At a first glance, it may seem just another eye-catching headline, but it is not. The world’s most dangerous place – as the Edinburgh-based James Fergusson chose to title his book on Somalia – is a phrase that enshrines a well-articulated thesis, one that may be counter-argued, but has to be mulled over beforehand.
After all, if a journalist who spent a great deal of his professional life reporting about Afghanistan calls a place other than that “the most dangerous” and furthermore an “outlaw State”, his opinion is at least worth listening to.
According to what Fergusson says, his previous interest for Afghanistan has indeed played a role in convincing him to focus on the Horn of Africa. He was brought there by reports of Islamist fighters leaving the war-ravaged country of central Asia and joining, instead, the ranks of the Somali-based al-Shabaab. ‘An African Taliban at war in a country more corrupt than Afghanistan! – he writes, also making a reference to Transparency International’s well-known Corruption Perception Index – that was a place I was very curious to see’. Such a tone, certainly lighter than that of most essays and articles dedicated to Somalia, should not be seen as a sign of an underestimation of the problems the country is dealing with. On the contrary, Fergusson’s way of writing and language are some of the factors that enable people to approach – through this book – one of the most complex questions in African (and probably world) politics, without being overwhelmed by its maze-like nature.
The author literally takes the reader with him during his journey to various parts of Somalia – Mogadishu, some refugee camps, the self-declared state of Somaliland, Garowe and the pirate-infested Galkacyo in Puntland – and within the Somali diaspora circles. Through his way of writing, the Edinburgh-based journalist manages to paint a vivid picture, which however does not lack either the relevant background information nor a comprehensive argument, although the mainly pessimistic tone will certainly disappoint some analysts.
Generally speaking, The world’s most dangerous place might be of little interest to most historians and Somali studies scholars (to make a single but emblematic example, the bibliography is just two pages long and a mere couple of the books listed there were published before the 1990s). Yet, it is not only the average reader that might enjoy it, since this book provides some food for thought also for some of those more aware of the Horn of Africa’s issues.
A good example of this is the description of all the western ‘security consultants’ and soldiers of fortune who revolved around the then Transitional Federal Government – Fergusson’s stay in Somalia dates back to 2011 – and in particular of the handful of US military advisers who cast a different light on the official stance of the successive administrations in Washington. Strictly speaking, this is not a new perspective, but the details of Fergusson’s account surely add something to what was already known.
Also the author’s thesis on al-Shabaab is worth taking into consideration:in fact he is able to show, in a way that no academic study could have, that the Islamic militant group, despite being at its core the hardline movement that became known through the news reports, is also seen by many Somalis as the lesser of many evils. Particularly interesting, from this point of view, is the journalist’s focus on former young radical recruits. By speaking with some of them, he becomes convinced that the current attempts to solve the problem of violence relying on traditionally recognized authorities, such as the so called ‘elders’, are doomed to failure: by now they have little control of the situation, Fergusson assumes, a point that might be of some interest to those dealing with state re-building in the war-ravaged country.
The two main limits that can be found in The world’s most dangerous place, on the other hand, have to do with its scope, both spatial and temporal. In connection to the first aspect, the author, due to security conditions, was unable to travel in the southern part of the country, and notably to Kismayo, which is one of the key places to understand some of the latest political developments. Similarly, the book, originally issued in 2013, could not deal effectively with the Westgate attack – mentioned in a Postscript to the paperback edition – which may change the perspective from which one looks at present-day al-Shabaab. Anyone willing to counter Fergussons’s theses, thereby, should start with these two points. However, if he hopes to succeed, he should also replicate the author’s extraordinary work on the field. (D.M.)
James Fergusson, The world’s most dangerous place. Inside the outlaw state of Somalia, Transworld, London, 2014, 464pp