“To Veil the Threat of Terror”

December 16, 2008

Dreams of Somaliland about to be dashed?

Britain, France and the United States are lining up to rescue Somalia, which is ironic as western intervention in the African nation has been instrumental in propelling its people into a state of chaos and division.

Whether you take yourself back to the 1980s when the U.S. backed dictator Siad Barre as he plundered Somalia’s resources (at the bidding of the IMF) or the mid 1990s when the U.S. careered into Mogadishu slaughtering over 1,000 people and stoking clan animosity between its favored families and its sworn enemies, or into this millenium when the U.S. has funded and directed an Ethiopian led invasion and occupation, the hand of the ex-imperial powers is not hard to see.

And we can see it again, this time coming out of talks organized by the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Bahrain. At that conference, hosted by the United States Fifth Fleet, no less, Britain’s (widely reviled) Defense Secretary John Hutton opined that “We haven’t been as involved in Somalia as we should have been” and reportedly called the nation a “basket case” and “a classic area where you have got ungoverned space, no effective state apparatus and criminality and potential terrorism.”

Time Magazine carries a fairly in depth account of the talks, which seem to be plotting a new stage in Somalia’s imperial present. The narrative goes that Somalia’s “failure” as a state has led to rampant piracy in its “ungoverned spaces” where, we are told, terrorism can take root and flourish. Time adds a few more juicy threats to the list of Somalia’s woes, listing its role as “a departure point for hundreds of thousands of refugees…a center for human trafficking to the Middle East” and “a hub of the illegal arms and drugs trade.”

These problems are all blamed on “non-existent government,” a state of failure which then requires the successful states of the world to shoulder their (white man’s) burden and embark upon a strange process called “nation building.” We’ve heard much about this in places like Afghanistan, where we were promised that military intervention would be succeeded by the construction of a viable national infrastructure. That, of course, has been an enormous failure. It turns out building a nation is too intricate and expensive for imperial powers to undertake.

British, French, Dutch – any – imperialism all ran aground on such reefs. People don’t like to be remade in the image of their benefactors, and benefactors are never ever as selfless as their PR likes to suggest that they are. Somalia is no exception.

But the Time Magazine article naively parrots the new course being plotted for Somalia, deciding that “the long-term fix is to build a new Somalia.” To do so requires “a government that is both good and strong” to take on pirates and terrorists alike. That this government will include few insurgents is suggested by the description of those now storming the capital and liberating it from the Ethiopian occupation as “Islamic terrorists, currently poised to take Mogadishu.”

There is no doubt that the insurgents include many strict adherents to Sharia law, but it is equally true that most Somalis do not traditionally practice such austerity. Like England in the 1640s, when the country was racked by Civil War, chaos allows the extremes of society to gain legitimacy and power, but like England in the 1650s, when they actually try to exercise it, the extremists may be frustrated.

In any case, the “Islamists” are not mad mullahs. They restored peace to large areas of Somalia in 2005 and 2006, and fighting in areas that they currently control is rare. Public support seems strong. As the UN reported last week, over 80 percent of Somalia’s army have deserted and refuse to fight their countrymen. They have taken their weapons and vehicles with them, and surely form a key element of the insurgency.

In some areas of the country, insurgents have begun governing – and seem to be doing so better than the Ethiopian-backed Transitional Government. In Mogadishu’s Bakara market, for example, as Shabelle reports, insurgents have begun inspecting merchants’ shops and have discovered large amounts of expired food. The smuggling and dumping of expired goods has long been a problem in Somalia (not to mention the dumping of toxic waste from countries as far away as Italy).

Some of this aid has probably been distributed by NGOs, which are very lightly inspected by the UN. In June 2007, the Independent’s Steve Bloomfield travelled to Somalia and found that locals there described aid distributed by the World Food Programme as “so bad they have had to feed it to their animals.” The government itself halted aid distribution in one province in April 2007, claiming that the food was out of date and dangerous. Recent reports suggest that the problem remains rampant.

In 2006, before the Ethiopian invasion, while the Islamic Courts dispensed justice – and sometimes brutally – in some areas they began to make vital changes. For example, the Courts began a crackdown on charcoal selling (charcoal is major export from Somalia to the Middle East) and began to reverse decades of deforestation, while they also attempted to end the trade in endangered species.

Then the state “failed.” That failure was largely due to the invasion of Somalia by thousands of Ethiopian troops, backed up by western funded mercenaries on the ground and air strikes from above. It followed a coordinated campaign to associate the Courts with Iran and Hezbollah, while numerous efforts on the part of the Courts to negotiate were rebuffed.

What followed was predictable. Suffering invasion by a historic enemy, which is also fighting an insurgency in its own territory waged by its Somali minority, the Somali people resisted. As very little money was invested to build a working state, they naturally did not fall in love with the Transitional Government. As the experience of the Islamic Courts was by and large positive, and certainly so in contrast to what came before and after, they did not despise Islamic insurgents, and still do not. Why would they?

After all, it is not the inurgents who have killed thousands of people in Somalia since the invasion. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have pinned the blame largely on the TG, the Ethiopians and the African Union for what amounts to one massive war crime. The insurgents tend to seek military and government targets. The government then responds against civilian areas, seeking to intimidate them, and drain support from the insurgency.

So it is somewhat delusional to expect that Somalis will welcome “western” intervention to take control and remould their nation. John Hutton’s statement that “we haven’t been as involved in Somalia as we should have been” is a grotesque untruth. We have been much, much too involved.

What is doubly worrying about these statements is that they accompany a change in U.S. policy towards the de facto nation of Somaliland. Somaliland, which is situated in the north of Somalia, has been self-governing since 1991, and has made quite a good job of it. Human rights abuses are rare, the people aren’t starving, piracy is absent and elections are scheduled for next year.

Moreover, as Reuters reports, Somaliland “enjoys the inter-clan tranquility that Somalia itself so ruinously lacks.” This, however, is the key phrase. As Reuters accurately notes, “These achievements have come about with little or any assistance from the West.”

Now, having failed to bomb Somalia’s Transitional Government into power, the U.S. is reportedly leaning towards Somaliland as an alternative means of controlling the Horn of Africa. Reportedly, “an unnamed senior US defence official quoted last week in The Washington Post, the Pentagon believes Somaliand should be independent.”

According to US Navy Captain Bob Wright, the U.S. military “would love to” carry out missions out of Somaliland and are “just waiting for State to give us the OK.” The Washington Post’s anonymous source suggests that from the Pentagon’s point of view, “recognition of Somaliland would add a key element to an alternative US strategy of encirclement and containment.”

Presumably, the opinion of the State Department is represented reasonably well by Congressional Research Service staffer Ted Dagne, who tells the Post that “recognition by the United States and, perhaps, the European Union “would not give Somaliland legitimacy in the eyes of other Somalis,” while musing that “What would be the containment mechanism to prevent there being four or five Somalias?”

This may well be the DoD’s plan, which is potentially nightmarish for Somaliland. The aspiring nation has already almost come to blows with neighboring Puntland over potential oil resources in the Sanaag and Sool region. Such conflicts could easily flare up again if the U.S. begins to use Somaliland as a tool in its grander schemes for the East African region.

Unfortunately, Somaliland’s government is recrptive to such overtures. Starved of international recognition for seventeen years, it is intensely vulnerable to the promises (however hollow) of great power sugar daddies. In early December, the protectorate’s Foreign Minister told Reuters that “We will support the fight against pirates any way we can. Our ports are open for the coalition and all those who are fighting piracy to use as they wish.”

Somaliland’s government has also decided that a series of bomb blasts in the capital Hargeisa back in October 2008 were the work of the al-Shabaab militia, which generally operates far to the south around Mogadishu. Those blasts have led the Foreign Minister to say that militants “want to cripple Somaliland’s democratisation process” – but whether al-Shabaab was responsible or not is doubtful.

Just last week, the government of Somaliland concluded a “thirty day” investigation into the Hargeisa blasts, a period of time that coincides with the commencement of Pentagon overtures to the fledgling nation, along with the promise of military and other aid. At the same time, with UN staff evacuated after the blasts, the government in Hargeisa has struggled to continue its election preparations and other infrastructure programmes.

That report ended with Somaliland’s Interior Minister avowing that “Somaliland’s enemy, from day one to today, has always been al Shabaab” which is odd, as al-Shabaab has only been in existence for three years at most, and Somaliland for seventeen.

The report also linked the Hargeisa attacks to the U.S. city of Minneapolis, via alleged terrorist and U.S.citizen Shirwa Ahmed and Abdulfatah Abdullahi Guutaale, the “ringleader” behind the attacks and one-time resident of the city.

The right-wing Jamestown Foundation, while heavily insinuating that members of the Islamic Courts leadership such as Hassan Dir Aweys were involved in the attacks, also reports that “Surprisingly, both Shaykh Hassan Dahir Aweys and Aden Hashi Farah “Ayrow,” an Afghanistan

Is is also important to note that in 2008, as al-Shabaab has become a “bogeyman” group in the media, the Somaliland government has used it to crack down on opposition groups. In April, a grenada attack on the Somaliland parliament was blamed on the Kulmiye party, a prominent member of which was accused of simultaneously being a member of al-Shabaab.

The Hargeisa attacks in October allowed the government to suspend voter registration programmes, denting the chances of the opposition coming to power in 2009.

In any case, the manipulation of Somaliland’s politics by the United States will end badly for its people – whether al-Shabaab is really targeting its institutions or not. We can already see signs that democracy is being curtailed either to suit, or because of, looming U.S. “assistance.” The neo-imperial rhetoric of “nation building” actually portends the opposite; the failure of Somaliland and ongoing chaos in the rest of Somalia.

Take up the White Man’s burden–
In patience to abide,
To veil the threat of terror
And check the show of pride;


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