Book review: The World’s Most Dangerous Place: Inside the Outlaw State of Somalia by James Fergusson

WHILE James Fergusson was researching The World’s Most Dangerous Place, Inside the Outlaw State of Somalia, a Somali exile took exception to his proposed title.

WHILE James Fergusson was researching The World’s Most Dangerous Place, Inside the Outlaw State of Somalia, a Somali exile took exception to his proposed title.

The World’s Most Dangerous Place: Inside the Outlaw State of Somalia

by James Fergusson

Bantam Press, 432pp, £20

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The Edinburgh journalist – who spent much of his earlier career in the relatively placid environment of Afghanistan – stuck with it. After reading Fergusson’s 400 pages of coruscating reportage, not even the most patriotic Somali could object.

Modern Somalia is a state which has so conspicuously failed that its central government has no foothold in at least half of the country, and a shaky one in the rest. For much of the recent past, the Somali cabinet has met not in the capital of Mogadishu but in another country, Kenya. As another of Fergusson’s sources puts it, wherever in the world the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse roam, they return each night to stable in the Horn of Africa.

One result has been, of course, mass emigration. Somalia’s emigrants offer a hint of what the country could achieve, a kind of parallel reality and a rebuke to the prevailing images of Black Hawk Down and piracy in the Gulf of Aden. They include the Olympic double gold-medallist Mo Farah, the broadcaster Rageh Omaar, a top-class squad of professional footballers playing for European clubs, numerous academics and entrepreneurs and more supermodels than seems fair from a country of only ten million.

They and millions of others voluntarily remit back to their native land almost 20 per cent of its GDP. They have left, usually with regret and bewilderment, a homeland which has forgotten how to sustain itself.

Fergusson finds many dystopian analogies to be made of Somalia. One of the most telling is with William Golding’s novel Lord of the Flies. The median age in most of the western developed world is 36 years. The median age in Somalia and much of the rest of sub-Saharan Africa is 18 years, a result of low life expectancy, of no health care, of famine, civil war and rampant crime. It is a result of Somalia having more guns than people. It means that the place is overrun by gangs of armed teenagers who have, by 2013, known nothing but a brutal Hobbesian struggle for survival.

Fergusson draws frequently upon earlier 20th century European portrayals of Somalis as ruthless and untrustworthy. But whatever the natives’ character they could not have withstood its history. Its half-a-dozen major clans, who dwell also across the borders with modern Kenya, Ethiopia and Djibouti, found themselves after the Scramble for Africa in the nominal control of Italy, France and Great Britain.

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The usual arbitrary borders were drawn between French, British and Italian Somaliland, redefining without their consent or their knowledge the identities and interests of nomadic pastoralists. When their presumptive parent nations went to war, the losers conceded their bits of Africa to the triumphant British and French, and the borders were redrawn.

Then the Europeans changed their mind about colonialism and went home. They left behind a confusion of artificial polities, a thoroughly disturbed traditional society, and guns. So many guns, and each one bearing the same unwritten but obvious slogan: this is how you conquer and then maintain control.

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An NGO named Transparency International publishes an annual Corruptions Perceptions Index which measures (albeit by standards which have been criticised) the probity of 180 countries. No prizes for guessing which country has finished at the bottom every year since 2007.

The wonder is that Somalia is even permitted to enter the competition. Its domestic currency, the shilling, is effectively without value. Sixty per cent of its population is illiterate. Its police force, its military and what remains of its civil authorities either cannot control or are complicit in the activities of thousands of increasingly murderous deep-sea pirates. Roughly half of its innumerable annual victims of gunshot wounds are under the age of five.

And of course, Somalia has its own al-Quaeda wannabe: a coalition of Islamist gangs known as Al Shabaab. al-Shabaab (which amazingly does mean, The Youth) has recently suffered major military defeats at the hands of African Union troops. But in October last year al-Shabaab laid claim to about a quarter of the country as the Islamic Emirate of Somalia, and seemed capable, with a following wind, of taking the remainder.

When it comes to al-Shabaab, Fergusson pulls no punches. Those teenage holy warriors rape, murder, mutilate and plunder. Rape is foremost on the list. Fergusson is not the first to explore the part played by toxic sexual repression in motivating the frontline cannon fodder of militant Islam.

To the temptation of submissive virgins in paradise, add fruit. James Fergusson interviewed a few scared, 15-year-old captured al Shabaab fighters who explained they’d joined up because they were offered a piece of fruit a day. For the young and the hungry, fruit is preferable to virgins.

Somalia’s youth problem is international. There are criminal Somali gangs in London and Minneapolis and a hundred other places worldwide. The failed 21/7 London bombers – the ones who were filmed surrendering naked on a Kensington balcony – were disaffected Somalis.

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That in itself, as Fergusson goes out of his way to illustrate and explain, is reason enough to pay close attention to the slow-motion disintegration of the ancient trading civilisation on the Horn of Africa. If we, who recently so passionately desired their land and resources, will not now look their way, they will look back at us with angry eyes.

James Fergusson is a reporter, not a political analyst. But he is a great journalist, and such truly brilliant investigative work offers the seeds, the suggestions of remedies for the contagion beneath the reporter’s microscope. In Somalia more than anywhere else on Earth, its millions of futureless young require food, education and prospects. If civil society cannot provide those things, of course teenagers will turn to al-Shabaab or any other gang for fruit and belief.

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Of course they will then kill and rape the innocent. Of course they will then be gunned down like sheep by trained Ugandan troops. Of course some of their stupid friends abroad will then plant badly-made bombs on tube trains. Of course the vicious circle will continue to spin. The Somali critic of James Fergusson’s title was right in a way he might not have intended. If no solution is found for Somalia, almost everywhere else on the planet is dangerous.

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