By Guled Warsame
One figure that Somalis have come to loathe seeing on t.v is J. Peter Pham, a perennial negative Nancy who constantly disparages our country, which is emerging from two decades of civil war.
Pham is a self-declared “expert on Somalia,” and he has spent the past several years regurgitating clichés and spreading gloomy narratives about Somalia in numerous books, articles, and t.v appearances. He works for the Atlantic Council and is a minor member of neocon circles in Washington D.C.
In a recent February 9 appearance on CNN, Pham disparaged the Somali election that had taken place the proceeding day (Feb 8) and, in the usual condescending and demeaning manner he assumes when speaking about Somalis, mocked the electoral process and the winner of the election, Mohamed Abdullahi Farmaajo, saying, “garbage in, garbage out.”
A technocrat noted for his honesty and hostility to corruption, Farmaajo‘s victory sparked mass public celebrations throughout Somalia and was hailed as historic, but of course Pham did not mention any of this and instead harped on about “corruption” and the security challenges which continue to afflict the fragile Somali state. Of course he exaggerated the problems and failed to mention the progress going on in the country.
There’s no denying that Somalia has serious security challenges, or that corruption and cronyism exist in its politics. These are problems—big problems—and they need to be addressed (and indeed progress is being made on both fronts, and many more). That said, the perennially negative narrative spread about Somalia by J. Pheter Pham and his ilk—a narrative that is devoid of nuance and which plays upon cliches of the Somali people—is poisonous and needs to end. Somalis do not want an “expert” who spends his time denigrating our country, ignoring its progress and spreading damaging narratives that actually fuel instability by driving away potential partners and eroding international confidence in the Somali government, a government that is trying to defeat a weakened but still deadly Islamist insurgency, piracy, drought, and the accumulated effects of two decades of civil war. No easy task!
Somalia has gone through many painful chapters since its civil war in 1991. Tribal warfare, ethnic cleansing, mass starvation, international invasion, a complete breakdown in law and order—we’ve seen it all! But now our country is slowly recovering: clan wars have largely stopped, the economy is maturing, and new democratic political institutions are slowly taking root in the country. After living through a hellish civil war, the Somali people have realized the futility of fighting and we are ready to move on. After the election of Farmaajo—a man who was elected by a parliament that is more gender diverse than the United States Congress—thrilled citizens in Gaalkacyo, a long troubled city in South-Central Somalia, tore down a ‘greenline‘ separating the people living there along clan lines, and in the capital Mogadishu thousands poured out into the streets to celebrate Farmaajo’s victory. This was astonishing because Farmaajo comes from a clan that had been slaughtered in Mogadishu in 1991 and he defeated a man who clan-wise “came” from Mogadishu, demonstrating the political maturity of the Somali people and the evolution of our politics beyond narrow tribal loyalties.
The real news is that Somalia is moving forward and our country has made impressive progress these past several years. Security has improved, inspiring many diaspora Somalis to return, and fueling a building-boom in the capital and elsewhere in the country. Somali industries such as livestock, telecommunications, and services are recovering to and at times exceeding pre-civil war levels—indeed Somalia boasts some of the fastest and cheapest mobile phone and internet rates in the world! Somalia recently conducted a presidential election where the defeated candidate gracefully accepted the result and transferred power to his successor. These are the types of developments have breathed new life into Somalia, but of course you won’t hear about them on CNN because they rely on “experts” such as Pham and his ilk— a small coterie of foreigners who earn big bucks by repeating tired, outdated narratives about Somalia every time they appear on t.v or write a new book or get hired on as consultants by foreign organizations. The narrative they want to keep Somalis trapped in is one of violence, corruption, terror, and general doom—and of course only they, at hefty consulting fees, can help paternalistic Western governments solve these problems!
Frankly it’s becoming unbearable being confronted by such “experts” whenever Somalia appears on t.v or print. I think I speak for all Somalis when I say to Mr. Pham—and all the foreign “experts” of his kind—please take your expertise elsewhere. Leave our people alone.