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» BBC From Our Own Correspondent – Could Libya’s royal Sanusi name return to centre stage?
After more than 40 years of life under Muammar Gaddafi, some hope that a member of the old royal family might have a place in Libya’s future. 

It was not the sort of welcome I was expecting. After 19 hours in the back of a flimsy Hyundai saloon, flying along at top speed with a driver distracted by two mobile phones, I was hoping for something a little friendlier.

But Sheikh Mohammed Sanusi, the local imam in Jaghbub – a tiny desert oasis in eastern Libya – is in an uncompromising mood.

“I’m angry with Christians and Jews,” he begins.

“Why’s that?” I ask, slightly taken aback.





“Because the Christian and Jewish holy books have been changed many times over the centuries,” he says. “The Koran has been unaltered for 1,400 years. You should read the Koran, become a Muslim and earn your place in paradise.”

I try to change the conversation but the sheikh is having none of it. Obstinately he sticks to his guns, relating various miracles and prophesies of the Prophet Mohammed. It is hard to get a word in edgeways.


My mission is not so much to discuss religion, as to see what, if anything, is left of the famous Sanusi Order that once held sway here.

The Order was an Islamic revivalist movement of orthodox sufis, established in the Arabian desert by Sheikh Mohammed ibn Ali Sanusi – aka the Grand Sanusi – in 1837.

It spread right across north Africa and went as far west as Senegal through a network of zawiyas, or religious lodges.

In 1856, the Grand Sanusi founded a zawiya in Jaghbub, which grew to become the headquarters of the Order and Africa’s second-greatest university after al-Azhar in Cairo.

When Libya achieved independence under a constitutional monarchy in 1951, it was no coincidence that a member of the Sanusi family – Idris – became king.

The family and the Order had won lasting respect by providing education to the masses and mediating difficult local tribal and trade disputes.

The Idris monarchy proved a benign institution for Libya during its 18 years, though nationalist detractors criticised it for being ineffectual and too pro-Western.

Muammar Gaddafi toppled King Idris in 1969 and sought to marginalise the Sanusis with a vengeance.

Idris’s heir and his family were first imprisoned then sent into exile in London, having been forced to watch their house being burnt to cinders by the regime.


Then, in 1988, Gaddafi sent the bulldozers into Jaghbub and the great zawiya was razed to the ground.

“It took 11 days for them to destroy it,” Sheikh Mohammed says, as if it was yesterday.

“Then they finished it off with 17 explosions.”

He takes me outside and we walk across a vast expanse of rubble, sizzling beneath the white desert sun. There are 47,000 sq metres (506,000 sq ft) of smashed marble, white stone, date-palm trunks and rusting wires and nails.

Nothing within the old compound remains standing.

The destruction of such an important part of Libya’s cultural heritage is all the more chilling for being left as it is.

Yet with Gaddafi now gone from eastern Libya, it cannot be too long before the bulldozers return to Jaghbub and the great zawiya rises from the ashes.

The sheikh says he is not interested in discussing Gaddafi or the Libyan revolution. His only interest is in God.

The one concern he does express – probably unique in any commentary on the Arab Spring to date – is this: if the violence in the region continues, so many men will lose their lives that the ratio of women to men will increase to 50:1. This, he says, will lead to outbreaks of lesbianism and same-sex marriages that will represent a real problem for Muslim society. The translator, entirely deferential up to this point, looks a little embarrassed.

Political prisoner

However hard he tried to crush the Sanusis, Col Gaddafi could never completely erase the family and their followers from Libya and Libyan history.

Today the Sanusi story continues in Benghazi, where Ahmed al-Zubair Ahmed al-Sanusi is a member of the Transitional National Council. Now 77, he was the world’s longest-serving political prisoner, languishing behind bars from 1970 to 2001, four years more than Nelson Mandela. During that time, Gaddafi never commuted the death sentence that hung over him.

“Every time a door opened, I never knew if it was going to be someone taking me to my execution,” he says.

Dignified and quietly spoken in a pinstripe suit and tie, he talks without rancour, resolutely upbeat about the formidable challenges ahead.

There are few demands for the monarchy to be restored. But amid the confusion and euphoria in Benghazi, some Libyans look at Haj Ahmed and dare to wonder whether, after almost 42 years of dictatorship, the Sanusi name may yet return to the fore.


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» The Spectator – Killer Clowns: For too long, the absurdity of Libya’s rulers obscured their brutality

For 20 years I have seen Colonel Gaddafi every morning. He greets me with a faraway look in his eyes as I step into my study. It is one of those vast propaganda portraits, 5ft by 3ft, beloved by serial kleptocrat dictators. Looking youthful, almost serene, he sports a bouffant hairdo and military uniform with enough gold thread on his epaulettes to embroider a WMD. Behind him is a desert panorama of rolling sand dunes, date palms, camels and a huge pipe with torrents of water gushing out to create fertile agricultural land, along with combine harvesters, a flock of sheep and the sort of Harvest Festival fruit basket most vicars could only ever dream of. All of this above the legend, ‘THE GREAT MAN-RIVER BUILDER’.

The portrait commemorates Gaddafi’s Great Man-Made River Project, one of the largest feats of engineering in the world. I picked it up from a Tripoli hotel in 1991, the year Gaddafi inaugurated a project described by the Financial Times as ‘a monument to vanity’. The hotel manager who gave it to me thought I was bonkers. Like many Libyans who have had to put up with decades of grinding repression under the world’s most psychotic dandy, he probably thought of the Colonel less as Brother Leader or Great Man-River Builder than as Big Bastard, a term I used to hear muttered sotto voce during visits to Tripoli.

Although it is still far too early to digest the lasting consequences of the Arab awakening in north Africa and the Middle East, the outburst of mass political participation may spell an end to the ability of one man to rule — and wreck — his country unchecked. Whatever else the north African revolutions achieve, they have put an end to dynastic succession in Egypt and Libya. In Cairo the protestors have kiboshed Hosni Mubarak’s plans to transfer power to his son Gamal. In Tripoli, it is safe to say the colonel will not be handing the reins to his son and expected heir, the congenital liar Saif al-Islam.

In 2002, I interviewed the gangster dauphin for the Speccie while he was staying at the Royal Suite — where else for the son of a socialist revolutionary? — at Claridge’s. It was part of the rehabilitating Libya tour, during which Gaddafi Jnr expressed a sudden and unexpected passion for democracy. ‘I’m very enthusiastic to see Libya as an oasis of democracy, a society that respects the environment and human rights and so on, and is a model in the region,’ he said without smirking. Democracy was ‘policy number one’.

He was furious when asked about succeeding his father. It was ‘an unthinkable idea, and you shouldn’t even mention it’. Saif was even more furious when Boris Johnson, the then editor, headlined the article ‘Son of Mad Dog’, reducing Saif’s London PR man to a gibbering wreck.

With Saif al-Islam’s exit from the fray, Libyans will be spared the rule of a man who has been living up to his name — Sword of Islam — in recent days. Like the 14th-century Tatar conqueror Tamerlane, another Sword of Islam, he and his minions have proved only too adept at butchering fellow Muslims. The citizens of Benghazi, currently held by the Libyan opposition, are quite right to fear the Gaddafis’ wrath. As The Spectator goes to press, Mad Dog’s troops have retaken Gharyan and Sabratha in the country’s northwest and Brega in the east. Though their days may be numbered, though the world is watching, the Gaddafis’ revenge will be bloody and uncompromising.

It has always suited Gaddafi Snr to be seen internationally as a clown. For much of his 41-year reign, he was the Mussolini to Saddam Hussein’s Hitler, the one a colourful fool, the other evil incarnate, a deception that conveniently hid the Libyan state’s darker side. In truth, no one should be surprised at Saif al-Islam’s threat to ‘fight to the last bullet’ – anyone who dreams of opposing Gaddafi can only be a drug-crazed youth, rat or cockroach. Behind the swaying palm trees of Tripoli’s Green Square, the exquisite Roman ruins of Sabratha and Leptis Magna and the lucrative oil deals that drove British foreign policy to rehabilitate the regime, Gaddafi’s Libya has always been a brutal police state.

Such was its raison d’être from the outset. On 1 September 1969, the Revolutionary Command Council warned Libyans that any attempt to resist the new order would be ‘crushed ruthlessly and decisively’. That is the path Gaddafi has always taken to deal with dissent, an approach typified by the Abu Salim prison massacre of 1996, in which 1,200 prisoners were killed in cold blood, their bodies reportedly fork-lifted into refrigerated trucks and driven away. Libya denies the atrocity.

To its intense discomfort, the West is suddenly learning that stability in the Middle East isn’t so stable, after all. For years, dictators like the Al Saud family and Mubarak have ruled quite happily in their own interests and those of the West with a catastrophic disregard for their own people. Others, like Assad, Gaddafi and latterly Saddam, after he had helped tie revolutionary Iran down for a decade, have proved as hostile to their own people as the West. Arab governance, once the envy of the world when the Abbasid caliphate headquartered in Baghdad created the most sophisticated civilisation on earth, has shrivelled into an oxymoron.

Now that the veneer of stability has come unstuck, the Arab world faces a period of distinct uncertainty, to the discomfort of global markets. Gaddafi, after 41 years, will leave a country in political ruins and turmoil. Mubarak almost single-handedly destroyed the Egyptian economy during a reign of 29 years and further political turbulence surely awaits. Cracks are appearing in King Abdullah’s Jordan, a stalwart ally of the West. Yemenis understandably want to get shot of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who leads one of the world’s most venal regimes (31 years). In Syria, 22 February marked the 40th anniversary of the Assad family’s hold on power. In Saudi Arabia, land of the odious Al Sauds, 87-year-old King Abdullah has offered a pre-emptive $36 billion bribe — common currency in this part of the world — to buy off dissent.

Western policymakers may discover that it would be better for everyone in the long term if they stopped fretting about their stakes in the region for a minute, and started paying more attention to the interests of ordinary people, rather than the regimes, of north Africa and the Middle East.

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» Gaddafi has chemical weapons and he’s ready to use them

The first that Gaddafi’s poorly armed opposition would know of an impending attack on them from their country’s embattled leader would be the distant ‘crump’ of artillery fire.

Moments later the shells would start to land. For a few seconds there might be relief, laughter even, that the shells had either fallen short or gone over  their heads.

But then the gentle desert breeze would blow the deadly smoke from the exploded munitions towards them and suddenly — too late — those fighting for democracy in Libya would realise Gaddafi hadn’t missed at all.

It could be a sudden choking in their lungs, a searing pain in their eyes, the rapid blistering of their skin.

As they slumped to the ground, blinded, vomiting or coughing up blood, they would die in the desert knowing two things. First, that despite his lies, despite his obfuscation, Gaddafi does still have biological and chemical weapons. Second, that he was now desperate and deranged enough to use them.

For now, a biological or chemical attack by Gaddafi on his own people is still only the stuff of nightmares.

But what is worrying a growing number of Western military and intelligence experts is that it could become a terrifying reality at any moment.

Gaddafi may have promised to give up such weapons in 2003 as part of the deal that brought the rogue state back into the diplomatic fold, but the chilling fact is he still has enough to kill and maim an awful lot of people.

He still has almost ten tonnes of the chemicals needed to make mustard gas, the near-odourless gas that condemned so many to a lingering and excruciatingly painful death in World War I — and which was certainly one of the ingredients in the lethal, toxic cocktail that Saddam Hussein infamously used to kill up to 5,000 people in the Kurdish town of Halabja in 1988.

He still has 650 tonnes of materials required to produce a range of deadly chemical weapons. Their effects on the human body are probably known only to those who made them and who now store them at the Rabta Chemical Weapons Production Facility — the largest chemical weapons production facility in the developing world.

Libya’s former Justice Minister Mustafa Abdel-Jalil says Gaddafi still has biological weapons — anthrax perhaps; nerve agents such as sarin; possibly even genetically modified smallpox — and that he isn’t afraid to use them.

Anthrax was first used as a weapon by the Japanese army against prisoners of war in the Thirties. If Gaddafi unleashes this deadly disease on his people, the effects could be catastrophic, killing thousands.

The threat of sarin — a substance so toxic that a drop can kill an adult — is just as worrying.

Known as a ‘nerve-agent’ because it overstimulates the nervous system, exhausting glands and muscles and causing respiratory failure, sarin may be within Gaddafi’s arsenal. In 2004, Libya admitted that stockpiles of sarin have been produced in the country’s Rabta facility.

He also has 1,000 tonnes of ‘yellow cake’ uranium, the first step towards building an atomic bomb.

Libya is thought to be some way from being able to make an atomic bomb — details of its fairly rudimentary nuclear programme were revealed as part of the 2003 deal with Washington, and its relatively small stock of enriched uranium acquired from Pakistan and North Korea were handed to the U.S.

But there’s no shortage of the raw material in this highly unstable region of North Africa. Niger, Libya’s desperately poor neighbour to the south, and reportedly the country of origin for many of Gaddafi’s mercenaries, is one of the top producers of uranium in the world.

The nuclear threat from Libya may be small, but it would be a fool who says it had vanished entirely.

As part of the diplomatic deal in 2003, when Gaddafi handed over Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs), he destroyed his long-range missiles and 3,300 aerial mortar shells designed for delivering mustard gas and chemical agents.

But, despite this being hailed at the time as ‘the real non-proliferation success story of the new millennium’ by President Bush’s assistant, American Secretary of State Paula DeSutter, the destruction and verification process has been slow, tortuous and incomplete.

Gaddafi still has an unknown number of lethal Scud-B missiles and a huge arsenal of conventional artillery that could be adapted relatively easily for use with chemical and biological agents.

But could Britain, the United States and their Western allies really stand by and let Gaddafi bomb his own people with mustard gas or anthrax as it once stood by and let Saddam Hussein launch his genocidal gas attack on the Kurds? I don’t believe so for a moment.

All the military intelligence I’ve picked up indicates that at the first sign of a biological or chemical attack against the Libyans, Western forces will move swiftly and decisively to bring Gaddafi’s regime to an end.

Gaddafi is a desperate and probably deranged man, who has publicly pledged that he will not leave the country or stand down, but would prefer to die ‘a martyr’s death’. The problem is he has the terrifying capability of being able to impose not a martyr’s death, but a cruel, lingering and excruciatingly painful death on thousands of others, too.

Justin Marozzi is the author of South From Barbary: Along The Slave Routes Of The Libyan Sahara

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» The Times – Behind the buffoon Libyans are fighting for their lives


Doing the rounds on Twitter yesterday was a Vanity Fair story that neatly encapsulated the way Libya has been reported for years. Headlined “Dictator Chic: Colonel Gaddafi —A Life in Fashion”, it featured a series of outlandish costumes ranging from Saturday Night Fever to Liberace. That’s not how it feels to Libyans on the streets of Tripoli. They are more concerned with snipers and helicopter gunships. They’re in a fight for their lives.

I was a child born a year after Gaddafi ousted King Idris, with a father who did business in Libya, so the country was a constant backdrop to my childhood in the Seventies and Eighties, To a small boy, it meant Globetrotter suitcases stuffed with blood oranges, dates, bakhlava and multi-coloured jalabas for my mother and sisters. I was only dimly aware of The Green Book, a trio of slim volumes summarising Gaddafi’s political philosophy, as an eccentric souvenir on my father’s bookshelves.

Only in the Nineties did I experience first-hand the reality of Gaddafi’s Libya. “Don’t discuss politics anywhere and under no circumstances mention Gaddafi by name,” my father said on my first visit. The mukhabarat (intelligence) officials, reviled as “antenna”, were everywhere: in hotel foyers, listening in on telephone calls, doubling as taxi drivers.

Years later, after completing a 1,500-mile journey by camel across the Libyan Sahara, a friend and I were put under house arrest for a week. We were investigated by security officials as suspected foreign spies, harangued daily about British imperialism and warned never to mention Gaddafi by name. Our terrified local guide was subjected to a much harsher grilling. We never discovered what the authorities did to him.

This is a regime in which the disjunction between rhetoric and reality, between clown and butcher, dandy and torturer-in-chief, has been extraordinary. Saif-al-Islam, Gaddafi’s son, personifies this reality gap. In 2002, I interviewed him at Claridge’s, where he expounded the virtues of democracy without any trace of irony.

To oust Gaddafi in the teeth of such vicious government repression, Libyans are displaying astonishing courage. This is a regime that, like its fellow Middle Eastern police state kleptocracies, has serially failed its people with failed socialism, failed pan-Arabism, failed pan-Africanism, support for international terrorists and with a human rights record best exemplified by the award of the 1998 Gaddafi Prize for Human Rights to Fidel Castro.

Justin Marozzi is the author of South from Barbary: Along the Slave Routes of the Libyan Sahara

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» Neglect of Somalia will have high price

The west is easily distracted. Just as the war in Iraq diverted attention from Afghanistan, allowing the Taliban to regroup and consolidate its hold over much of the country, so the war in Afghanistan has blinded policymakers to the growing crisis in Somalia. Islamist rebels who on Tuesday killed more than 30 people including MPs and officials in a raid on a hotel in Mogadishu are now exporting terrorism beyond its borders. Somalia poses a genuine danger to the Horn of Africa region and the west.

Last month’s twin bomb attacks in Uganda’s capital Kampala, which killed 76 people, changed the rules of the game. They marked the first time the al-Shabaab group, which controls much of southern Somalia and most of Mogadishu, had struck outside the country. At a stroke a hitherto local conflict within a marginal country that has not had a government since 1991 was internationalised. Ahmed Abdi Godane, al-Shabaab’s leader, warned this was “just the beginning”.

While Washington and London have concentrated on Afghanistan, al-Shabaab has been recruiting foreign fighters. In February, it announced an alliance with al-Qaeda. It is now the strongest armed faction in the country. Jihadists commute freely between Yemen and Somalia across the Gulf of Aden. The southern Somali port of Kismayo has become a logistics hub, allowing the movement of men and materiel into Somalia. For Somalis, the rise of these extremists has been a catastrophe. Daily life is characterised, by Human Rights Watch as “grinding repression” against a backdrop of public beheadings, and stoning of women accused of adultery.

Al-Shabaab’s rise is a threat to the international community on two levels. First, Somalia is becoming a safe haven for foreign fighters schooled in Iraq and Afghanistan. Second, the group has recruited successfully from the Somali diaspora. The suicide bomber who killed 23 people during a graduation ceremony in Mogadishu last December was a Danish Somali. One of the group’s highest-profile fighters is a Somali-American. Somali-Australians have already tried, unsuccessfully, to attack an Australian military base. The International Crisis Group has warned of the dangers to the US and UK, both of which have large Somali communities.

How can the world help Somalia pull back from the brink? It is tempting to dismiss this as too difficult and dangerous. Internal conflict has been endemic for two decades. Washington recalls too well the Black Hawk Down debacle of 1993. Yet the Kampala attacks underline the folly of “constructive disengagement”, as advocated in a Council on Foreign Relations paper. It was disengagement from Somalia not engagement that led to the current crisis.

The first practical step is to reinforce the under-resourced African Union force (Amisom). Raising troop levels to 10,000-12,000 would allow it to expel al-Shabaab from Mogadishu, freeing civilians from the fighting and allowing President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed’s Transitional Federal Government to start providing basic public services. More troops are no guarantee of success, yet under-resourcing a peacekeeping mission guarantees failure.

Retaking Mogadishu will also provide Somalis with the opportunity to engage in reconciliation because ultimately it will be Somalis, not outsiders, who solve the problems. Devolved decision-making is required. Last month the autonomous region of Somaliland showed a way ahead when it held largely peaceful elections in which the incumbent president stood down after the victory of the opposition candidate.

Donors must also get serious. It is unrealistic to expect the fledgling administration to behave like a government without adequate resources. In the UN’s report on Somalia last December, it was reported that of the $58m pledged by foreign donors in Brussels in 2009, the government had received just $5.6m. Little wonder soldiers who have not been paid in months are defecting to the better funded al-Shabaab. In return Mr Ahmed needs to pave the way for a new constitution and election to allow Somalis to choose a government.

The world can no longer look away. As General Nathan Mugisha, Amisom’s commander, told me in Mogadishu last month, “If the international community is serious about Somalia, it’s not a complicated problem to solve. But it’s getting more difficult by the day.”

The writer is a senior adviser at Albany Associates

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» Boiled Goat, Warm Beer and Mortar Bombs: Justin Marozzi in Mogadishu
From Miami to Mogadishu; from blues skies, pastel perfection, grilled red snapper, key lime pie and margaritas to blue skies, a bombed-out cityscape, warm beer and boiled goat (the main dish in ‘the Dish’).

From Miami to Mogadishu; from blues skies, pastel perfection, grilled red snapper, key lime pie and margaritas to blue skies, a bombed-out cityscape, warm beer and boiled goat (the main dish in ‘the Dish’). No question Mogadishu could use a lick of paint and a spot of rebuilding. I drive through it in the back of a Casspir, a landmine-resistant armoured personnel carrier belonging to the African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom). This place makes Kabul look like Manhattan. Clan-based warfare has ripped Somalia apart for most of the past 20 years. Twenty per cent of under-fives suffer from acute malnutrition — 15 per cent constitutes an emergency, by international standards. Half the population requires humanitarian assistance. Life expectancy hovers around 50 to 55 years. A jihadist insurgency now threatens to make Somalia the sun-kissed destination of choice for al-Qa’eda. One day, they might get over all this. In the 1970s, it was tourists, not deluded Muslims, making a beeline for the sensational coastline, the longest in East Africa. I have been camped a few hundred yards from it all week, in a sand-filled tent just off a runway. The swimming is much better than Palm Beach.

If anyone is a victim of textual harassment at work, it would have to be Major Bo-Hoku Barigye, the charismatic Ugandan spokesman for Amisom. He reckons he has received 900 abusive text messages from Al Shebab, the local terrorists in this neck of the woods, in the past two months alone. Most threaten to kill him. What strikes one most about these texts, however, is not how chilling they are but how infantile. Take this one as evidence of the intellectual sophistication of these would-be world-conquering jihadists: ‘I am member Shebab fuck your marther now I will make suicide know or not fucking why do troops make genocide do what do want one day we will in hand of Shebab and we will give unforgettable lesson which will remain fresh in your mind guy guy fuck you answer.’ Less time on the Koran, boys, and more with a good English lexicon.

The first anniversary ceremony of the transitional federal government under its bespectacled leader President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed is a noisy affair. First of all we have music from a military band, followed by songs and dancing, a series of poetry readings and exuberant sketches in the heart of Villa Somalia, the presidential compound built by the Italians when they were running the place. Then in come the mortars with a terrific bang. They land extremely close, killing two and wounding several others. No one among the president’s entourage even flinches. The show must go on. Even louder is the admirably robust response from the tank strategically parked outside.

In Nairobi, en route to Mog, I spent an evening smoking shisha with Waayaha Cusub, a group of Kenya-based Somali rappers. Our Yemeni hosts were whacked out chewing qat. Like most Somalis, the band has had enough of the nihilistic airheads of ‘Al Kebab’. Their latest single is called ‘No to Al Shebab’. I launched the new single in Mogadishu in a private screening with the president. In the video, shot in Somali, Swahili and English, the band hip-hop about in burnt-out buildings amid shots of terrorists on the rampage. ‘We need justice and hope in order to cope, they might hang me on a rope, but I won’t stop telling the truth,’ raps a goatee-bearded bruiser. The president, a mild-mannered former teacher whom I suspect is not a natural rapper, is intrigued and bemused. What does he make of it? ‘I think it will attract a lot of the youth and it is a powerful message against Al Shebab,’ he says. Check them out on YouTube.

Lest we be too gloomy about all the media reports out of Mogadishu — much of it sensationalised, it has to be said — Sheikh Ahmed Mursal Adam is a living reproof to the idea that Somalia is only war, bloodshed and piracy. The henna-bearded 75-year-old, who has lived through one Italian administration and seven Somali presidents, rejoices in the title of ‘Head of Presidential Gardens’. In the course of a long life tending to the presidents’ roses, he has evidently found time to romance the ladies. Indeed, he has had 27 wives and counts 200 children and grandchildren among his descendants. I wonder what Hillary Clinton, the Islamist president’s New BF, would make of that.

Al Shebab may be morons, but the world will pay a high price if it ignores the mounting Islamist threat in the Horn of Africa. This is a battle of wills. Al-Qa’eda is providing men and money to the jihadi cause, yet Amisom is dangerously under-resourced and the United Nations won’t be deploying anytime soon, according to Ban Ki-Moon. The international community needs to show steel and commitment. The fledgling government and Amisom must be reinforced before the beardies become less manageable. A Somali government adviser in Nairobi has a stark warning. ‘I think if we stay on this same trajectory, we’ll end up with the worst fundamentalist, oppressive state in Africa, if not the world. The Islamists will win hands down.’ Is the world listening? It is time to kebab Al Shebab.

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» Mogadishu: Thorn of Africa

To listen to the UN security officer’s briefing in Nairobi prior to visiting Somalia, you would think Mogadishu was Armageddon on steroids. Each and every Somali would be extremely hostile, he warned, snipers around the presidential compound of Villa Somalia would pick me off if I stepped out onto a balcony, and the seaport would be raining bombs and mortars. The weather was harsh, the mosquitoes unbearable and the African Express flight was relatively secure only because the terrorist group Al Shebab used it so were unlikely to blow it up. He shook his head at this latest lamb heading off to the slaughter. “You’ll be lucky to remain safe,” he said. At least the swimming in the Indian Ocean was sensational, I ventured. “Good luck,” he shot back. “You will be welcomed by sharks.”


From the manicured lawns of Nairobi, Somalia is indeed a dark and fearful place. For two decades the country has known little but war. As a result of this relentless fighting, the statistics are surreally ghastly. An estimated 3.2 million Somalis, or 42 per cent of the population, require humanitarian assistance. There are 1.2 million internally displaced people fleeing from the conflict. While acute malnutrition among the under-fives stands at 20 per cent, one in 22 children is severely malnourished and at nine times greater risk of death than properly nourished children. Life expectancy, depending on who you believe, ranges from 47 to the mid-fifties. GDP per capita stands at an estimated $600 – most statistics are estimated in Somalia – placing the country 224th out of 228 countries. The seaport, the country’s main commercial link to the outside world, generates $11m a year. In 2002, urban unemployment was 65 per cent. “It can be assumed that the situation in Mogadishu has deteriorated since then,” says a UNDP report.


Conflict has a changing face in Somalia. What has been constant since 1991, when the military dictator General Mohammed Siad Barre was deposed by warring clans after 21 years at the helm, is bloodshed and instability. Clan warfare evolved into warlordism – epitomised by the anarchic savagery of “Black Hawk Down” in October 1993 – which in turn metamorphosed into religiously inspired conflict. This was only brought to an end when the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) captured Mogadishu in 2006, ushering in what some Somalis call “the six months of paradise”. The US-supported Ethiopian invasion in late 2006 quickly defeated the ICU, but it also had the unintended consequence of uniting Somalis of all political and religious hues against their old enemy. Fresh instability followed the subsequent Ethiopian departure.


Today the conflict pits the fledgling transitional federal government (TFG) of onetime ICU leader President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, supported by the African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom) against Al Shabab – literally ‘The Youth’ – an unsavoury alliance of local Islamists, foreign Al Qaeda fighters and the great unwashed, brainwashed and unemployed.


The fighting in Somalia can no longer be dismissed as an obscure domestic struggle in an unimportant country of no wider relevance to the world. The crackle of machinegun fire in Mogadishu, the regular thwump of mortars, the ground-shaking shelling by Amisom tanks and the sporadic suicide attacks by delusional youths represent the frontline in the international fight against Al Qaeda. “The instability in Somalia is a threat not only to its neighbours but more widely,” says Robert Macaire, British High Commissioner in Nairobi. “The terrorist threat is very real. We’re concerned about the risk of extremists travelling to Somalia and returning to the UK to conduct attacks.” The Somali diaspora has also been well represented in terrorist attacks inside the country.


On 1 February Al Shabab announced it was making common cause with Al Qaeda in an effort to establish an Islamic state in Somalia and fight for Muslims across the Horn of Africa. Islamists gravitate towards failed states as water finds its own level. In fact, the UN recently upgraded Somalia from “failed” to “fragile” state, but the point is the same. The level of insecurity and lack of centralised law and order provide ripe conditions for repressive Islamists to flourish.


Major Ba-Hoku Barigye, Amisom’s spokesman in Mogadishu, has daily contact with Al Shabab. His phone beeps and rings every few seconds, day in, day out, as hundreds of texts and calls come in. Although they attempt to be blood-curdling, including repeated (and unfulfilled) threats to kill him, most are moronic, some unintentionally hilarious. “You are infidels and hypocrites the doomsday you are and your friend allah will punish as hell amisom i,m muslim and my religon is the best religon?” reads one.


Al Shabab controls much of southern Somalia and a good deal of Mogadishu. As an example of its concern for the wellbeing of ordinary Somalis, it recently forced the World Food Programme to suspend its activities in most parts of the south and said foreign humanitarian organisations were no longer welcome. Forty-seven aid workers, most of them Somali, were killed in 2009 and many were abducted. Al Shebab doesn’t really go in for human rights, much less women’s rights. According to Amnesty International’s 2009 report on Somalia, “Aisha Ibrahim Duholow, aged 13, was publicly stoned to death on 27 October [2008] by some 50 men in Kismayo. She was convicted of ‘adultery’ by a Sharia court without legal defence after she reported to local authorities that she had been raped by three men. The men were not prosecuted.” Al Shebab justice often comes at the end of a blade. The most serious transgressors are beheaded, other miscreants have their limbs hacked off. Some are simply shot.


Going out into Mogadishu with Amisom’s Ugandan troops in an armoured personnel carrier reveals the scale of the challenge they, the fledgling government and Somalia face. With azure skies, a streaming breeze and foam-flecked seas beneath a fiery sun, Mogadishu could be a preternaturally beautiful place. Instead, the decades of fighting have reduced homes, streets and buildings to rubble. Kabul has nothing on Mogadishu in terms of being razed to ground zero. Bombed-out and shot-out shells rise from potholed roads and mud tracks. Cattle and goats saunter along past old men in white skullcaps and veiled women in a blaze of bright colours. There is no electricity except from generators. Government services are virtually non-existent. Squalor is the norm.


The night before the first anniversary celebration of President Sharif’s administration

the ground shakes for four hours during fierce fighting between Amisom and government troops and Al Shebab. The BBC reports at least eleven killed. The next morning we drive across town to Villa Somalia, the presidential enclave on a modest bluff overlooking an astonishingly green city. Somali poets, singers and comedians take to the stage to entertain the president, prime minster, cabinet and assorted MPs. The joyful mood is suddenly shattered as mortars explode only metres away, killing one Ugandan and one Somali and injuring several more. An Amisom tank responds with gusto and then there are no more mortars. The show goes on. “The opposition has no programme but killing,” President Sharif says later in an interview.


A couple of days later, I speak to Ismail Mahmoud, 21, a former member of Al Shabab. He was injured in an attack against an Amisom position late last year. Two men fighting alongside him were killed. He was taken to the Amisom hospital and had his left leg amputated. There is nothing menacing about Mahmoud. He is a pitiful young man with a worn-out, hunted expression and an uncertain, unenviable future. Like so many Somalis his age, he has had no proper education. Now that his jihad is over, I ask whether he will find work and get on with his life. “When I had two legs, I was not able to find a job,” he replies. “How will I be able to when I only have one?”


Although Somali society is fantastically complicated by clan histories, loyalties, divisions and strife, this latest conflict is simple at the most basic level. What it boils down to is this. Al Qaeda and its supporters are providing Al Shebab with men and materiel. According to Major-General Nathan Mugisha, Amisom’s Force Commander, they are well resourced and becoming more battle-hardened and resilient by the day. Expertise is mobile and comes from the battlefields of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere in the Middle East. “With time Al Shebab is becoming a credible force,” he says. “We don’t need to give them this time.”


The international community, by contrast, is dawdling on the sidelines. “At the moment it’s only paying lip service to Somalia,” argues Jibril Mohammed, a Somali businessman. The UN’s position is clear. On 30 January, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said it would not deploy until the fighting stops, employing the old adage that peacekeepers need a peace to keep.


That leaves a desperately under-strength, under-financed African Union force of 5,300 Ugandans and Burundians manning the barricades in one of the world’s most fragile states. According to Amisom’s Major Barigye in February, its soldiers had not been paid since August. Whatever their promises of assistance, in practice African troop-contributing countries are deterred from providing manpower by the low levels of payment they receive compared with supporting other missions, such as the much better resourced joint UN-African Union force in Darfur. It may seem an unimportant bureaucratic quirk but on such questions of finance key decisions turn in the developing world.


The future necessarily lies with the TFG, but it too will need to be properly funded to kick-start a government that is able to provide the most basic service of all: a modicum of law, order and security. There is a long way to go. “Take out Amisom and the TFG would collapse in 30 minutes,” says one analyst. Again, the signs suggest the international community understands neither the urgency nor the gravity of the situation. In the latest UN report on Somalia, issued on 31 December last year, it was reported that of the $58m pledged to the TFG by foreign donors in Brussels last April, the government had received $5.6m. It is difficult to build an army from that. “If the TFG can get a small, capable and loyal force going, this could make a significant difference on the ground,” says Ernst Jan Hogendoorn, Horn of Africa project director for the International Crisis Group in Nairobi.


The most terrifying thing I encountered in Mogadishu had nothing to do with the UN security officer’s apocalyptic warnings, not even the cluster of mortars that dropped on us in Villa Somalia. Instead it was a story about a Somali child who came back from school in Mogadishu one afternoon to find his father listening to pop music. “Dad, you’re an infidel,” the child said. The father decided then and there it was time to leave Somalia and took his family to Kenya.

Another generation may soon be lost to the toxic delusions of Islamic fundamentalism if the international community fails to respond urgently to what is happening in Somalia. “I don’t think the West understands the magnitude of the spread of Islamic fundamentalism and its influence in the Horn of Africa,” says Abdusalam Omer, a government advisor. “There’s not a three-year-old in Somalia, Djibouti or Yemen who isn’t affected. At the moment Al Shebab is in the ascendant, opening schools in many cities. Yet if a reasonably modest investment is made in TFG they can defeat Al Shebab and Al Qaeda for the first time in any country.”

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» Riddle of the Sands

I couldn’t help it. I whooped uncontrollably into my Jordans Country Crisp with strawberries when I heard the news last week, startling my wife and spilling milk and crispy clusters onto a bemused but grateful dog. An Italian team of archaeologists had made what looked like a hugely important discovery in Egypt’s Western Desert, apparently unearthing remains of the lost army of Cambyses which, according to Herodotus, was swallowed up by a ferocious sandstorm 2,500 years ago. Had they laid to rest one of the world’s greatest archaeological mysteries?

Alfredo Castiglioni, director of the Eastern Desert Research Centre in Varese, who led the expedition with his twin brother Angelo, certainly thinks so. The team discovered a bronze dagger, a clutch of arrowheads, a silver bracelet and earring, and fragments of a necklace. ‘These objects certainly date to the Achaemenid period and so far these are the only Persian objects found in the western Egyptian desert on the border with Libya where Cambyses is said to have sent 50,000 men to conquer Siwa,’ Alfredo told Discovery News. Nearby they also found hundreds of sun-bleached bones, together with a horse bit and more blades and arrowheads — tantalising evidence of the lost army sent by the Persian Great King to sack the Oracle of Ammon in what is now the Egyptian oasis of Siwa in 525 bc.

The reason for my cereal-spluttering glee was simple. If true — and the internet is abuzz with conflicting claims, some of which cast doubt on the findings and the professional standing of the Castiglioni brothers — the discovery was another feather in the cap for Herodotus, the fifth-century bc historian rightly acknowledged by Cicero as the Father of History. In the first century ad a mean-spirited Plutarch derided him as the ‘Father of Lies’, since when history has been rather unkind to the man who invented it. Since I have spent much of the past five years travelling in his footsteps and slipstream, the Castiglioni brothers’ findings were welcome news.

All we know about the lost army of Cambyses comes from Herodotus’ Histories. The Persian force began its fateful march across the burning desert from Thebes (Luxor) on the Nile, he tells us, and got as far as the oasis of Kharga. After that, nothing more was ever heard of it. Herodotus goes on:

So much for the most catastrophic lunch in the annals of desert picnicking. The lines have prompted generations of archaeologists and Egyptologists, not to mention the television producers who prod me from time to time to have a look in the sands, to hunt for the lost army. One of the most enigmatic among them was the Hungarian aristocrat Count László de Almásy, aviator, explorer, soldier and sometime spy, inspiration for the Herodotus-loving protagonist of Michael Ondaatje’s novel The English Patient, played by a brooding Ralph Fiennes in the eponymous film.

The controversial discoveries in the Western Desert are only the latest suggestion that Herodotus is more reliable as an historian than has generally been recognised. In 2007, a series of studies by geneticists, which looked at mitochondrial DNA from Tuscan residents and cattle, lent weight to Herodotus’ controversial claim that the ancient Etruscans originally hailed from Lydia (in today’s Turkish region of Anatolia) and later migrated to Italy, a suggestion that has often caused offence to Italians and a good deal of scoffing in Chiantishire.

Tall stories abound in the Histories, though on further examination some of the most notorious are a good deal less fanciful. Take the ‘snakes with wings’ Herodotus writes about. Today these are thought to refer either to locusts or, simpler still, the pictures of snakes with wings our itinerant historian would have encountered on Egyptian monuments. As for the fabulous ‘gold-digging ants’ in the easternmost provinces of the Persian empire, the French anthropologist Michel Peissel believes these are Himalayan marmots, a species that inhabits the Deosai plateau of Pakistani Kashmir and from whose burrows local tribes gather excavated gold dust.

What today’s historians often forget when they assess Herodotus is that he was operating in a largely oral culture in which he had to solicit information from people rather than books. Mistakes were inevitable. He couldn’t have been an armchair historian because there were no earlier works to consult. He was the first. Also, he knew a lot of the information he gleaned was hearsay, rumour and legend, some of it complete nonsense. He was quite clear about this. ‘I am obliged to record the things I am told, but I am certainly not required to believe them,’ he writes, playing a memorable get-out-of-jail-free card. ‘This remark may be taken to apply to the whole of my account.’ When you’re giving live performances of your oeuvre to austere audiences you need to give them something to keep them on the edge of their marble seats, whether it is life-saving dolphins, multiple testicle-slicers, otherworldly animals, women having sex with goats or beard-growing priestesses.

Ultimately, however, the strongest defence for Herodotus as the Father of History is made by today’s historians, whether they realise it or not. Survey the field of history across the 2,500 years since Herodotus lived and at almost any point during that time, the answer to the age-old question, and title of E.H. Carr’s classic monograph, What Is History?, was straightforward. History was the exclusive pageant of kings, battles, empires, statesmen and laws, what we call political and constitutional history. The rest of the human race, the seething mass of men and women who weren’t monarchs, statesmen or generals, simply weren’t invited. In a word, it was Thucydidean.

It was this uniquely political model, emphatically not that of Herodotus, which historians followed right into the 20th century. Only with the birth of social history did the freewheeling spirit of Herodotean inquiry return. History, ever since, has rolled back the barriers. The historian’s proper field of inquiry has expanded dizzyingly across miles and miles of uncharted terrain. It is perhaps the greatest posthumous tribute to Herodotus.

There is economic history, women’s history, demographic history, intellectual history, feminist history, gender history (herstory?), sexual history, black history, oral history, cultural history, psychohistory, history of history, and so it goes on. A good deal of this may be pseudo-academic rubbish, of course, and some of it is unquestionably boring, but the point is that the very best historians today write across a wide range of subjects with verve and to popular acclaim, prizing the art of storytelling which was one of Herodotus’ greatest gifts.

The final word should be left to Professor Paul Cartledge, Herodotus guru and A.G. Leventis, Professor of Greek Culture at Cambridge University. ‘Herodotus the Father of Lies?’ he says. ‘Surely not. Dead men like those 6th-century Persians mouldering in the Egyptian desert tell no false tales.’ Like it or not, and even allowing for some Castiglioni legerdemain, we are all Herodoteans now.

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» Spectator Diary

Justin Marozzi opens his diary

I’m researching a new history of Baghdad. What strikes you most about this unfortunate part of the world is how extreme violence and bloodshed have been endemic to the city from its foundation by the Abbasid Caliph Mansur in ad 762 to the present day. Baghdad may have been christened the City of Peace but, as Richard Coke wrote in the last history of the Iraqi capital in English, published in 1927, a year after Gertrude Bell’s death, ‘The story of the City of Peace is largely the story of continuous war.’ Hardline Sunnis were impaling and burning alive ‘heretic’ Shia 1,000 years ago. Jews and Christians occasionally got it in the neck, too, and caliphs were always on the lookout for mo re ingenious methods of inflicting pain. An Iraqi colleague is translating a seven-volume Abbasid treatise on torture for me. They have been lopping off heads here for ever. The caliph Hadi (785-786) once interrupted a banquet to rush off and personally behead two of his slave girls who had been caught having an illicit lesbian affair. His companions were horrified to see his eunuch bring the bloodied, bejewelled heads to the table on a platter. A dear Iraqi friend calls from Baghdad. He has already lost several family members in the violence since 2003; four more of his relatives were badly wounded in the huge bombing outside the foreign ministry, some of them blinded by the blast. ‘Perhaps it is our destiny to live like this,’ he says.


The highlight of a hellishly hot visit to Baghdad was a down-the-line interview with Sandi Toksvig for her excellent programme Excess Baggage. We discussed some of Herodotus’s observations on the curious sexual customs of foreign peoples. The Greek historian was much taken by the unique post-coital habits of the Babylonians, who used to fumigate their genitals with incense after a bout of lovemaking. Sadly our chat about necrophilia in Ancient Egypt was edited out. Herodotus, who was always up for a story to titillate his audience, related how when a particularly beautiful woman died, her family would only deliver the body to the embalmers after three or four days, when it really=2 0started to pong. This was, he tells us, ‘a precautionary measure’ to prevent lusty embalmers from interfering with the corpse.


A colleague in Baghdad, a retired senior army officer, says he’s going to buy property in Amman. ‘Jordan has everything you want in a country,’ he says. ‘First of all, a monarchy. Second, there are no speed limits. Third, no smoking ban, so you can light up wherever you like. And best of all,’ he adds with a steely look, ‘it has the death penalty.’


The kerfuffle surrounding the release of the convicted Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi reminds me of when I interviewed Gaddafi Junior a few years ago for this magazine. Saif al-Islam al-Gaddafi, son of the Islamic-socialist-cum-pan-Arabist-cum-pan-Africanist-cum-pan-lunatic leader, was staying in the royal suite of Claridge’s at the outset of his campaign to improve Libya’s image in the West. He spoke a lot of nonsense about Libya becoming an ‘oasis of democracy’. Although he said it was ‘unthinkable’ that he would be the next leader, I suspect his passion for democracy will not stop him indulging in a bit of dynastic succession in Tripoli when Daddy’s had enough (40 years and counting on 1 September, incidentally). The then editor of The Spectator, horrified to see Gaddafi swanning around London and being feted by society, made some mischievous changes to my piece and headlined the article ‘Son of Mad Dog’. The Libyans, like most Arabs not known for their love of dogs, went ballistic. I haven’t been back to the country since. A question relating to al-Megrahi’s release from prison occurs. Whose version of events would you be more inclined to believe, that of Mandelson or Gaddafi? It’s an unsavoury choice but my money would be on the Libyan.


Thoughts on cricket and ancient history: Thucydides is to Herodotus as Boycott is to Gower. One is rigorous application and puffed-up pomposity, the other easy grace and self-deprecating charm. Both essential in their own way, but be honest. Who would you rather read and watch?


A summer in north Norfolk drifts to a close: eating masses of samphire, sailing in Burnham Overy Staithe, swimming in Stiffkey and Wells amid wide skies and stretching sands. A Handel and Scarlatti concert at Salle, a spectacular 15th-century church with extraordinary acoustics. Dancing to Aretha Franklin in Walsingham Abbey. And the Ashes, the Ashes. Long days drunk on cricket, walking from room to room clutching a radio permanently tuned to 198 Long Wave, alternately cursing, fearing, celebrating and occasionally whooping. Panesar and Anderson hanging in there at Cardiff, Blowers and Tuffers discussing lobst er dinners, batting collapses, magnificent Strauss, Broad evolving from boy to man, another hot-to-Trott South African saviour, Freddie bowing out with the electric run-out of Ponting, the fabulous drama of Test cricket against the old enemy. What better way to celebrate the delirium of victory at the Oval than by dashing off to Holkham, the most glorious beach in the country, for a late evening swim. Isn’t it good to have the Ashes back?

Justin Marozzi will be speaking about The Man Who Invented History: Travels with Herodotus, published in paperback this month, at the Edinburgh Book Festival on Saturday 29 August at 8.30 p.m. at Peppers Theatre.

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» What is the Royal Geographical Society for?

What is the Royal Geographical Society for — exploration or ‘post-socialist urban identities’?

Time was when most educated people knew, more or less, what geography meant. Putting aside its Greek etymology (“earth description”), for people of a certain age it instantly evokes images of oxbow lakes, valley-scouring glaciers, mountains, volcanoes, alluvial fans, cloud formation and perhaps a bearded teacher.

Physical geography is the venerable descendant of the early investigative forays made by the ancient Greeks who took the first steps in this formal examination of our planet — men like Anaximander of Miletus, the sixth-century BC polymath credited with introducing the gnomon, an early sundial that helped determine solstices and equinoxes, to Greece.

With considerable input from Chinese and, later, Arab civilisations, geography emerged as a curious hybrid of cartography, geometry, astronomy, philosophy and literature. Perhaps no one expressed the emerging discipline with quite as much chutzpah as Herodotus, the fifth-century BC Greek whose traditional “Father of History” moniker belied his position as an early and itinerant — if madcap and unreliable — geographer. In Egypt, he set up his vast open-air laboratory and studied its mysteries, the source of the Nile, its seasonal flooding and alluvial deposits, its flora and fauna. He understood, as many physical geographers do today, the compelling need to take to the field for his research and conduct the ancient world equivalent of empirical observation. No armchair geographer he.

In the 19th century, when the Royal Geographical Society was a byword for international exploration and scientific discovery, the German naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt helped lay the foundations for modern geography with his magnum opus Kosmos, a prodigious, five-volume attempt to unify the various strands of geographical science. Charles Darwin considered Humboldt “the greatest scientific traveller who ever lived”.

For many geographers today, this sort of physical geography is deeply unfashionable and downright irrelevant. Human geographers, by definition, are more interested in people than in places. They are interested, among other things, in gender, culture, health, development, urban environments, behaviour, politics, transportation and tourism. Many physical geographers feel increasingly alienated by their colleagues’ distrust of empirical science, a scepticism informed largely by the post-modernist assault on geography in recent years.

The tensions within geographical science have come to an acrimonious head at the RGS. A high-profile initiative, named The Beagle Campaign in honour of Darwin’s ground-breaking, RGS-assisted expedition to South America in 1831-1836 and launched on the 150th anniversary of his On the Origin of Species, aims to restore balance to the Society’s activities by getting it to mount its own field research projects again. The Society has failed to mount a single expedition in a decade. On 18 May, Fellows voted 61 per cent to 38 per cent against the initiative, an extraordinary show of support for the underdogs. The campaign, with which this writer is closely involved, has uncovered deep fissures within an organisation that for almost two centuries has been a broad church of interests and experiences at the forefront of geographical discovery (

The stakes remain high. Although the debate has largely been confined to 10,500 Fellows, given the status and historical significance of the RGS, its ramifications for geography are likely to be felt far more widely worldwide. The contention revolves around the Society’s failure to mount even one large multidisciplinary research project — as expeditions are now known — in a decade. As astonishing as it may sound, the RGS no longer conducts any of its own research, a serious indictment of its loss of vision and purpose. It is no exaggeration to say that through its major field projects of the 19th and 20th centuries, which went to the ends of the earth, the RGS (with the Institute of British Geographers, to give it its full title) has contributed much to our knowledge and understanding of the world. Names like Scott, Shackleton, Livingstone, Speke, Stanley, Burton, Doughty and Everest all convey a humbling thrill when visitors step inside the Society’s magnificent Ondaatje Theatre.

The Society’s response to this debate provides a sobering snapshot of what it is, or what it can be, to be a geographer today. Among six projects that the RGS says demonstrate its commitment to support (other people’s) research, are two fairly eyebrow-raising studies. One, conducted by Dr Craig Young and colleagues from Manchester Metropolitan University, is entitled “Global change and post-socialist urban identities”. Another, led by Dr Heaven Crawley and colleagues from Swansea University, is “Children and global change: Experiencing migration, negotiating identities”. Professor Ian Swingland, founder of the Durrell Institute for Conservation and Ecology, is unimpressed. “My scientific and international experience strongly suggests to me that neither of these projects is academically robust, likely to change anything on the ground, improve the status of the environment or the social woes of the world, and they are frankly to a large degree incomprehensible,” he wrote in an open letter to Sir Gordon Conway, the RGS president. “They will make no difference to anything other than those prosecuting the work. What are ‘post-socialist urban identities’ exactly? What are ‘children’s reflexive negotiations of their identities’ precisely? And does it matter? And will this work educate the future ways we can help the world?”

What such research appears to demonstrate is the tragic introversion and irrelevance of swathes of contemporary academe, academics writing for academics, leaving the rest of the world none the wiser — or better off. In an era when environmental woes and challenges press in on us, the RGS’s failure to provide high-profile leadership on vital issues such as climate change, global warming, biodiversity, the forced migration of species, deforestation, desertification and a host of other scientific unknowns is deeply regrettable. What can one say of post-structuralist cultural studies other than they provide careers for a certain breed of academic geographer?

The internal RGS debate has nothing to do with romance, nostalgia or pith helmets, as critics of The Beagle Campaign have rather lazily argued. It is all about science and real-world, empirical observation and exploration at a critical time for humankind and its interaction with the planet. Often there is simply no substitute for getting out into the field.

As the environmental scientist James Lovelock warns in his latest book, The Vanishing Face of Gaia: A Final Warning, “Observation in the real world and small-scale experiments on the Earth now take second place to expensive and ever-expanding theoretical models” of questionable reliability. “Our tank is near empty of data and we are running on theoretical vapour.” Herodotus, Humboldt and Darwin would have understood this in a flash.

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