There Will Be No Stimulus for Somalia
February 27, 2009
There are two major influences on Somali politics and society these days, but to different extents they are hidden behind a wall of atrocities, misery and an ever-changing political scene. The first, as I’ve written about before, is America. Not Ethiopia, as is usually suggested.
Ethiopia did invade Somalia in late 2006, ostensibly to evict the Islamic Courts Union from power in Mogadishu and, it seemed, before too long the whole of Somalia. But Ethiopia was responding to orders from above. This much we discovered when in 2007, the New York Times reported on extensive U.S. assistance to Ethiopia during the invasion.
As Michael Gordon and Mark Mazzetti related, America had built a “close and largely clandestine relationship with Ethiopia” which included the Bush administration, “significant sharing of intelligence on the Islamic militants’ positions and information from American spy satellites with the Ethiopian military.” A clandestine unit called Task Force 88 also raided Somalia from both Ethiopia and Kenya, while America launched attacks on Somalian targets from Ethiopian airstrips.
This relationship was strong enough to survive the fact that after elections in 2005, “Ethiopian security forces responded to public protests by arresting scores of opposition leaders, as well as journalists and human rights advocates, and detaining tens of thousands of civilians in rural detention camps for up to three months.” That’s the State Department speaking by the way.
In fact, the relationship between the two governments has been so close that, according to the Center for Public Integrity, “In January 2007, in the midst of Ethiopia’s offensive against the Islamists in Somalia, the U.S. government allowed Ethiopia to complete a secret arms purchase from North Korea.”
Throughout 2006 and 2007, as Ethiopia’s war in Somalia took off, Addis Abeba/the White House channelled over $500,000 to the law firm DLA Piper in order to combat Congressional attempts to sanction Ethiopia for its repressive tendencies. The law firm won, preventing the “Ethiopia Freedom, Democracy and Human Rights Advancement Act” from reaching the House floor.
Essentially, the Bush administration was channeling U.S. taxpayers’ money through Ethiopia in order to sell an extremely brutal covert war.
We also know that Ethiopia has played a loyal role as a local franchise of Guantanamo Bay. In one case that we know of, eight Kenyans were held for over a year somewhere in the country on suspicion of being members of al-Qaeda, yet without being charged with a specific crime.
One of the Kenyans, Bashir Hussein, showed France24 “wounds he says he incurred while being detained by Ethiopian soldiers and also while he was interrogated by CIA agents.” As it turned out, scores of Kenyans were also rounded up in their home country and imprisoned in Ethiopia on American orders.
As the BBC reported in October 2008, human rights campaigners in Kenya had trawled Nairobi’s police stations and asked the government for information about those detained. Al Amin Kimathi, head of the Muslim Human Rights Forum was told “it’s not our operation, go and ask the Americans, just call the American embassy” while he also “saw the Americans bring in detainees and take them out of certain police stations in Nairobi.”
When the detainees were tracked down in Kenya, instead of allowing an appeal and considering release, the Kenyan government shipped them to Somalia and thence to Ethiopia. Salim, one of those who spoke to the BBC said that, soon after arriving in Ethiopia, “we were interrogated by whites – Americans, British, I was interrogated for weeks.” In a case that has brought no further official comment, one told the BBC that he was beaten by Americans, while others reported being threatened with torture by Ethiopian guards.
So the United States directed Ethiopia’s war and then organized the rounding up, rendition and torture of 90 or more people. Since then U.S. forces have carried out air raids on Somali targets, making reconciliation in Somalia much harder to achieve by massively undermining the position of the Transitional Government and killing innocent civilians.
Those air raids have been accompanied by the aforementioned “Task Force 88,” according to Esquire’s Thomas Barnett, who accompanied U.S. forces into Somalia. Barnett was told that the Somali-Kenyan border region was “meant to be a killing zone” immediately after the Ethiopian invasion. U.S. Special Forces worked with AC-130 gunships to “rinse and repeat” target areas – areas filled with refugees fleeing Ethiopian troops – with an unknwon number of casualties.
America has therefore been continually intervening in Somali lives, however ham-fistedly, and with bloody consequences. Don’t ever think that Somalia has been neglected.
Yet this intervention has failed to quell insurrection in Somalia. The “transitional government” made up of ex-warlords and veterans of the Siad Barre regime, has failed. The Ethiopian occupation has been kicked out. Now, a new tactic is being tried. After long negotiations, a portion of the resistance has been prised away, and has been slated to lead a new “transition” towards democracy, on American terms.
Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, once the head of an insurgent grouping (“al-Shabaab”) has just this month arrived in Mogadishu to assume his new role as the country’s interim President.
Ahmed was, as noted above, one of the leaders of Somalia’s insurgency. Before being selected as President at peace talks in neighboring Djibouti, his old militia are credited with having gained control of most of southern Somalia, yet now Ahmed is seen by many as a stooge of the United States.
In a remarkable transformation, the Sheikh has gone from being a prominent leader ot the Islamic Courts Union, to being an insurgent leader against Ethiopian and U.S. might, to being praised by the U.S. for having worked “diligently on reconciliation efforts in Somalia and for heading a “broad-based government.” How broad a government can be that is unelected and counts many prominent warlords among its senior leadership is dubious.
For Sharif has taken several interesting characters with him to Mogadishu, where he is being protected by a 3,500 strong African Union peacekeeping mission. Not least among them will be Osman Atto, an ally of Ahmed’s. Atto is an old hand in Somali politics, and a seasoned warlord.
According to Wikipedia, Atto is “a former main financier of the Aidid faction, a multi-millionaire businessman, alleged arms dealer and drug trafficker” who also “owns the biggest landed property in Somalia, including many of the buildings in Mogadishu which are rented to relief agencies and the media.” A feudal lord, in other words, who wants to bring Mogadishu to order to capitalise on his investments.
Atto’s big break came in a business familiar to warlords from Houston to Herat – oil. Before Somalia collapsed, he was a driver and go-between for Conoco, a position which he parlayed into a construction business and the aforementioned criminal activities. When the war hit, Atto’s uses became plain and he acquired the nickname “Monsieur Dozer” because of his ability to get things “done.”
Wiki relates that “In 1992, Osman Ali Atto helped pave the way for the food airlift and later the American troop landing.” As a senior power broker in Mogadishu, Atto played the role of “the Americans’ main contact and negotiator with General Mohammed Aidid and Aidid’s most important financial backer” – a job which soon turned sour when Aideed fell afoul of the Americans and Atto’s facilities were bombed.
Yet Atto and Aideed fell apart after the war, both being warlords and given to competition. Hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of Somalis died as fighters or in the crossfire between the two. With the death of Aideed, perhaps Atto won, but what is certain is that by 2006, he was one of the most powerful men in Somalia.
So powerful, in fact, that Osman Atto was instrumental in setting up the Islamic Courts Union. From 1996, his forces constructed a system of courts in southern Mogadishu while “an appeal was issued to Islamic leaders to decide on the religious personalities most suited to head these courts.” In partnership with another warlord, Ali Mahdi Mohammed, Atto built up what would become an (almost) national force.
With Atto’s prominence in mind, Sharif appears to be heading the restoration of a warlord dynasty as he returns to Mogadishu, rather than heading a viable government. He certainly hasn’t arrived with hordes of secular progressives. Atto, for example, has been branded by the UN as “an individual who exemplifies “the interaction between looting and the exploitation of Somalia’s ressources and infrastructure and the financing of warfare” and a man who “used the income from airports, check-points, drug-dealing, arms-smuggle, asset stripping and kidnapping to purchase arms and finance his militias.”
If Atto is any guide, then Somalia’s “new government” will be a catastrophe for its people. It will certainly have precious little allegiance to the nation. As the 2003 UN Report on Somalia noted, “While he can afford at a moment’s notice to meddle in Somalia’s power struggles, Atto and his family have the ability to live in safety outside their country” while “the family owns a residence at the South “C” Sungara Estate in Nairobi, and derives significant profits from a tanker-trucking company which operates from a strategically situated truck yard at Eldoret, in north-western Kenya. From there, Atto ships gasoline to Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda.”
In fact, that same report suggested that Atto may have more affinity with nations far away from Somalia. Intriguingly, it found that “A number of witnesses have described how Atto in addition to his Somali passport uses passports from Kenya, the United States and possibly Italy” and “It is also alleged indirectly that Atto enjoys significant benefits of economic and political relationships with Italian interest groups.”
This may refer obliquely less to an Italian “interest group” than an Italian organized crime group. Throughout the civil war, Italian owned firms are known to have dumped toxic waste off the Somalian coast. The scale is unknown. There have been few efforts to investigate but Mustafa Tolba, an ex-UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme) executive told Al Jazeera in October 2008 that “It was very shady, and quite underground, and I would agree…it is still going on” but, “unfortunately the war has not allowed environmental groups to investigate this fully.”
So, to recap: a government is attempting to convene in Mogadishu formed from ex-insurgents and notorious warlords. Some have links to organized crime and toxic waste dumping.
The response from locals hasn’t been very positive. On February 2 a suicide bomber attacked AMISOM (African Union) troops in the capital, drawing a burst of fire and mortar shells from the beleagered troops. In all 13 civilians died and 15 were injured. According to Human Rights Watch, “Most of the dead, many or all of whom were civilians, were killed by gunfire.”
Such reprisals are common in Mogadishu, where mortars regularly flatten homes and businesses in revenge for attacks on government, AU and (until recently) Ethiopian positions. This has been documented by NGOs and is uncontroversial. There is no doubt that the “insurgency” has been met with equal or greater brutality, brutality which, in some opinions amounts to “war crimes” – all unprosecuted of course. [More info here]
This time around, the UN intervened to support the AU mission, no doubt seeing grave danger in compromising its position as the government prepared to return to the capital. As Slate’s Anna Husarska reported last week, “U.N. Special Representative Ould-Abdallah declared that he did not know the exact details of the events in Mogadishu; however, he said of reports of the incident: “What happened is to divert attention from what is going on here, and as usual to use the media to repeat Radio Mille Collines, to repeat the genocide in Rwanda.”
This was inflammatory stuff. The local press in Mogadishu, when not being totally censored by the Transitional Government (as it was during much of the Ethiopian occupation) has been repeatedly attacked and many Somali journalists have died. Ould-Abdallah was effectively inciting violence against reporters, some of whom had had the temerity to report that AU forces had killed more people than the insurgents.
As Husarska continued, “The day after Ould-Abdallah’s interview, the director of HornAfrik was murdered in Mogadishu. Three days later, the director of a provincial station, Radio Abudwaq, was seriously injured when he was stabbed while attending a “reconciliation meeting” between two rival clans.”
Not satisfied with inciting violence, the UN’s man in Mogadishu then suggested that “[T]he time has come for [a] one-month truce on reporting till there is double-, triple-checking, because Somalia is exceptional.”
Along with the death of innocent civilians, remarks such as these have left the AU extremely unpopular in Somalia, being seen as a stooge of the Ethiopians rather than an impartial peacekeeping force. Now, its job is to smooth the way for Sheikh Sharif Ahmed and his coterie, a task made far, far harder by such reprisals. But no matter, Ahmed arrived in any case. And, predictably, his arrival was met with insurgent attacks, and more bloody reprisals.
On Tuesday 24 February, militants from al-Shabaab (not now an ally of the Sheikh) and a group called the Party of Islam, attacked AMISOM barracks, bringing an immediate response which killed at least 48 civilians. In one case, mortars from AU forces hit a school, killing 2 pupils. One teacher told the AP that “The shell landed on the school as the students were busy studying. Blood was everywhere. It was shocking.”
Running battles between insurgents and AU forces have since driven thousands from their homes, as the government struggles to implant itself in a city controlled by insurgents and warlords. Being a coalition of warlords itself, and allied to a despised imperial project, it doesn’t stand much of a chance. In fact, “Islamist” forces control most of Somalia,and the “government” is a mere rump. The fear is that by reaching out to warlords currently opposed to it, or neutral, the government will exacerbate the Somali conflict and renergize its warring factions. In any case, it has no democratic legitimacy, and cannot play the nationalist card, being a creature of foreign intervention.
Sheikh Sharif Ahmed has not reached out to the real leaders of the Islamic Courts Union and the subsequent insurgency, yet he must if he wishes to restore peace, and we shouldn’t assume that he does. But, if so, then Sheikh Hassan Dir Aweys is a crucial figure that he needs to propitiate. Aweys led the Courts in 2006, and was villified by the Americans and Ethiopia. As effective a leader as Somalia has produced in twenty years, he is a nationalist, and an Islamist, but no warlord, and his word carries weight – even though he currently lives in Eritrea.
His opinion of Ahmed is that his government is illegitimate, calling him a “sold out who has abandoned the party’s duty, interest and responsibility” and labelling his government a “sinking ship.” Aweys has also vowed that the insurgency will fight until the AU has been evicted from Somalia, calling them “the enemy of the Somali people.”
Some clerics have attempted to stall the insurgency by issuing fatwas declaring it illegitimate, and recommending allowing AMISOM and the new government breathing space. Aweys, on the other hand, continues to argue that such appeals are mistaken. As he told Al Jazeera this week, “The sheikhs tried but they should not issue a fatwa on the war, which is defensive. Every person will use medicine to fight a disease.”
He’s right. The insurgency, of which he is a part, is a defensive reaction to Ethiopian and American aggression. That doesn’t make the ideas animating the insurgency appealing (though they are not less dangerous for the Somali people than warlordism or the hare-brained “secularism” being demanded by the UN of Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, an erstwhile “Islamist”). But it does make the lack of support for the government, and the continuing strength of the insurgency comprehensible.
Somalis continue to resist the imposition of a political settlement dictated from abroad, and this is admirable. The circumstances in which this is occuring are lamentable – tens of thousands killed by war, countless others through disease, hunger and, in the waters of the Red Sea, by drowning. But that’s the way it is.
Thirsting for peace, dying for donations
So, as noted at the outset of this account, one of the major influences on Somali politics is America, albeit covertly and indirectly. The other, albeit belatedly, is drought. This is even less discussed in the western media than U.S. aggression, but is just as fundamental and tragic.
As IRIN reported this week, the Galgagud region of Somalia is grievously stricken by water shortages and hunger. One “local leader” interviewed by the relief organization said that “We buried two children, aged four and one-and-a-half, yesterday; they died of lack of water and food” while reports from outlying areas continue to pour in and “there are more dying out there but we cannot help them.”
Galgagud has had no rains for two years, and people are having to travel further and further to access water. Relief agencies have stayed clear, citing safety concerns but, as IRIN relates, locals believe the region to be safe. Yusuf Guled, the deputy district commissioner of Dhabad, maintains that “We have an administration and police who are capable of protecting anyone who comes here.”
He, and the people of the area, are desperate for assistance, in facing down an epochal drought. According Tahalil Aden, a resident of the town of Ada Kibir, “The drought here has never really gone away; for five consecutive years we had very little rains or none at all.”
Drought and war are conspiring to produce a truly nightmarish situation, which dwarves all other “humanitarian” crises in Africa. The Red Cross are attempting to raise awareness of this nexus, but its hard to gain traction in the welter of anti-Islamist hysteria and general indifference.
Faduma Mahmud, an elderly woman from Mogadishu told the Red Cross that “We fled from Mogadishu two years ago and when we arrived in Dusamareb (the capital of the central region) we were hoping for a better life.” Yet when she reached what she thought was a refuge, she found that “we started suffering from the drought and now the conflict has followed us.”
Considering the scale of human misery inflicted upon Somalia, you might think that the so-called International Community would scramble to its assistance, at the very least in an effort to seem worthwhile, yet this is far from the case. As the Sudan Tribune reports, while the UN is appealing for $36 million for “water, sanitation and hygiene,” only $300,000 of this has been secured from governments. Nutritional needs have also suffered, having received $10 million in donations against an appeal for $66 million.
This negligence is brutality in itself, and will result in the muder of many thousands of children (and others). But this is routine in a global political economy that systematically buries the misery of nations who do not meet the requirements of public relations strategists and Hollywood lobby groups. And how can we truly expect a few million people to merit boreholes and water treatment packets when the banks of America have demanded that $3.6 trillion be pumped into the grossly bloated American economy?
When the tiny amount of money required to demonstrably save thousands of lives is outweighed by such a massive amount which has no guarantee of saving a nickel, it is hard not to draw the conclusion that those who rule – and those who bury their heads in the sand and gladly accept their lead – actually will the deaths of masses of the poor.
There will be no stimulus for Somalia.