book is focused on is Somalia. What kind of dangers do you mean and why do you think Somalia is so dangerous?

Some 500,000 people were killed in Somalia’s long civil war, leaving a society deeply traumatized, and in some important respects inured to extreme levels of violence. For a great many Somalis today, life is horribly cheap. The five-year campaign for control of the country by the Al Qaida-affiliated insurgency, Al Shabaab, has been marked by savagery. Suicide bombing is still commonplace in Mogadishu, and Al Shabaab is undefeated and still controls large parts of the south of the country. Al Shabaab presents an ongoing danger to Western security interests. Hundreds of Western Muslims have joined their cause, with the risk that some of them could return to commit terrorism in their adopted places of exile. Finally, through its proximity to the Arabian peninsula, Somalia is also the natural gateway to Africa for Wahhabist-Salafist ideas from Arabia – a danger that has become more apparent to the West over the last 18 months thanks to events in Nigeria, Mali and the Maghreb.

Question 3
: Nearly 260,000 people died during the famine that hit Somalia from 2010 to 2012; half of them were children under the age of five, says the report by the UN and the US-funded Famine Early Warning Systems Network (Fews Net). What do you think are the root causes of famine and of child malnutrition in Somalia and what are its peculiarities compared with other African food crisis (see the food crisis in Sahel)?

Severe drought in Somalia is a cyclical event, but it does not have to lead to famine. Nomads have survived for centuries by fleeing the drought zones and finding new pastures for their livestock. 2011 was essentially a man-made disaster – and blame for it can be laid squarely at the door of Al Shabaab. The centre of the 2011 famine was the south of the country, the heartland of Al Shabaab support. Parts of the south are normally comparatively fertile, thanks to the presence of Somalia’s only two major rivers, the Juba and the Shabelle. In its years of power, however, Al Shabaab did nothing to repair or maintain the region’s network of canals and wells. They were also responsible for widespread deforestation, since they relied on charcoal to help fund their insurgency. Al Shabaab’s worst misdemeanor, however, came in 2011 when they denied the existence of a famine, describing it as western propaganda. Western aid agencies and emergency workers were denied access to the famine zones for the narrowest ideological reasons; while it has been over 20 years since the Mogadishu government had the capacity to respond as it should in a crisis of this severity. Worse still, nomadic communities attempting to flee the drought areas were turned back on the roads by Al Shabaab militiamen, who ordered them to ‘go home and pray for rain’  - a policy that undoubtedly condemned tens of thousands of Somali nomads to death, and led to a collapse in public support for the movement that proved a turning point in the war.

Question 4
: The ongoing Somali Civil War began in 1991, when a coalition of clan-based armed opposition groups ousted the nation's long-standing military government. In 2011, a coordinated military operation between the Somali military and multinational forces began. Is the conflict going to an end?

Al Shabaab still control the southern third of the country, even though they have been driven out of most major cities, so the conflict is not over yet. Tens of thousands of African Union troops, mostly from Uganda and Burundi, continue to battle the Islamists, with assistance from neighbouring Ethiopia and Kenya. That said, a semblance of normality has returned to Mogadishu, where the first elected government in 20 years is pursuing a confederal constitutional model that may bring an end to the clan-based violence of the last generation. But Somalia is an unpredictable place that has known nothing but violence for years. It is too early to predict a cessation of all conflict.

Question 5
: One of the most worrying problem in Somali conflict is the presence of an Islamist branch: Al-Shabaab. Born in 2006, as a youth movement, it now is a more complex organization and controls large parts of the southern regions of Somalia, where it seems to have imposed the shari’a (the law of God). What is the role this movement has and is going to have in Somalia?

Al Shabaab means ‘the youth’ in Arabic, and began life as a national liberation movement against the occupying forces of Christian Ethiopia, who were supported in their invasion by the US. The Salafist ideology they espouse, however, is an import from Saudi Arabia and wholly alien to Somalia, whose Islamic tradition is a Sufi one: a far gentler and more liberal strand of Islam. Many analysts think that Somalis will eventually reject Al Shabaab’s reductive brand of Islam by themselves. Their main attraction is the law and order they have imposed in the areas they control: a powerful incentive in a society devastated by civil-war related lawlessness. But their harsh brand of Sharia will look less attractive if or when the Mogadishu government proves itself able to eradicate corruption and to apply law and order themselves.

Question 6
: In your mentioned book you point to two directions for Somalia’s salvation: 1) Oil and gas sector; 2) the diaspora itself. Could you explain these two points. In particular, how can Somali people abroad help Somalia and what the future Somali governments and the international organizations should do to help in taking advantage from these 2 important sources?
It has long been suspected that Somalia sits above large untapped reserves of oil and gas. Their exploitation could turn around the economic fortunes of this impoverished country. But there is a long way to go yet. After 25 years of war and insecurity, foreign energy firms have still only just begun prospecting there. The diaspora is likelier to prove Somalia’s salvation. Some 2m Somalis live abroad, and the money they remit to friends and family back home far outstrips foreign aid spending there. Somalia’s greatest asset may be those many young Somalis who have grown up in the West, absorbing Western skills, education and values. A great many of these young Somalis want to go back to help rebuild their shattered homeland. It is imperative that Western governments – particularly the US, the UK, and Scandinavia, where Western Somali exiles are mostly concentrated – listen to this younger generation, and do all they can to encourage their vision for a better Somalia.

Question 7
: You have also worked in other places afflicted by war, social and economic problems: Sarajevo and Afghanistan.  What is the difference between the situation in Somalia and that you found in those countries?

Bosnia had the advantage of being on the margins of Europe. It was possible therefore to offer the warring parties the carrot of eventual EU membership. Somalia, by contrast, is a nation that sits between two cultures and continents, Arabia and Africa, and does not naturally ‘belong’ anywhere; the African Union is still too weak an institution to be able to offer much to a country like Somalia. Somalia’s strategic fate, like that of Afghanistan, is to have been invaded and fought over for centuries by outsiders. Al Shabaab and the Taliban in fact have much in common: both were homegrown, tribally-based movements that offered national salvation through law and order based on Sharia.

Question 8
: From 1 (worst valuation) to 10 (best valuation), how do you rank the following basic elements in Somalia:

Additional comment:
Material   Infrastructures
Immaterial   Infrastructures
Health   infrastructures
Food   availability and food security systems
Education   structures
International   Aid efficacy
Question 9: More in general, what do you think will be the future of African’s countries? What can they do to emerge from the current crisis and to develop?

Who knows - but the African Union, perhaps the European version of the EU, should be encouraged to develop as an institution as much as possible. The AU’s campaign against Al Shabaab has been a success, and proves that African solutions for African problems are possible – and in this case, likely much more effective than Western or US-led military intervention would have been. Africa’s population is growing rapidly, and the development potential of this legendarily resource-rich continent is enormous. The greatest challenge, now and in the future, will be to manage the expectations of these millions of young people, who want what all young people want – jobs, education, a home, a chance to raise a family in peace and security. The West cannot provide these things for them, but they can perhaps do more to encourage them to help  Africans to help themselves.

Question 10
: In particular, what do you suggest a young person living in Somalia or in another troubled African country should do in order to improve life conditions in his country?

Somalia needs rebuilding from scratch. In the short to medium term there is no shortage of work that needs doing: including literally, in the construction industry. If I was a young Somali, I might think about becoming a property developer. Mogadishu was once a city of pristine beaches and glittering nightlife, as well as a prosperous regional port known as the Pearl of East Africa. Its time will come again.

James Fergusson’s books:  http://www.jamesfergusson.info/about.htm
-          The World’s Most Dangerous Place, (Transworld, January 2013)
-          A Million Bullets: The Real Story of the British Army in Afghanistan (Transworld 2008)
-          The Vitamin Murders: Who Killed Healthy Eating in Britain? (Portobello Books, 2007)
-          Kandahar Cockney: A Tale of Two Worlds (Harper Collins, 2004)