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Somalia - Better Off as an Island?
Oxford, October 5, 2006 – The UIC has extended its authority to other areas of southern Somalia. Consequently, this has led to a sharp increase in the number of refugees entering Kenya. Glenn Brigaldino describes Somalia as a state that only exists on paper, including maps. "It is most favorably described as a desolate and impoverished place, where a traditional society wildly fragmented along clan allegiances struggles to secure a livelihood."
One evening in early 1988, my Ugandan friend Samuel Opondo and I were sitting on the porch of my house in Hargeysa, Somalia. "You know what..." he started, "...this place is not Africa. I will cut it off from my map of Africa and push it into the ocean." It hardly seemed like an odd idea, especially as African expatriates in Somalia were frequently irritated at being called "African" by average Somalis, who seemed to consider themselves above non-Muslim Africans, especially if these were noticeably dark-skinned. It struck me as an ignorant behavior, given that so many Somalis were illiterate, could perhaps recite but hardly read the Koran and in their daily lives, often appeared to be Muslim only in name. Today, Sam's paper exercise may well have genuine merit as an analytical insight, notably his reflective after-thought that "...by the time Somalis are ready for this century, we will be well into the 21st."
We all know that Somalia in 2006 is a state only on paper, including maps. It is most favorably described as a desolate and impoverished place, where a traditional society wildly fragmented along clan allegiances struggles to secure a livelihood. To most political observers, it is a violent and unwelcoming semi-desert zone, of obscure "strategic interest" where perpetual clan disputes and warlordism reign on the remnants of a failed state.
At the best of times, life in Somalia was hard and troublesome. As these times slipped into decades of misrule and anarchy, an entire generation has grown up with no exposure to notions of social order and development. Instead, they are embedded and often partaking in the break-up of whatever social order exists and accustomed to a seemingly natural state of perpetual clan rivalries, political violence, human tragedy and socioeconomic collapse.
In a recent article for Toward freedom, an independent online source for democratic debate, I have explored in some detail the current political context in Somalia from an international perspective. The situation remains in flux. Although the US-backed warlords are no longer "calling the shots", the quest for political control is far from resolved. It seems only a question of time until the now dominant Union of Islamic Courts (UIC), led by Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, and the Transitional Federal Government (TFG), based in the town of Baidoa of interim President Abdillahi Yusuf begin to battle it out for sole control. External players continue to sponsor their preferred Somali ally: Eritrea and Arab countries siding with and delivering weapons to the UIC, the authoritarian Ethiopian regime of Meles Zenawi backing the TFG, including with troop deployments inside of Somalia, with unofficial, tacit support of its US pay-master. It seems only a matter of time until outright war will break out between the two opposite factions, regardless of periodic peace-talks in Sudan and talk of an African Union peacekeeping force.
While the prospect of such a conflict is deeply troubling, most analysts would be at a loss to formulate any peaceful and democratic scenario in a country that is no more, perhaps never was and in any case, consists of an entire population marred by decades of political violence, poverty and social erosion. At best, only half-informed guesses as to what future lays ahead for the today's young generation in Somalia are possible. Kids in Somalia have little opportunity for carefree play and when they do play, they do so without many toys. While in most places in the world, the importance of play and stimulating toys is acknowledged as an important factor in child development, Somali children tend to have few such toys available to them. There are of course creative assembled self-made toys, as made by children in around the world where investment in kids tends to be an alien concept or considered a secondary need, at best.
In the Somali-context, successive generations of parents have grown up in similar conditions, where attention to early-childhood development is virtually non-existent. Where resources are meager, in the absence of the necessary social stability to allow for continuous years of formal education and under conditions of protracted gender inequality, investment into the future well-being of child becomes an afterthought. It should come as little surprise that kids emerging as youths from such circumstances, are readily available to be recruited into the omnipresent clan, gang, and/or militia-groupings and associations that have flourished in Somalia. It is hard to imagine many ordinary Somalis making a decent living from farming, handicrafts, trading or animal herding.
The take over of Mogadishu by the hardline Islamists of the UIC has perhaps done just that to the population living under their rule: for the first time in living memory, social and political order seems a realistic proposition. It would seem that not all has been bad since the UIC has taken over, indeed they have moved in remarkable ways to re-establish a degree of normality that is a new experience for many Somalis. Random acts of robbery; extortion and petty crimes have decreased. The once infamous piracy business off the Somali coast, that repeatedly caught international attention, has been quelled. In late August the first commercial ship in over a decade called port in Mogadishu.
The airport has been re-opened: another vital supply route for a starved country and a new regime in need of links to foreign supporters (although at least two of the arriving planes have been unmarked, most likely carrying weapons for the UIC from Eritrea). The export of charcoal has been forbidden, a move that would please any environmentalist as would the ban on capturing and selling birds of prey to Yemen and Saudi Arabia.
Reportedly wealthy expatriate Somali businessmen (probably not many women though) have descended on Nairobi, Kenya, where they hope to set up and conduct new business deals with merchants in Mogadishu. Of course, a surge of inflows of external supplies, notably food-aid relief can quickly rekindle a "refugee economy" as during the 1980s. At that time, Somali received aid for a highly inflated number of refugees, easily 40% above actual numbers. In a country of only 7 million, that aid translated into a sizeable portion of GDI, and combined with "regular" aid accounted perhaps for half of the entire Somalia's GDI. In the cold war context of the time, donors knew this but chose not to ask too much.
But if only there were not that infamous "price to pay", which has already taken its toll on many. Public executions have been organized, also open for kids to attend. Suspicion of foreigners is deep-rooted and the shooting deaths of a catholic nun and an international journalist are unlikely to be the last. The ban on Khat chewing, the narcotic drug so many Somali men seem to be unable to do without, has been banned, at least during the Ramadan period, a hard to enforce measure that has already sparked some protests.
Women are now being further relegated to the stone ages (some are already all veiled-up, apparently quite willingly so), and working for foreign NGOs is now heavily frowned upon. Political violence has certainly not ceased, but is now far less rampant and visible. Then there is the repeated claim that in the UIC controlled parts of Somalia, training camps for Jihad recruits are being established. This is a hard to verify claim, and difficult to distinguish from planted US propaganda. But it does seem to be true that many of the defeated former militia members are being "re-educated" in camps outside of Mogadishu. Who can tell how far such re-education goes? The most fervent trainees may well be those who raise their hands first when presented with an option to join obscure groupings that could also be linked to Al-Qaeda. Who knows?
It is suggested that the current situation in Somalia, is in large part the result of US-efforts to supposedly quell the rise exactly of this kind of situation. A "CIA coup in Somalia" is said to have occurred, in the sense that "a major policy blunder by the United States opened the way for the UIC to seize power. ...(as) the CIA saw Somalia as a potential Afghanistan."
It should come as little surprise then that support for the UIC has deepened, not least as the scores of mostly young Somali men with no recollection of living in a peaceful and productive society are readily enticed to fight for anything that resembles a meaningful cause. To them, joining militias is the only livelihood that provides any sense of security and income. The last engineer to graduate from what was once called the university of Mogadishu, must have done so nearly 20 years ago, and if not dead or in a militia himself (female Somali engineers would have been most unusual then) lives and works in Europe or maybe the US. The only thing usual in Somalia in living memory is the fragility of life and the constant risk of and submersion into repeated and ongoing humanitarian crises. In a recent interview, UNICEF Somalia representative Christian Balslev-Olesen noted that Somalia has become the "optimum" breeding ground for extremism because levels of malnutrition and education are among the worst in the world. He went on to say "If you have generations and generations out of school...we should not be surprised there is extremism in Somalia..."
As the internally driven and externally fuelled violence in Somalia continues to prevent any semblance of normality from taking hold, a new generation of Somalis is growing up in the midst of the previous social and political rubble. When reading the International Crisis Groups' well-researched and detailed account of the Somali political crisis with its countless clan facets and regional dimensions, I cannot help thinking that the report's title "Can the Somali Crisis be Contained?" is merely a rhetorical question.
Sometimes I wonder what would have happened to Somalia, had it been somehow possible to implement Samuel Opondo's idea of cutting it off the Africa map and letting drift into the Indian Ocean. Once freed of the Siyad Barre dictatorship, would Somalis have had the time and firmness of mind to find their own path to stability and peace? Perhaps Somalia today would be an agreeable island in a calm sea where grown-ups share poems and kids run and play along the beach after school? Too good to be true, I know.