Sunday, June 2, 2013

James Fergusson's "The World’s Most Dangerous Place"

James Fergusson is a freelance journalist and foreign correspondent who has written for many publications, including The Times of London and The Economist. He is the author of Taliban: The Unknown Enemy and the award-winning A Million Bullets. He lives in Edinburgh.

Fergusson applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The World's Most Dangerous Place: Inside the Outlaw State of Somalia, and reported the following:
When I first contemplated writing about Somalia, I knew little about the country beyond the clichés. It was, for me, the world’s most dangerous place, with its awesome reputation for piracy, kidnapping, corruption, extreme clan violence and Islamic fundamentalism. As a long-time reporter on Afghanistan, I could hardly wait to see what this African dystopia was like.

I arrived in Mogadishu in 2011, and found a city at war. On one side was a weak, UN-backed government, bolstered by several thousand Ugandan and Burundian troops belonging to a peace-keeping force known as AMISOM. On the other was al-Shabaab, a vicious Islamist militia affiliated to al-Qaida. The front line ran straight through the city centre, complete with trenches, sandbagged firing steps, and a no-man’s land filled with cactus instead of barbed wire. It was like the Somme, or Stalingrad, transposed to East Africa.

I wanted to find out how this cataclysm came about. Page 99 of my book falls in a chapter called "The Failure of Somali Politics," in which I interviewed the foreign minister, Mohamed Omaar, while under mortar fire at the presidential compound – a first for me, although Omaar was so used to it that he barely noticed the explosions. His ministerial colleagues were just as brave. They were mostly educated returnees from the diaspora; their prime minister, nicknamed Farmaajo – ‘The Cheese’ – was previously a local government official in Buffalo, New York.

Despite their working conditions, the reformist Farmaajo and his team were getting somewhere in 2011. They were the best government the country had had in years. By tightening the regulations governing loans from the notoriously leaky central bank, however, Farmaajo had also challenged certain vested clan interests; and clanism did for him in the end. Soon after my Villa Somalia visit, the entire cabinet was replaced in a clan deal stitched up between the president and the speaker of parliament, a businessman of much-questioned probity known as Sheikh Razorblade. It was the fifth time this had happened since 2004.

Page 99 contains a response to Farmaajo’s sacking from Richard Rouget, a legendary French soldier of fortune formerly known as ‘Colonel Sanders,’ now employed as an AMISOM military advisor. Rouget had wasted months building up a relationship with the outgoing Minister of Defence, and his frustration was pulpable. “It is reptile politics,” he told me. “Somalis think: ‘If I kill my enemy, even if killing him kills me too, then I’ve still won.’ It is blinkered and destructive: the politics of the playground.”

That, in a nutshell, is why Mogadishu has been without a properly functioning central government for over 20 years – and how Somalia became the world’s most failed state.
Learn more about the book and author at James Fergusson's website, and follow the author on Twitter.

--Marshal Zeringue