JONATHAN MANTHORPE: International Affairs
January 30, 2015
The burned-out palace of ousted dictator Siad Barre was still smouldering when I got to the Somali capital, Mogadishu, almost exactly 24 years ago. On Jan. 27, 1991, Barre had emptied the contents of the national bank into a tank and sped off into the western dessert as a motley crew of fighters from a couple of dozen clan militias closed in on him. Thus ended Barre’s 22 years of always despotic, frequently murderous, and endemically corrupt rule.
Yet set against all that has happened in the 24 years since to the people of this benighted nation, Barre’s dictatorship can seem like a golden age. Since 1991, at least 350,000 people have been killed by famine. Tens of thousands more have died in meaningless clan civil wars. Hundreds of thousands more remain refugees in neighbouring countries. Half a dozen foreign invasions, most of them half-hearted but deadly nonetheless, have attempted to bring security.
Throughout the quarter century of chaos Somalia has been and remains a haven for terrorists, whose deadly activities have spilled over into neighbouring Kenya and Uganda. Lawlessness gave birth to ruthless pirate coastal enclaves, preying on vessels plying the Indian Ocean and spurring an international naval response. The only time there has been anything like stable rule, it has come from blood-thirsty religious fanatics allied with the trans-national Muslim terrorists, Al-Qaida. And things have been only marginally better in Somaliland, the old British protectorate in the north, and Puntland, on the very tip of the Horn of Africa in the northeast. Both these territories, which were joined with the old Italian Somali Protectorate in 1960 to form independent Somalia, broke away after Barre’s flight and have created reasonably functional administrations.
But now, finally, there are some signs that a home-grown administration is taking root in Mogadishu. It’s still a tender sapling. President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud was elected in 2012 by the members of parliament. He has a rocky relationship with the prime minister, Abdiweli Sheikh Ahmed, who took office at the end of 2013.
The two squabble fiercely over the boundaries of power between their two offices and the make-up of the cabinet. And ministers too butt heads as they test the limits of their authority against those of their colleagues. This testing of the boundaries extends to the country at large, where the foundations of a federal system are being established. In Jubbaland the southwest Somalia interim regional administration was endorsed last June and the following month the Central Somalia interim administration was set up. The territories that these administrations cover and their powers in relation to those of the central government in Mogadishu remain unresolved. But there appears to be a determination to work through the inevitable tribulations of nation re-building.
Some form of federal structure is clearly essential, especially if there is to be any hope of the breakaway regions of Puntland and Somaliland rejoining the country. The whole venture could still collapse. The clan structure and its unquestioning loyalties are so deeply embedded in Somali social culture that perceived insult can streak straight to war without any pause for thought. Under the first Transitional Federal Government established with United Nations and international aid agencies between 2004 and 2012, the threat of collapse rose with the sun every morning. And for most of that time the administration’s authority did not run any further than its barricaded enclave covering a few blocks of Mogadishu. Most of the time the interim parliament found it too dangerous to meet in Somalia. They preferred to meet in the safety of the Kenyan capital, Nairobi.
That has changed largely through the work of 21,000 troops and police from eight countries of the African Union (AU). They get significant help from the United States Africa Command, which uses an expanded French Foreign Legion base in the old French colony, Djibouti, sandwiched between Somaliland, Ethiopia and Eritrea on the Gulf of Aden. The U.S. forces provide intelligence and air power, especially President Barack Obama’s favourite assassination weapon, remote controlled drones armed with Hellfire missiles.
The AU ground forces, aided by U.S. air power, are now close to defeating the al-Shabaab Islamic fundamentalist group. Al-Shabaab used to be allied with al-Qaida, but has been, like so many of its ilk these days, lured by the psychotic charms of the Islamic State group and its dream of a world purged of infidels. Al-Shabaab started as the youth wing — in reality the armed militia – of the Islamic Courts Union (ISU), a Taliban-like organization propounding rule by puritanical interpretations of Muslim religious Sharia law. The ISU controlled much of Somalia from 2000 until 2006, partly through the muscle of al-Shabaab and partly because people were so fed up with civil war, they wanted peace even if the price was an unsavoury religious dictatorship.
An invasion in 2006 by Ethiopian forces, encouraged by the then Washington administration of President George Bush, dislodged the ISU and provided space for the current internationally-backed administration to be established in Mogadishu. But al-Shabaab has fought a determined rearguard action for nearly nine years. Al-Shabaab is being defeated by the AU forces, including the invasion and occupation of much of the south of Somalia by Kenyan troops, and the judicious use of Obama’s drones and Hellfire missiles.
The al-Shabaab leader, Ahmed Abdi Godane, was killed in a U.S. air strike last September. This seems to have caused the group’s intelligence chief, Zakariya Ahmed Ismail Hersi, who had a $3 million bounty on his head, to think seriously about his life expectancy. Hersi defected to the Mogadishu government in December. He sang for his supper. A couple of days later, his successor as intelligence chief of al-Shabaab, Tahlil Abdishakur, was also killed by a drone-fired Hellfire missile.
The lessons of Somalia’s last quarter century range from the big and global to the small and personal.
Most evident is the brutal reminder that in this day and age, failed states are a threat to us all. We have seen it in the former Yugoslavia, the Congo, Afghanistan, and Iraq (which, in truth, had failure thrust upon it by George Bush and his entourage from the cast of the movie Deliverance). Failure in Syria is now an international threat, and is receiving attention, though ineffective attention at this point. But there’s little focus on Libya, which is already in the early stages of what Somalia went through in the mid-1990s. And Yemen is teetering on the brink of fracturing into regional and religious warring fiefdoms. Another big lesson from Somalia is how difficult it is to get the international community to act consistently and cohesively when confronted by a failed state.
International interest in and dedication to putting Somalia back on its feet was whimsical to say the least. The first was driven by the revulsion of western television audiences to the pictures of starvation caused by the scramble for territory by clan warlords after Barre’s flight. An estimated 350,000 people died. But no one could ever accuse then U.S. President Bill Clinton of resolve or of failing to be swayed by public opinion. When 18 U.S. Army Rangers were killed in 1993 in the “Blackhawk Down” skirmish with the fighters of warlord Mohamed Farrah Aideed, Clinton followed the example of Barre and abandoned Somalia to its fate. That, predictably, turned out to be a few years of mayhem as Aideed, followed by his son – ironically, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran — Hussein after the father’s 1996 assassination, attempted to subject other warlords to their rule. It was not until the ISU, with its affiliation to al-Qaida, took control that Washington again began to take interest in Somalia. The determination of the United Nations to fix Somalia has fluctuated too, though the current secretary-seneral, Ban Ki-moon, has shown great resolve on this file, as he has with other seemingly intractable problems that cross his desk. To its credit too, the newly reformed African Union, with its greater emphasis on common purpose and responsibility than the old Organization of African Unity, has been consistent in attempting to provide the security the interim Somali government requires to survive and thrive. The AU governments have done this despite some significant losses in battle with both warlords and al-Shabaab, though the lavish amounts of money they get paid by the UN for deploying their troops is undoubtedly an inducement. For Canada, the Somalia experience was an unhappy one. We learned that we are not always nearly as nice as we think we are.
On March 16, 1993 two soldiers of the Airborne Regiment’s 2 Commando in Beledweyne near the border with Ethiopia beat to death a young Somali detainee, Shidane Arone. It had been known for a while – and was evident to visitors like me, who went on patrol with them – that 2 Commando had a discipline problem. After an exhaustive inquiry, the regiment, made up of three commando units, was disbanded. Soon after, the remnants of the Airborne Regiment became part of the new special operations unit, Joint Task Force 2. Canada’s special forces are now on the ground in Iraq, directing air strikes against Islamic State fighters.
After my first foray into Somalia in the days after Barre’s ouster I went back many, many times, sometimes with journalist colleagues, sometimes alone. When possible I flew in with aid agencies going in and out of Mogadishu or the southern port city of Kismayu. When that wasn’t possible I’d go to the domestic Wilson Airport in Nairobi at around six in the morning. That’s when the drug traffickers loaded up their small planes taking to Somalia that day’s consignment of the cocaine-like opiate khat, grown in Kenya’s Rift Valley. The pilots were often happy for the company of a passenger in the six-hour flight. But moving from the desert airstrips after arrival was often difficult.
I had been through many wars at that point, and one usually could judge how stupid one was being. After a little experience of front lines one could judge whether the story was worth the risks one was taking. But in Somalia, one never knew. It was the only war in which I routinely hired armed bodyguards. It was impossible to move anywhere without them. At least one journalist was shot and killed by the men whose offer to protect him he’d just rejected. But even with bodyguards there was no guarantee of survival. As happened several times, one could go around a corner and find that one’s bodyguards were from the wrong clan and out of their territory. I lost a few friends and colleagues in firefights that came from such misadventures. For myself, I am lucky beyond belief to have survived Somalia with only five bolts holding on my right foot as mementos.
Copyright Jonathan Manthorpe 2015
Facts and Opinions is an online journal of select and first-rate reporting and analysis, in words and images: a boutique for slow journalism, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O performs journalism for citizens, funded entirely by readers. We do not carry advertising or solicit donations from foundations or causes. Thank you for your patronage. Please tell others about us.