Progress, is a term that you now often hear used to describe the current state of affairs in Southern Somalia (especially, Mogadishu). You only need look at the many news outlets, twitter feeds, Facebook posts and statements made by politicians to observe #TheSomaliaYouNeverSee and #SomaliaRising. We are presented with images of, shiny new buildings, amenities we would expect to find in Europe, smiling peoples and idyllic landscapes. The narrative when simplified is such: Somalia, previously devastated by war, is now rising from the ashes. This is music to the ears of anyone, who like me growing up, was often told to “go back to your country!” But despite its seductive allure, and my want to believe it, I can’t help but wonder: are we being sold a dream about progress?
In the African context, progress is often understood as the transitioning from underdeveloped to developed; from being backward to civilised. Valentin Mudimbe in his seminal work ‘The Invention of Africa’ highlights how this is based on a set of misleading oppositions’: “traditional versus modern; oral versus written and printed; agrarian and customary communities versus urban and industrialised civilisation; subsistence economies versus highly productive economies”. To progress, is to move from the former to the later i.e. from traditional to modern. Once the course is set, debate need only focus on the speed with which the transition is to be made. However, such an understanding is fundamentally wrong, as it does not reflect the reality of progress. A reality that shows that at any given time there exists multiple different avenues a society can pursue for change. Ultimately, the directions pursued are dictated by those in positions of power and privilege.
Southern Somalia (and to a greater extent, the wider Somali inhabited territories) is a place comprised of multiple unfolding realities, and competing conceptualisations of truth. The images and narratives that provide the lifeblood of the Somalia Rising narrative, only capture and present part of this. A multifaceted situation, reduced to a single story of potential finally being realised, and a beauty restored. Where there was previously ruin and absence, today stand shiny new buildings, infrastructure and hope. A move is being made from underdeveloped to developed. Such a heroic storyline is hard to resist as it feeds directly into the collective desires of a peoples tired of being othered and yearning for peace and prosperity – and as such can have a powerful sedative effect. The path for progress is presented as set, all that remains for us is how to walk it. As such, we don’t consider in detail what, if any, potential alternatives exist.
Important debates about what the future could, and should, look like become depoliticised. Controversial issues such as the 4.5 system, Federalism and the recent SOMA oil deal come to be presented as the price required of progress, rather then what they are: political decisions reflective of powerful interests. And thats before we even begin to discuss the role of the international community.
There is a Somali saying: nin huurda, tartan ka ma qayb galo (a sleeping man doesn’t partake in races). Southern Somalia is currently going through a process of great upheaval, and transformative change. Many of the decisions being taken today, will have long and lasting impacts – some of which we may not truly comprehend for decades to come. These decisions impact upon the lives of many, and as such, must not be dictated by a single story. Instead, debates about them must be opened up to reflect the multiple perspectives and realities that make up, Somali Society. As it stands, the Somalia Rising narrative is more an appeal to the heart, then to the mind – and as such can result in our critical faculties becoming diluted.
My saying all of this should not be construed as a rejection of the narrative, but rather a call for more critical reflection and questioning of it. For instance, rather than asking whether Somalia is rising, we should be ask: who is it rising for?