The Debt to Somalia

August 24, 2011

According to the United Nations, those affected by drought and famine in the Horn of Africa require $2.5 billion in aid, yet as of today, only $1.4 billion has been offered, leaving over $1 billion still to be donated.

The scale of the crisis is massive. In southern Ethiopia, over 70,000 Somali refugees are gathered in camps. In Kenya, the Dabaab camp is “home” to 440,000 refugees with over 1,000 arriving every day. The whole region of Somalia’s west and south is being emptied by hunger and, to be more accurate, the lack of a functioning government to provide relief. Almost 3.7 million people are categorised as in need of relief, with numbers rising.

There is no prospect of alleviation, at least not in the near future. As the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs stated on Tuesday, “Emergency conditions could persist well into the first quarter of 2012 in southern Somalia, and recovery may not start until the next harvest in August 2012.” Lack of security is prohibiting aid deliveries and development work, while climatic factors have made farming impossible.

Serious illness is taking its place alongside hunger as a primary concern, with a reported increase of 660 percent in measles cases and cases of cholera appearing in Mogadishu. Yet at the same time some see hope in the capital at least. The al-Shabaab movement recently announced that it would be withdrawing from Mogadishu (for the time being), and many are reportedly returning to their homes and businesses. Tit for tat mortar firing has ceased, both from the AU and rebel sides. Some space is being created for the construction of a government and civil society, but that process is made much more frail by the deepening famine.

The seeming decline of al Shabaab is doubtless a good thing for Somalis. The sect has been brutal in extorting money and enforcing disclipine in the areas under its control, which remain extensive. But the deeper truth is that the crisis in Somalia was largely the product of a failed American intervention.

In 2006, the Bush administration sought to install a compliant government in Mogadishu, arming a group rallying under the banner of “counter-terrorism” to rout the Islamic Courts movement, which had occupied the power vacuum in the capital and was, by most accounts, bringing some stability to its politics. The CIA trained force, headed by brutal warlords, was repulsed, leading Washington to seek de facto regime change instead. Ethiopia under the odious Meles Zenawi was enlisted to launch an invasion under the pretext of fears of an invasion of Ethiopia’s ethnically Somali southern region. American planes and special forces assisted, leading to the installation of the Transitional Federal Government around the turn of 2006/2007.

This “transitional” government has remained precisely that, transitional. Protected by the Ethiopian military, it struggled to assert any authority outside Mogadishu. Somalian regions such as Somaliland and Puntland sought to go their own way, and still do. Meanwhile, the remnants of the Islamic Courts movement, and other enemies of the Ethiopians and Americans, fought back. The African Union, under the banner of AMISOM, was brought in to replace the battered and cash-strapped Ethiopians, to little effect. Constantly struggling to raise enthusiasm for the mission amongst African governments, the Uganda-dominated force lapsed into launching mortars into areas of Mogadishu held by rebel forces, killing hundreds or thousands in the process. The rebels acted brutally too, meting out summary “justice” and attacking government and AU held areas.

All of this was facilitated by the relatively obscure, but massively destructive Bush-era intervention to prevent the Islamic Courts holding power in Somalia. Instead of the relatively moderate Courts, with largely Somali membership and a desire to rule, came foreign fighters and new variants of warlords of a more extremist bent. Meeting this with massive force, made the situation worse.

This is all backed up by Human Rights Watch. As HRW argues in a recent report, between 2006 and 2009 “the worst abuses [were] by Ethiopian soldiers…Ethiopians… often indiscriminately attacked civilian areas and looted hospitals.” But HRW has been roundly ignored for years when it has discussed Somalia. Now is no different, with a media blackout on the issue.

The U.S. owes Somalis a great deal for the influence that Washington has exerted on the conflict, yet despite public generosity, the resources available are not nearly enough.

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