Somalia has developed into one of the War on Terrorism’s bloodiest fronts, yet few people are aware of this. In fact, the whole Horn of Africa region has descended into a new round of conflict and devastation, with a genocidal campaign being waged against the people of Ogaden by the Ethiopian government, the Somali occupation and insurgency and fighting in Kenya over disputed election results (and much more besides). All of this can be traced back to U.S. foreign policies.
That’s a story that I have described in the case of Somalia before, and at length. If you want to chart how a nation that was slowly returning to self administration, coherence and peace has returned to endemic anarchy and mass death, start here then move here, here and here and then here for a quick introduction. Suffice to say for the uninitiated, that Somalia’s recent tragedy involves private military companies, imperialism, Ethiopian compliance and brutality and a potentially generous helping of oil.
So what’s happening at the moment? The human cost of the Ethiopian/U.S. occupation grows ever larger. Recent weeks have seen a slew of press releases from major aid organizations offering dire warnings. Refugees international has come out with an unusually truculent attack on U.S. policy, saying that recent aerial attacks on southern Somalia “undermine the diplomatic push for political reconciliation and galvanize extremist elements, reinforcing the very threat that U.S. policy in the Horn of Africa is meant to address” and that RI “strongly encourages the U.S. administration to condemn human rights violations committed by the Ethiopian forces” while “the U.S. Congress [should] investigate any military support that was provided to Ethiopia to ensure it adheres to U.S. law.”
Save the Children has reported that at present, “360,000 people have been newly displaced and an additional half a million people are reliant on humanitarian assistance” and that “There are now more than one million internally displaced people in Somalia.” 20,000 people are leaving Mogadishu every month, turning the Somali capital into a ghost town. Meanwhile, drought and predictions that the rainy season will be weaker than usual mean that “Extreme water and food shortages are expected to worsen across the country.” Aid agencies are also suffering constant harassment and attacks, while the total absence of a functioning state has “left two million Somalis in need of basic humanitarian assistance.”
The World Food Programme, meanwhile, has stated that “The international community must put Somalia at the top of its agenda and press for change before it is too late,” in the words of its Somalia country director, Peter Goossens. Exposing how little attention Somalia gets from donor nations, Goossens continued that “WFP is urgently appealing for US$10 million, particularly in cash, required between now and July” while “Without urgent new contributions, WFP warns that it will start running out of pulses in April, cereals and vegetable oil in May and corn-soya blend in June.”
The situation is catastrophic. Yet there have been other appeals to the “international community” beyond the major aid agencies. The Somali government’s consul in the Yemeni port of Aden has been pleading with the outside world to take action to stem the flow of desperate migrants across the mouth of the Red Sea to a form of sanctuary. Hussein Hajj’s call comes directly after at least 24 people died while disembarking in the dark near the Yemeni port of Ahwar. As Hajj put it, “the passengers could not find their way to the beach as it was too dark and some were too exhausted to swim.” IRIN also reports that some 8,000 Somalis have arrived in Yemen in 2008 alone, a staggering figure, as only around 3,000 arrived in the same period of 2007. Hundreds have died since the invasion fleeing across the water.
A perilous crossing (BBC)
Those who have remained are also calling for assistance. The Network of African Freedom of Expression Organisations (NAFEO), an umbrella group representing journalists across the continent, has appealed for international solidarity in opposition to a planned Press Law to be passed by the Transitional Government in Mogadishu. As NAFEO puts it, “The law is…likely to limit media organisations’ operations by compelling existing organisations to register with the Minister of Information. That could give the administration the power to silence critical media” while censorship is already routine, if sporadically applied.
Amnesty International has also recently released a report on journalistic freedom in Somalia. Entitled, “Somalia: Journalists under attack” the report describes how the Ethiopian led occupation has hammered civil rights in Somalia. As Amnesty’s Michelle Kagari told South Africa’s News24, “killings, arrests and death threats targeting Somali journalists are not just another unfortunate by-product of the conflict and general insecurity in Somalia – they are a deliberate and systematic attempt by all parties to the conflict to stem the flow of information out of the country.” Over 50 journalists have fled Somalia in the face of death threats, while in early March, three radio stations in Mogadishu were raided, their equipment confiscated and their signal forced off the air.
Highlighting the point that the Ethiopian/U.S. invasion of Somalia has been a disaster for the region, Amnesty concluded that “The situation for journalists in Somalia is the worst it has been since 1991, when the repressive Siad Barre regime was overthrown and the state’s collapse began…The attacks on media freedom marked a reversal from 2005 and 2006, when new media outlets began extending news coverage and affiliation beyond clan and warlord loyalties.”
Why does the “transitional government” and its Ethiopian overlords continue to act in such a repressive manner, while generating a humanitarian crisis through their actions? Probably because since the invasion in late 2006, the invaders and their puppet government has faced a determined insurgency and has failed to gain the allegiance of powerful clan leaders. Clan in-fighting has, in fact, not been the defining feature of the insurgency. Ethiopia has failed to turn its own botched invasion into a diversionary civil war and this has left the so-called Transitional Government with little real power and absolutely no future should its foreign backers leave.
Ethiopian forces have routinely alienated the Somali people. Their task was hard, considering the historical antipathy between Somalia and Ethiopia, and the way in which the invasion was organized, yet even the most beloved of liberators would have been turned off by the amount of civilian deaths that the Ethiopians have inflicted in Mogadishu alone.
Recent days have furnished a perfect example. On 29 March, insurgents mortared the presidential palace to coincide with the visit of Ethiopia’s foreign minister. In response, as Garowe reports, “Ethiopian troops responded to the mortars by bombarding Bakara market with artillery shells.” The Bakara market, Mogadishu’s largest, “was very crowded when the shells hit” and the reprisals killed at least 21 innocent people.
The same day, after Ethiopian soldiers patrolling Mogadishu came under grenade attack, they responded by attacking a civilian bus, killing at least 3 civilians and wounding many more. Such incidents, documented last year (in part) by Human Rights Watch and recognized as war crimes, have massively strengthened Somalia’s insurgency.
However, the insurgency has not been limited to Mogadishu, where the cycle of insurgent attacks and government/Ethiopian reprisals has rebounded against the authorities. The entire Somali south is aflame with different groups jostling for influence. Few Somali towns have stable governments, as those governors installed by the occupation have struggled for legitimacy, but the ones that have kept power have often haemorraged support through brutal policies.
Take Yusuf Daboged, the governor of Hiran province. According to his ex-Police Chief, Col. Abdi Adan Addow (who resigned last week), Daboged “ordered Col. Addow to transform the Beletwein central police station into a prison” while Addow also “accused Daboged of violating the law and desiring to keep anyone who opposes him in jail.” Addow resigned after he had unilaterally decided to release 20 prisoners from the Beletwein jail, prisoners who, according to Garowe, “were not charged with any crime and were never brought to court.”
Daboged has only succeeded in turning Hiran into a hotbed of insurgency. Ethiopian troops are currently battling to retake the town of Bulo Berte in Daboged’s territory after insurgents overran it. The same day (30 March) that Bulo Berte was occupied, insurgents also attacked Daboged’s convoy, sending the local autocrat fleeing to the coast for Ethiopian assistance.
The insurgency is strong and far more popular than the government or the occupiers. It’s spokespeople are even developing a dash of elan. As Abdi Rihin Isse Adow – described as “spokesman for the UIC’s [Islamic Courts] military wing” – said of the Bulo Berte assault, “We attacked their hotel and ran away with their shoes.”
Such attacks are becoming commonplace. A few days before, insurgents took control of the regional capital, Jowhar – seizing weapons and supplies. The same spokesperson, Abdi Addow, told Garowe that “We have freed all the prisoners inside the Jowhar jail” – indicating that the insurgents are aware of the unpopularity of the current regime and are consciously targeting officials and government buildings. As local witnesses put it, “looters ransacked through the central police station, the jail and the home of Governor Mohamed Omar Delle.”
The Somalian government has very little legitimacy, while the insurgency remains a hit and run affair owing to a lack of supplies, yet it continues to grow in strength. Ethiopian policies and local potentates are making that inevitable, as Somalia comes to resemble South Vietnam more and more. For the Vietcong, read al-Shabab or the Islamic Courts – whatever name you want to apply to the indigenous resistance. For Ngo Diem and his successors read Abdullahi Yusuf (the Somali “president”). For the U.S. read Ethiopia and, well, the U.S.
A note on oil
There have been developments in the Somali oil story as well, although that is another story, so to speak. The most promising areas for oil exploration are in northern Somalia, on the Puntland/Somaliland border, which is sparking tensions between the two autonomous regions. Small energy firms (with influential backers) are leveraging this rivalry and pressurising Puntland’s leader into passing an oil law that could dismember Somalia (giving Puntland control over its oil revenues). But Puntland MPs are resisting the law, and Puntland’s parliament (yes, it does exist) is currently shut down owing to the political turmoil resulting from the law.
Somaliland, meanwhile, has been enjoying the attentions of the Pentagon, and this is most likely closely related to the oil issue. A team of contractors has visited the region and looked at reopening a Cold War-era airstrip there, while Somaliland’s president has stated that he will welcome a U.S. presence, although whether his people will or not is a very different matter. Same goes for Puntland.
Somalia’s oil province
When teams of geologists from Range Resources attempted to gain access to the regions of Puntland thought to contain oil local clans fought them off, and no surveys have occurred since.