Analysis | ‘Keeping the peace’ in Somalia

Elliot Murphy provides an unsettling account of the latest developments in Somalia, and warns against Western calls for foreign intervention.

New in Ceasefire, Special Reports - Posted on Thursday, May 10, 2012 9:09 - 2 Comments

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A Ugandan soldier serving with the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) holds a rocket-propelled grenade at sunrise, on the frontline in Maslah Town, on the northern city limit of Mogadishu, 30 April 2012 (Photo: Stuart Price)

Since the intensification of armed conflict between government forces and clan-based opposition groups in 1988, Somalia has played host to some of the most horrific violence in East Africa. After thirty years of independence the Somali state collapsed in January 1991, bringing with it the fall of the militant Siad Barre and his efficient divide and rule policy for the nation’s clan systems (after having received generous support from the US and Western Europe in the ‘70s and ‘80s, thanks to the country’s strategic value and neighbouring shipping lanes).

As Somalia fractured further after the major clans declared themselves rulers of autonomous states, the northwest regions announced their independence as the Republic of Somaliland in May 1991, yet to be recognised by any international body. In March 1998, the northwest region declared independence as the Puntland State of Somalia. Then, in April 2002, the Southwest Somali State followed suit.

In August 2004, representatives of Somalia’s clans appointed 275 members of a new parliament – after holding numerous conferences in Kenya – electing Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed as president of Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government. After consistent disagreements and confrontations with parliament, Yusuf resigned in December 2009, with Somalia being classified a ‘collapsed’ or ‘failed’ state, lacking a system of taxation, public schools, a public health system or social services (with a ‘successful’ state presumably being what the social philosopher John Dewey called ‘the shadow cast on society by big business’).

Writing for the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Ken Menkhaus commented in 2004:

‘The virtual proxy war which Ethiopia and the Arab states have played out in Somalia has been especially damaging. Arab states seek a strong central Somali state to counterbalance and outflank Ethiopia; Ethiopia seeks a week, decentralised client state, and is willing to settle for ongoing state collapse rather than risk a revived Arab-backed government in Mogadishu. Both have provided military and financial support to their Somali clients, reinforcing the tendency towards violent political stalemate’ (Somalia: State Collapse and the Threat of Terrorism, London: Routledge, 2004, p. 9).

Referred to in the past as Britain’s ‘Cinderella of Empire,’ David Cameron recently called Somalia ‘a failed state that directly threatens British interests’ – where the term ‘Britain’ refers not to the people but to the leading financial, oil and arms corporations deemed crucial to ‘the health of the economy’ (a self-serving notion which has changed little since William Langland spoke of ‘the common profit’ of the landed gentry in the medieval classic Piers Plowman).

Following the standard script of previous fruitless conferences, to his satisfaction Cameron held his own on February 23rd, inviting representatives of 40 governments and organisations to propose ‘peacekeeping’ measures. Included was Hilary Clinton who urged non-negotiation with anti-government forces, al-Shabaab, who have repeatedly engaged in human rights abuses such as beheadings and torture. Suicide bombings have also, on one occasion last October, taken the lives of over 100 students, parents and ministers outside a compound housing numerous government departments, such as the Ministry of Education. But, as with the Kony 2012 campaign, a closer look is useful.

Following a three-year civil war, in April 1992 the UN Security Council authorised a series of ‘peacekeeping’ operations under the umbrella UNOSOM. After the US sent its own force in December, UNITAF, a ceasefire was signed in March 1993 by the dominant warlords. Soon after the US was forced to pull out due to a number of devastating defeats, most notably the ‘Black Hawk Down’ incident of October 1993 during the Battle of Mogadishu, involving the death of 18 US soldiers and with various estimates putting the number of Somalis killed at over 1,000. But as the commander of the operation, Marine Lieutenant General Anthony Zinni, commented to the press regarding Somali casualties: ‘I’m not counting bodies … I’m not interested.’

Ethiopia intervened in 2006 and pushed back the Islamists, who had, despite their al-Qaeda connections (since strengthened after repeated Western-backed interventions) nevertheless succeeded far more efficiently than the TFG in renovating the nation, trade and the main national airport and seaport, restoring public service to the extent that ordinary people felt safe doing business on the streets of Mogadishu (suggesting the unfit nature of the European nation-state in Somalia – a system of domination and control imposed on the global south by the European powers since the days of Columbus). The top UN official for Somalia, Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, regarded the six months of Islamist rule as Somalia’s ‘golden era,’ the single peaceful period in decades.

BBC Swahili’s Kevin Mwachiro wisely omits this crucial fact in a recent short video summary ‘Somalia’s future: What you need to know’ – a title with fitting overtones of the New York Times’ motto ‘All the News That’s Fit to Print.’ Indeed, the way he pronounces ‘Transitional Federal Government’ just after one minute into the video (in a manner of ‘impartiality’ the BBC prides itself on) makes it sound like he’s promoting an alternative to the Avengers rather than a government. Al-Shabaab’s actions are doubtless deplorable, but they maintain strong grassroots support from both Somalis and clan elders, such as the Hawiye. Most are in fact calling for al-Shabaab to be included in peace talks, since waging a war with them has only made life considerably worse for majority of the population.

With his impeccable choice of misleading words, Cameron touchingly revealed to his conference the tale of a fateful encounter:

‘Earlier this week I met with some of the Somali Diaspora here in Britain. Many had fled from fighting and famine and had grave concerns for their relatives left behind. Of course, it’s natural to want to help any country in such distress. But there’s another reason for the international community to help the Somali people. These problems in Somalia don’t just affect Somalia. They affect us all. … If the rest of us just sit back and look on, we will pay a price for doing so’. (foreign office)

Not worth consideration was the view of over half the residents of Mogadishu who, according to a UN-sponsored poll, believe foreign nations have in the past intervened in Somalia purely out of self-interest.

If we remembered to start the day with our ‘hypocrite’ pill, the prime minister’s concern for human rights will sit comfortably next to his repeated winks to our ally Ethiopia after its invasion into Eritrean territory in mid March (with Whitehall simply adding satirically that it was ‘deeply concerned,’ declining to censure Addis Ababa), with daily outrages over al-Shabaab’s crimes being a more popular topic for the media. Eritrea, supporting al-Shabaab, uses the failed state as a theatre for its proxy war against Ethiopia.

We spend our time well when we recall how the US takes an even more charitable approach to autocracy in the continent, supporting such ‘local cops on the beat’ as Paul Kagame of Rwanda (accused of war crimes in the Second Congo War), Idriss Déby of Chad, Yoweri Museveni of Uganda and Paul Biya of Cameroon (whose 28 years in power would fail to impress Cameron’s closest ally in the Gulf, the self-appointed guardian of global virtue Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said of Oman, who has been in power for almost 42 years and whose family have ruled since the mid-eighteenth century).

As things currently stand, al-Shabaab fighters have retreated from the capital and Kenyan troops control territory in the south (having entered the conflict last October in support of the TFG). The group have also lost control of key strategic areas in Deynile on the outskirts of the capital, such as an airstrip and hospital. In early April they moved north into Puntland in an effort to strengthen ties with al-Qaeda, having merged with the militant Islamist group in February.

Britain is also rumoured to be considering joint airstrike operations with the US on al-Shabaab, launched from its Djibouti base at Camp Lemonnier. Two days after Cameron’s conference, four al-Shabaab fighters were killed 60km south of Mogadishu by a US drone strike, destroying two vehicles in a convoy and a white Kenyan ‘civilian’ – evoking Noam Chomsky’s observation that, whereas George W. Bush’s favourite tactic was to torture people, Obama just kills them.

The likelihood of more ‘collateral damage’ in Somalia by the most ‘precise’ weapons in history is also rapidly escalating. In an innocent, perhaps even adorable expression of commitment to state violence, the CIA’s general counsel Stephen Preston suggested in a speech at Harvard Law School on April 10th that his agency is not legally bound to the laws of war, but will rather act ‘in a manner consistent with the … basic principles’ of the those laws.

As the legal and policy director at Human Rights Watch James Ross observes, Preston cautiously and purposefully generalises international law to make it seem more like a rough guideline than a set of legally binding constraints: ‘When the CIA general counsel says that the agency need only act in ‘a manner consistent’ with the ‘principles’ of international law, he is saying the laws of war aren’t really law at all’.

Human Rights Watch’s most recent annual ‘World Report’ also points to the ‘indiscriminate fire on civilian areas’ conducted by ‘TFG-affiliated militias in the border areas of Dhobley and Baardhere during clashes with al-Shabaab’. In late January TFG forces also fired into a crowd of bystanders in Mogadishu, killing up to 20 people and wounding 30. There have presently been no attempts to hold those responsible to account, a level of conscious ignorance which results in Addis Ababa, Washington and Whitehall feeling content, with Preston nodding sagely.

During the recent Libyan campaign (largely the effort to secure, alongside regional ‘stability,’ what the US ambassador Gene Cretz confessed to be ‘the jewel in the crown of Libyan natural resources’ – oil), NATO managed to extend its considerable list of war crimes by bombing universities, hospitals, schools and homes, giving a boost of confidence to Cameron and Foreign Secretary William Hague. It’s of no surprise (and of little moment to the media) that a World Bank and UN report ranks Somalia as the second most important country for unexploited oil reserves in North East Africa after Libya.

David Cameron opens the Somalia conference in London, 23 Feb 2012 . (Photograph: Matt Dunham/AFP/Getty Images)

As a recent ‘Hands off Somalia’ campaign video revealed, Bauxite deposits have also been found in Mana Daimur, 250,000 tonnes of untapped atomic minerals exist in Alio Ghelle and the Bur region, and an estimated 10 million tonnes of Titanium reserves lie in the Jubba River. Charles Chinweizu adds that the ‘British firms BG Group, Tullow Oil, Premier Oil and Cove Energy, have acquired oil interests in Kenya, Ethiopia and Tanzania since 2010’ (‘Oil corporations rush to carve up Somalia,’ Revolutionary Communist Group, 6 February 2012).

Drawing on the nation’s economic history, Ioan Lewis of the London School of Economics (no dove) explained in his careful and illuminating Understanding Somalia that Siad Barre had exercised ‘a policy of state control of the economy. The export of the banana crop grown in the riverine areas south of Mogadishu was controlled by a state agency not greatly different from the monopoly established by previous civilian governments. Similarly grain production was controlled, farmers being allowed to keep a small quantity of grain for their own use and obliged to sell the rest at fixed prices to the Agricultural Development Corporation which stored it and arranged for its distribution and sale to the public. Imported goods were similarly regulated through a state agency.

The major local industries, the sugar factory at Jowhar and the meat processing plant at Kismagu, were likewise state enterprises’ (London: Hurst & Company, 2009, pp. 40-1). But if the Somali economy was so heavily centralised and regarded as ‘communist’ during its period of Soviet influence from the late ‘60s to the early ‘70s, why did the label disappear when Barre became an ally in the mid-‘70s, receiving a high degree of western ‘advise’ and arms? Barre himself regarded his Somali Democratic Republic as a ‘communist regime.’

An explanation can perhaps be found by drawing a parallel with Chile: The West regards Chile as a fine model of the free market, and yet its main export was nationalised in 1976. The Codelco corporation, the largest copper producing company in the world, is by far the country’s greatest export, from which the economy gains most of its strength. But there’s a difference between Chile and the likes of Venezuela and Cuba: Chile doesn’t step on the toes of the US or any other major western power, and so it escapes being branded ‘communist,’ ‘socialist,’ or any other scare-word the public relations industry decides to drain of all meaning.

The official goals of Cameron’s conference were to stop the spread of piracy in the Indian Ocean (created largely by Western firms dumping barrels of their nuclear waste in the seas of impoverished Somali fishermen), relieve the nation’s famine and end the civil war. Having in the past dedicated up to four frigates to Somalia in the battle against piracy (something which, like corruption, is the enemy of any multinational corporation seeking resourceful, streamlined profits), cuts to the Royal Navy have forced it to drop its anti-piracy policy, with only two frigates now being assigned a ‘part-time’ attention to the issue.

The tactics agreed to at the conference are to send in US drones (with their thirst for peace well testified by hundreds of ‘collateral’ Afghan civilians) and to provide the Transitional Federal Government with large international funds. But as Lewis recognised past intervention, as from 1993-5 and in early 2007, has been ‘costly and ineffective’ (p. ix). During the latter intervention, the commander of the small Ugandan-manned African Union mission in Somalia observed that the ‘peacekeeping’ intervention was premature since it presupposed the existence of peace and a visible government.

With the direct conflict decreasing in scale in the capital, signs of regeneration are to be found in Mogadishu, with house prices escalating and reconstruction beginning. Bakara, once the epicentre of violence, is in the process of revival. But ‘the scars of war remain clear, with hundreds of thousands of displaced people living in and around Mogadishu, many in basic rag-and-plastic shelters, some in the crumbling ruins of roofless houses. … As land prices increase and repairs are made, the cost of living rises too, a problem for many in this grossly impoverished city’.

Unmentioned at the conference, however, were the TFG’s human rights abuses. ‘International supporters of the TFG,’ Human Rights Watch reported a few days before the conference, ‘have not paid sufficient attention to human rights violations by the government, including recruitment and use of children as soldiers’ – something they share in common with al-Shabaab. The TFG ‘has also detained children perceived to be supporters of al-Shabaab instead of providing them with rehabilitation and protection in accordance with international standards’ (‘Somalia: Warring Parties Put Children at Grave Risk,’ HRW Report, 21 February 2012).

Last November Human Rights Watch also urged the Kenyan minister of state for defense that his government should ‘promptly and impartially investigate recent incidents in which Kenyan forces may have violated international humanitarian or human rights law,’ such as attacking unarmed fishermen and an internationally displaced persons camp killing respectably four and five ‘unpeople’ (to use the term of the diplomatic historian Mark Curtis) (‘Kenya: Respect Law in Somalia Military Operations,’ HRW Report, 19 November 2011).

The focus of the conference was instead drawn laser-like on the crimes of the official enemy, al-Shabaab – a common theme, as history is well aware. Ken Menkaus comes to similar conclusions, and he comes to them for the right reasons: ‘The most egregious crimes (if measured in value stolen or lives lost) are committed by many of the country’s top political and business leaders, whom the international community convenes for peace conferences. This includes inciting communal violence for political purposes, the embezzlement of foreign aid funds, the introduction of counterfeit currency (which, by creating hyperinflation, robs average Somalis of most of their savings), huge land grabs, the export of charcoal (illegal under the past government and highly destructive environmentally), and involvement in piracy.

This criminal behaviour tends to get less attention than street crimes such as carjacking, murder and kidnapping, which are usually perpetuated by gangs or individuals. These crimes are at epidemic proportions in some places, but pale in comparison to the cost of ‘white-collar crimes’ by the political and business leadership’ (p. 33).

The TFG is expected to step down when its mandate expires in August, being replaced with a new, more representative government, with 30% of its members being female. Nevertheless, to stress Menkaus’ observation, ‘external mediation tends to focus on state-building, despite the fact that the average Somali needs – and benefits more immediately from – a state of peace than a revived central government’ (p. 31).

According to Alex de Waal, one of the leading experts on the conflict, the more popular self-governing regions of Somaliland and Puntland have succeeded ‘by turning their communities’ dynamic business sectors and traditional values – the clan system and Islam – into forces for stability. Partly because neither Somaliland nor Puntland is internationally recognized, they don’t get official foreign aid or military cooperation. But they’ve done pretty well relying on themselves’ (‘Getting Somalia right this time,’ New York Times, 21 February 2012).

Cameron’s focus on sending aid to the TFG’s disgraced politicians – who, writes Chinweizu, ‘have helped themselves to millions of dollars in tax revenues from Somalia’s air and sea ports, whilst millions suffer and die’ – should instead be replaced, de Waal suggests, by support for the functioning northern territories and the empowerment of ‘Somali businessmen with lines of credit and an improved system to regulate money transfers; Somalia needs a chamber of commerce before it needs a cabinet.’ But ‘whether the discussion is about the central state or sub-national administration,’ adds Menkhaus, ‘an enormous gulf separates foreigners and Somalis in the consideration and conception of central government’ (p. 28).

These concerns become especially vivid when we do what Whitehall and Washington failed to do in Afghanistan or Iraq; consider the position of the natives, as de Waal does: ‘Many Somalis don’t want a central government. Or, to be exact, they are so embittered by their experience of centralized power that they would rather have no government than the type that their African neighbors and the West have designed for them.’

Important lessons on the nature of state construction (or deconstruction) could be learnt, as always, from the anarchist peasants in the Spanish Civil War. A study of the anarchist collectives was published by the CNT (Confederación Nacional del Trabajo, the anarcho-syndicalist labour unions) in 1937. The study describes the village of Membrilla in the province of Siudad Real, fraught by the destruction of Republican forces: ‘In its miserable huts live the poor inhabitants of a poor province; eight thousand people, but the streets are not paved, the town has no newspaper, no cinema, neither a cafe nor a library.

On the other hand, it has many churches that have been burned … Food, clothing, and tools were distributed equitably to the whole population. Money was abolished, work collectivized, all goods passed to the community, consumption was socialized. It was, however, not a socialization of wealth but of poverty’ (Collectivisations: l’oeuvre constructive de la revolution espagnole, 2nd ed. Toulouse, Editions C.N.T., 1965, cited in Noam Chomsky, ‘Objectivity and Liberal Scholarship,’ Chomsky on Anarchism, Edinburgh: AK Press, 2006, p. 73).

For Chomsky, ‘An account such as this, with its concern for human relations and the ideal of a just society, must appear very strange to the consciousness of the sophisticated intellectual, and it is therefore treated with scorn, or taken to be naive or primitive or otherwise irrational. Only when such prejudice is abandoned will it be possible for historians to undertake a serious study of the popular movement that transformed Republican Spain in one of the most remarkable social revolutions that history records’ (Ibid.).

If current scholarship and journalism continue on their current path, the same fate may befall any forces (militant or not) which attempt to direct Somalia away from the path Cameron’s conference hoped to direct it in: to be a source of enjoyment for BG Group, Tullow Oil, Premier Oil and other economic tyrannies. If the world’s most precious resources happen to be on the other side of the planet, it’s purely accidental – the US and Britain are native everywhere. The idea that the primary beneficiaries of a country’s resources should be the people of that country is outrageous to elite opinion. Democracy is a fine thing, the sensible man understands, so long as it accords with Western business interests.

Repeating standard colonial practice, the UN’s repeated ‘experiments’ of imposing a western-style nation-state on Somalia have given no serious thought, writes Lewis, ‘to considering how appropriate these would prove in the local setting, or above all in conjunction with the highly decentralised nature of transitional Somali political institutions’ (p. 34).

As numerous other analysts over the past two decades have stressed, unless these considerations are put before the needs of state-corporate power (a virtual impossibility, since corporations have a legal obligation to solely pursue profit, with the nanny state loyally protecting them from market forces), Somalia may continue to be little more than a ‘geographical expression.’

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Elliot Murphy

Elliot Murphy is a writer and activist based in the UK. He is the author of 'Unmaking Merlin: Anarchist Tendencies in English Literature', to be published in November 2014 by Zero Books.

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Hands Off Somalia
May 10, 2012 13:13

more info can be found about Hands Off Somalia on our website http://www.handsoffsomalia.co.uk and our youtube video as referenced in this article:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4EBy1BrtuzY

WB
May 12, 2012 20:06

Great piece. So much of the news on Somalia has no political/historical context. Hats of Ceasefire for getting this out

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