Africa: Politics and Societies South of the Sahara

Afghanistan 2.0? Empire Reluctantly Confronts Somali Badlands

Posted in African Politics, Global Africa, Somalia by ruben eberlein on April 19, 2009

somparl1Some skinny dudes in flip-flops, shorts, or wrap-skirts messing around with an armada of 21th century roboCops: This is more than a good number of media editors and politicians of the Empire can bear. It‘s time to get tough with piracy and hostage-taking in Somalia is the message of the day. Completely missing in this discussion are the historical trajectories responsible for the formation of a huge badlands at the Horn of Africa where warlords, religious extremists and political entrepreneurs hold a people at ransom. A comment.

The time has come to strike in Somalia, urges the foreign policy editor of Rheinischer Merkur (Bonn), Thomas Gutschker, at the front page of the weekly‘s latest edition. ‘It would be best if the navy wouldn‘t only repel attackers selectively but actively traces and pursues them – at water and land. At least the mother ships and speed boats with which the pirates expand their operating range should be rendered innocuous. Moreover, UN resolution 1851 authorises the countries explicitly to operate on Somali soil’, writes the former army press officer and student of Aristotle.

Gutschker is not alone in having wet dreams of military omnipotence in the face of rising incidents of hostage-taking off the coast of Africa‘s Horn. Actors almost all over the political spectrum in Germany deplore that the Bundeswehr makes a fool of itself acting too cautiously against the Somali pirates. This nervous debate about the freedom of movement for the sake of world markets endangered by the buccaneers from Somalia leaves no room for a historically informed discussion about how Somalia became what it is today: a paradigm for the badlands on the edge of modernity helplessly faced by a West in complete absence of any idea of how to adequately deal with it.

If the story of state decay in Somalia is told, it typically starts with the overthrow of Mohamed Siad Barre in January 1991. Thereafter, the story goes, Somalia simply collapsed into an anarchic place where gangsters, warlords and militias constantly fight for power. No reference is made to the Cold War politics that enabled the coupist Barre and his party-military apparatus to stay in office for 22 years. First a client of the Soviet Union and its allies, the regime decided to realise its ‘Greater Somalia’ phantasies and in 1977 went to war with Ethiopia over the Ogaden region where it was finally defeated.

After the break with the Eastern bloc in that year, the US and other Western countries came to the help of Barre and generously distributed development aid, military equipment and consultancy. Somalia was a prime example of the sophistication of many African rulers to play the superpowers off against each other and to survive on the political and financial rents it generated. It was a showcase hybrid state where hollow official institutions were intertwined with the politics of patrimonial exchange structured along complex kin and clan lines. Therefore it did not come as a surprise that this ‘bastard child’ of colonialism and the bloc confrontation immediately and totally collapsed when the wall between East and West broke down in 1989 and external interest and support ebbed away.

Since then, the dominant forces of the global Empire that emerged from the ashes of the old order have alternated between frantic activism and downright disinterest when it comes to Somalia. Endowed with a UN-mandate and with a huge roar, predominantly US troops came to shore in December 1992 aiming to ‘restore hope’. They left the country hastily 15 months later after suffering a traumatising defeat by the militias of Mohamed Farah Aideed. The high hopes of some people for an effective world police under UN command able to defend human rights globally had been totally disgraced. After 1994, almost no one with the exception of the political departments of the UN showed great interest in Somalia any more. The situation seemed futile, the clan politics much too complicated to apprehend, and economically the country did not have to offer anything of value for the world markets.

This indifference changed somewhat after 9/11. For a short moment a second intervention by Washington was no longer inconceivable given that some militant groups in Somalia had connections to the bombers who attacked the US embassies in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi in 1998. The main strategy of the West was to support several transitional governments and its respective legislature. The US for its part was kept imprisoned by a narrow anti-terror strategy that included targeted killings of suspected terrorists and the sponsorship of some secular warlords who went after Islamists. It provided crucial diplomatic and military support to Ethiopia which invaded Somalia in 2006 in order to overthrow the rule of the Islamic Courts Union.

After the return of the Ethiopian troops from the country early this year, the situation in an even more destroyed Somalia parallels the picture before the installation of political Islam in June 2006. Wide parts of the South are under the control of (often competing groups of) Mujahideen – a small force of the African Union is no big match for the militias and their guerrilla tactics. The Transitional Federal Government (TFG) only holds sway over a few streets in Mogadishu. It will, however, continue to be the main partner of the West at the international conference that will take place in Brussels on 23 April.

The record of the TFG in terms of the provision of security and social improvements is staggering. No wonder that it does not command any support worth mentioning among Somalis. Quite a number of its officials and the heads of the security organisations were or continue to be warlords and prey on the people with total impunity. The selection of former IUC leader Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed in late January this year and the appointment of prime minister Omar Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke possibly is an improvement when compared to the time of Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed, Sheikh‘s predecessor. But it remains to be seen if those two people can make a real difference.

The transitional parliament today has 550 members, representing about 10 million inhabitants. Applying this proportional relation to Germany, the Bundestag would have a size of unimaginable 4,400 seats. Official politics in Somalia is, first of all, a means to collect the finances, diplomatic status and allowances originating from high-level conferences and humanitarian aid. But the ‘international community’ seems determined to continue its uninspired approach to Somalia next week in Brussels. The suggestions of several experts with an inside knowledge of the Somali society will trail away unheard once again.

They insist that an acknowledgement of the fundamental importance of clan structures starting from a local level is long overdue. Clan identities and religious sensitivities which by now are only marginally compatible with Djihadist ideologies should take centre stage in the attempt to build a less violent and socially disastrous society. Somaliland in the Northwest, despite its unsuccessful attempts to be internationally recognised, in their view provides a good example for the fact that only extensive consultation from the grassroots upwards has a chance to result in a governance structure able to consolidate and gain acceptance.

Moreover, real and internationally coordinated efforts are necessary in order to stop the mafia-like dumping of toxic waste by European gangster syndicates at the coast of Somalia. The overfishing by African, Asian and European trawlers is another point where urgent action is needed. The two nations that fight a proxy war on Somalian soil, Ethiopia and Eritrea, should be pressured to abstain from lending support to warlords and religious extremists.

It is extremely doubtful that the most influential actors among those who meet in the Belgian capital will be prepared to start these tedious and intricate ventures at last. From the spectators’ ranks, the war-mongers yell raucously for robust military action and decorate their agitation with euphonic excursuses about Cilician pirates and the Roman empire in the 1st century A.D. Do these braggarts want to see another Afghanistan, this time in East Africa? If that is the case: Welcome to Somalia.

My extensive contribution about the current situation in Somalia was published in Konkret 2/09. I thank a dozen distinguished Somalia experts who found the time to respond to my questions in preparation for the article in Konkret and an internal briefing for the Left party in the Bundestag. All mistakes and potential misinterpretations are my liability.

Ioan Lewis‘ Understanding Somalia and Somaliland (Hurst 2008) is a strongly recommended introduction into the culture, history and society of the country.

Picture: Irinnews. Destroyed parliament building in Mogadishu.

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3 Responses

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  1. Dr. Ken Uzor said, on April 21, 2009 at 11:57 am

    Thanks Ruben, I was really enlightened about the historical events that culminated in the piracy saga we are currently witnessing around Somalia waters. The problem of internal political -religious upheaval in Somalia which is at the root of the pirates’ insurgence could be arrested by the international community if they really want to (this is irrespective of past failures). But as you implied in your write there appear to be an absence of a motivation factor capable instigating real commitment by countries with resources to prosecute such efforts! Were there to be be oil and gas or even diamond resources for instance in that impoverished nation certainly the situation would have been different from the choatic governance institutions and processes that have prevailed till date.

    Come to think of it the loss America sustained in Somalia could not be compared with the prodigal waste of human and material resources in Iraq and yet they stayed put and continue to expend an increased human and material resources for greater US economic and other strategic interests. If the export of heroine and terrorists from Afghanistan to US had not occured, America would’nt have shown any interest in that country religion inspired human rights abuses notwithstanding. Somalia has little to offer the world hence the lack of interest nearly every nation is showing in its domestic affairs.

    But the economic interest of the West is threatened hence the high profile media attention to the probelm of piracy off the coast of Somalia. In the Niger Delta region of Nigeria the problem of piracy and kidnapping are daily occurences along the Bonny River and Kalabari water ways, with people losing their lives and women being raped with impunity yet the governement and the world sleep on. But the piracy bug in Somalia seem to be a wake up call to the international community that real and sincere action is imperative in achieveing some measure of stability in that anarchy known as Somalia. Deploying military might alone seem to me a parochial response to a more expansive situation. A wholistic approach akin to spread of democratic ideals and human right ethos will be a starting point.

    Economic progress for that nation rooted in widespread and well intentioned poverty alleviation measures will re-assure the impoverished citizens that the world cares. This may inhibit recruitment of the poor and vulnerable into mainstream criminal vocations. The earlier the better. Recall what happened in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria where lack of sincere and far reaching poverty reduction efforts by stakeholders were exploited by criminal gangs who kidnap for ransomes. These gangs recruit impoverished youths, equip and unleash them to innocent people especially foreign oil workers for ransomes. The gangs inturn generously rewarded the youths to the extent that mere employment do not mean much to youths who now have made loads of money, through criminal indulgences. It could have been avoided

    • ruben eberlein said, on April 21, 2009 at 12:31 pm

      Thanks for your comment, Ken. I’m not sure if more intervention is needed in Somalia to improve the situation. Most of them had/have disastrous consequences: Take Eritrea’s and Ethiopia’s support for Djihadists and secular warlords respectively, the US counter-terrorism activities, EU’s support for the TFG, UNDP’s help for an abusive police force.

      I’m also not convinced that the spread of democracy and abstract human rights ideals is the most pressing issue. A respect by outsiders for the strong sentiments of autonomy, religion and clan identities in the Somali society would be a necessary starting point anyway.

  2. […] months ago, I published this text on that blog which dealt with the international dimensions of the war in Somalia. Stay tuned for […]


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