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2014-02-12 12.51.58

Yesterday I heard William Reno, Professor of Political Science and Director of the African Studies Program at Northwestern (the country’s oldest) speak on ‘Rethinking State-Building in Muslim-Majority States: Grounded View From Somalia.’  I was vaguely familiar with Reno from his work on Sierra Leone in the 90’s which I briefly encountered as a student about a decade later.  He remains focused on security issues on the continent and appears to have shifted his focus from resource conflicts in west Africa to network conflicts in the Horn of Africa.  He got a bit theoretical at times and my mind wandered (I was a bit out of my element despite having attended another recent area event on Somalia security), but my main takeaways were thus:

Reno began his remarks by talking about his experience in Afghanistan, noting that the context in Somalia is quite different, as there is no clear delineation of areas that are safe and unsafe.  He criticized a Swedish diplomat for traveling to Mogadishu and not heeding this advice.  He also spoke of a French security agent who was captured in Mogadishu and subsequently released following a dispute between al-Shabab and Hizbul Islam, two armed militant groups.  He stated that reports attributing the release of the agent to a successful escape are likely ‘fiction’ and reflect a ‘gullible media.’

At this point Reno embarked on a more theoretical and highly inquisitive discourse, posing dozens of questions.  On the theoretical tip, he spoke of concepts like ‘symmetrical irregular warfare’, ‘organic guerrilla leaders’, and Chenoweth’s ‘Network Analysis.’  Questions, of varying degrees of complexity, included:

  • How does it become like this?
  • What is indiscriminate violence?
  • What is discriminate violence?
  • Why is it like this?
  • Is this just because they are pastoralists?
  • How can both collect taxes?
  • What’s with that?
  • How do you control territory?
  • How do you control people?
  • How do you control societies without a bureaucracy?

In the Q&A Reno acknowledged his predilection for questions, telling a questioner, ‘I am addressing your questions with even firmer questions.’  My head was swimming at the rate these questions were fired off, but I was pleased to hear Reno refer to Gabon and Togo as ‘republican monarchies’ and note that the US was complicit with moves to establish a similar form of government in Uganda.  He noted that the Patriot Act places some limits on his research, but that he wouldn’t be inclined to talk to such people in the first place as they’d like to ‘chop [his] head off.’ He also spoke about the challenges that Ethiopia is facing with problems in Somalia and South Sudan and praised Somalia for its coffee.

Speaking of coffee, Reno held a coffee cup in his right hand at a very erect angle for much of his talk (as seen above).  It appeared as if he was just a slight moment away from taking a sip, but he would hold the position for minutes at a time without imbibing.  I began to wonder if this may have been an intentional technique to aid his concentration or an action to develop a certain muscle.

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