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Foreign Intervention in Somalia: Panacea or Poison?

Sadia Ali Aden
Date Published: 
June 1, 2010

Today, central and southern Somalia are being ravaged by one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. Since US-backed Ethiopian troops invaded the country in late 2006, shattering months of peace and stability, the conflict has left more than 1 million people internally displaced and 3.5 million on the brink of starvation. Although armed resistance forced the withdrawal of Ethiopian forces in early 2009, Somalia still finds itself contending with the turmoil unleashed by this most recent foreign intervention. 

Foreign intervention in Somalia is not a modern phenomenon. Like many nations in Africa, Somalia has endured the greed of the European expedition to Africa.  After the 1884-85 Berlin conference, Western European powers sought to divide Somaliland, one of the most homogeneous regions of Africa, into British Somaliland, French Somaliland, Italian Somaliland, Ethiopian Somaliland (the Ogaden), and the Northern Frontier District (NFD) of British Kenya. The colonial division of ethnic Somali groups into the nations of Djibouti, Kenya, Ethiopia, and the Republic of Somalia sowed the seeds for ongoing regional unrest. 

The British during the colonial era unilaterally ceded the areas they termed “The Ogaden” to Ethiopia.  After Somalia declared itself independent in 1960, this contested territory served as a central factor in two wars fought between the countries in 1964 and 1977 and continues to remain a flashpoint, particularly with the activities of the separatist Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) and the recent discoveries of potentially large energy reserves in the region.

US and Chinese oil companies have expressed interest in prospecting for oil and other natural resources in Somalia. In fact, some scholars, analysts and African nationalists argue that the current round of foreign interventions throughout the African continent and the renewed suppression of the rights of certain ethnic polities to self-determination are merely guised efforts for a neocolonial re-conquest of Africa for its untapped resources, especially oil. 

Local Politics, Grassroots Initiatives and Foreign Intervention

In 1991, a combination of northern and southern clan-based militias, armed and supported by Ethiopia, ousted Somalia’s central government. While political groups and clan elders were able to bring about relative stability to the north-west and north-east (Somaliland and Puntland), the failure of southern-based militias to agree on an interim government gave rise to what has been two decades of civil war of alternating intensity. From 1992 to 1995, this fighting was broken by the UN-mandated and US-led Operation Restore Hope. The successful restoration of order came to an end with the infamous “Blackhawk Down” incident, leaving a vacuum for continued civil conflict.

Over the past twenty years, more than fourteen so-called reconciliation conferences, held in Ethiopia and other neighboring countries, have failed to pave the way for sustainable peace. For sheer political expediency, these conferences have generally focused on the distribution of parliamentary power based on a corrupt formula known as “the 4.5 formula.” Rather than facilitating peace and stability in Somalia, this formula has produced the internationally-recognized but weak Transitional Federal Government (TFG). Ironically, this power-sharing formula remains the most persistent impediment to peace, justice and equality since it legitimizes and generously rewards the warlords and their militias, who for nearly two decades have perpetuated violence, famine, and chaos and have tarnished the credibility of the Somali people and state.

Prior to the extension of the US “War on Terror” into Somalia, Islamic courts, largely confined to certain areas of Mogadishu, provided the only semblance of law and order at the sub-clan level. These courts emerged out of the post-1991 political vacuum, each court administering Islamic law (Shariah) in a separate district of the country. With varying interpretations of Shariah, these courts addressed everyday issues of justice, while maintaining its own militia that acted as a police force.

The warlords saw the rise of the Islamic courts as compromising their stranglehold on power and control. Although backed by the TFG, these secular warlords had preferred to maintain the status quo of the conflict, keeping the capital and surrounding areas divided into small fiefdoms and sharing the spoils amongst themselves. In response to the Islamic courts, they conspired to take advantage of the US”s post-September 11 concerns by branding the Islamic courts as terrorist entities.  These warlords were able to conflate US international interests with their own regional interest ultimately creating the US-backed Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism (ARPCT).

When the “Impossible” was Proven Possible

In early 2006, the CIA and the ARPCT began to cooperate on “counter-terrorism.” The ARPCT received funding in exchange for facilitating CIA “extraordinary renditions” that caused widespread fear and outrage. As the local population began to feel their religion and religious leaders were being targeted, the initial tolerance for these operations transformed into bitter resentment.

The unintended consequence of the actions of the ARPCT was the galvanization of religious leaders, ordinary citizens, and the Somali Diaspora community against its role in the CIA renditions.  Consequently, the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) came to the forefront of the Somali politics as part of a grassroots movement spearheaded by the people of Mogadishu who were eager to get rid of the warlords.

By the summer of 2006, open fighting ensued between the ICU and the ARPCT. Within a month, ICU forces had routed the ARPCT and claimed control of Mogadishu. Those who did not surrender fled to the city of Baidoa, the seat of the TFG. Within six months, the ICU-aligned militias had not only extended their control over most of southern and central Somalia, but had also reopened Mogadishu’s airport and seaport. For a brief period in 2006, it seemed that the ICU had the capacity to reunite Somalis under a functioning government.

The ICU afforded Somalis, particularly those in Mogadishu, a sense of hope, empowerment, and national pride that mobilized the locals to organize volunteer services to clean the city’s mountains of garbage and debris.  More importantly, after a decade and a half of lawlessness, they established a safe route for the delivery of food aid and ensured equitable distribution, and they established law and order to the point that Somali women of Mogadishu could leave their homes without the fear of being raped or robbed.  This grassroots victory over the CIA-backed warlords showed all the vital signs that could eventually save Somalia.

The Crushing of the ICU

Stripped of their power-base in Mogadishu, the only option the humiliated members of the ARPCT had was to throw their lot in with the exiled TFG. Reeling from this policy blowback and left with no other cards, the Pentagon decided to take the lead on containing this perceived “Islamist” threat by bolstering the TFG militarily through close coordination with Ethiopia. 

On December 26, 2006, Ethiopian ground troops invaded Somalia along with TFG troops assisted by US intelligence and aerial bombardment.  The pretext for the invasion was combating the perceived extremism and expansionist threat of the ICU.  However, chief among Ethiopia’s concerns was the lack of influence it wielded over the ICU, and the spillover effect the situation could have on Ethiopia’s own suppression of the armed, ethnically-Somali ONLF movement.

Within days of their incursion into Somalia, Ethiopian troops handed ICU forces a series of defeats in the center and south of country, and brought to an end to the six months of peace in Mogadishu. This initiative was carried out despite the warnings of many analysts that it would trigger violence that could exacerbate a volatile political situation and bring about in Somalia the world's worst humanitarian crisis. 

As these predictions came to pass, the world remained callous and silent. The State Department's top Africa official, Assistant Secretary Jendayi Frazer, haphazardly pressed the designation of ICU as “terrorists to the core.” More broadly, Ethiopia’s intervention destroyed all opportunities to build on the six-month period of peace, a time that the UK think-tank Chatham House called “the golden era of peace seen by the Somalis since the start of the Somali civil war.”

Even now, as Somalia’s humanitarian conditions worsen, the world is mesmerized with piracy off the coast of the country.  What is completely ignored is the reality that, despite the hefty amount of money that is being designated to fighting piracy, there is no chance of solving the piracy issue without first solving the absence of law and order in these areas and halting the ever-worsening political crisis in Somalia.  

While the Somali pirates are by no means the “Robin Hoods of the sea” as some occasionally project them, their presence has shed light on the inhumane crimes committed against the Somali people and the destruction of their environment. Throughout the years of civil strife, accusations that European and Asian countries had secretly dumped a wide array of nuclear and other hazardous waste along the Somali coast had circulated. Barrels of this waste even washed up on shore in the wake of the 2005 Asian tsunami.

Nick Nuttall, a spokesman for the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), told Voice of America that “there are reports from villagers of a wide range of medical problems like mouth bleeds, abdominal hemorrhages, unusual skin disorders and breathing difficulties.” Ahmedou Ould Abdallah, UN envoy to Somalia added: “I am convinced there is dumping of solid waste, chemicals and probably nuclear [waste]...There is no government [control] and there are few people with high moral ground.”

The Re-liberation of Somalia

Following their initial defeat by Ethiopian forces, the ICU joined in the Alliance for the Re-liberation of Somalia (ARS) to resist Ethiopia’s military occupation.  This Asmara-based alliance was composed of exiled TFG parliamentarians, ICU members, and other members of the Somali Diaspora.  While it lasted, this represented a broad coalition that served as a beacon of hope to many Somalis. After two years of fighting, its forces had regained control of much of southern Somalia, forcing Ethiopia to pull out by January 2009.

While losing the military upper-hand, Ethiopia resolved to mastermind the factionalization of the ARS into Hisbul Islam, Al-Shabaab, and the faction that joined in the UN-mediated peace talks with the TFG in Djibouti. Although these talks resulted in further splits within the ARS, they also allowed ARS representatives to be accepted within the TFG and former ICU chairman Sharif Sheikh Ahmad to be elected president of a new “unity government” of Somalia in January 2009. 

Nearly a year and a half later, Ahmed’s government is engaged in a battle with the al-Shabaab and Hisbul Islam factions, who feel profound contempt towards the government. They feel they were used to perform the “heavy lifting” of the fight against Ethiopia and later left marginalized from the political resolution between the ARS and TGF. On May 16, insurgents fired mortars in the vicinity of the Parliament building in Mogadishu, killing 15 people and wounding dozens. In addition to external threats, President Ahmed’s unity government continues to be mired in internal conflict. In mid-May, Ahmed replaced Prime Minister Omar Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke, a decision that he later reversed.

Ironically, the only effective protection the current government enjoys from the armed insurgents who dominate the south of the country is from the 5,300 foreign soldiers of the African Union mission in Somalia.

AFRICOM and US Intervention:

With its ability to finance joint development projects, China is currently investing in several African states such as Sudan, Nigeria, South Africa, Kenya and Tanzania.  East Africa plays an especially important role for China due to its much shorter transit routes and untapped or underdeveloped markets.

With the success that China has had in developing energy resources in Sudan, many in the West fear that China could duplicate this model throughout East Africa, providing the markets and critical natural resources to help China fully emerge as a global economic power. The rise of China in Africa has taught the West that it can no longer afford to ignore or neglect the continent.

These were some of the motives for the establishment of the first ever United States African Command (AFRICOM). On March 9, 2010 General Ward, commander of AFRICOM, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee speaking of the offensive by “the transition government to reclaim parts of Mogadishu,” stating, “I think it's something that we would look to do and support."

Clearly, a new gold rush of sorts is taking place in Africa. In the end, unless Africa, and Somalia in particular, are brought in as partners and gain tangible benefits, there will rise various indigenous movements that might even resort to extremism or terrorism against this new “scramble for Africa.”

Sadia Ali Aden is a freelance writer and a peace activist based in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area.  Sadia is the founder of the Diaspora Voice and the co-founder of Adar Foundation and the Somali Diaspora Youth. Currently Sadia is finalizing her medical program to become a medical doctor.