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Ill Winds Blowing in the Horn of Africa

“Nobody cares about Somalia, even if we die in our millions” Abdirahman Ali, a Somali 29-year old father of two, bemoaned in despair as he witnessed the death and suffering of his people.

Drought, famine, starvation, disease and war have been the unrelenting scourge of Somalia for many years.  Few are aware of the cataclysm which has an iron grip on the people of Somalia and even fewer understand that this is not just a natural disaster but one for which the United States bears significant responsibility.

According to Amnesty International: “The mortality rate for children under five in Somalia is estimated at 200 per thousand, an increase since 2010; there is one nurse or midwife and .5 medical doctors per 10,000 people.  The UN estimates that the number of people in humanitarian and food crisis in Somalia increased from two million to 2.4 million, representing 32 per cent of the Somali population in the first half of 2011.  One in every four children is estimated to be acutely malnourished.  The UN further reported in June 2011 that the number of people in food crisis in Somalia increased to 2.85 million.”

Successive American administrations, beginning with Jimmy Carter have coveted the potential for oil based on a number of geological surveys which indicate that there are substantial untapped reserves of oil in the Somalia Peninsula.  They also covet unrestricted access to strategic ports in the Indian Ocean and Red Sea, military installations abandoned by the USSR and a subservient government in Mogadishu.  In pursuit of these objectives, the U.S. has supported whichever group offered the optimal opportunity to achieve these goals, notwithstanding their human rights record.

Somalia gained its independence in 1960 and was considered a model democracy for Africa until tribal internecine warfare erupted and was finally squelched when Siad Barre took over as military dictator and President in 1969.

When Somalia’s Cold War ally, the USSR, abandoned Barre in 1977, America transferred its support from Ethiopia to Somalia and supplied Barre with weapons, military training and economic aid despite his egregious human right’s record.  In 1982, the U.S. supplied Barre with $14.3 million in military assistance.  American military assistance consisted of antitank weapons, air defense guns, small arms and ammunition.  In the following years, the U.S. gave military aid to Somalia totalling $21.2 million in 1983, $24.3 in 1984, $80 million in 1985, $40 million in 1986 and 37.1 million in 1987 (Library of Congress).

Barre’s rule was characterized by murder, persecutions, jailing and torture of political opponents and dissidents, relying on his National Security Service, Red Berets and American weapons to control and destroy any opposition to his regime.  Finally, domestic resistance led to the formation of rebel groups who succeeded in overthrowing him in 1991.  According to the UN’s Development Programme: “The 21-year regime of Siad Barre had one of the worst human rights records in Africa.”

In reaction to Barre’s persecution of their clan, the Hawiye formed The United Somali Congress (USC) in 1988 and were mainly responsible for Barre’s removal from power in 1991.  By that time, government ministries and institutions, schools and health facilities ceased to operate.

After Barre’s defeat, a clan-based civil war ravaged the country while Ali Mahdi and Mohamed Aidid battled for control of the government.  Aidid was not considered a viable candidate by the West due to a suspicion that he would not serve their interests.

By 1992, a war-torn and drought-ridden Somalia resulted in a deluge of refugees who fled to neighbouring countries.  An estimated 500,000 fled to Ethiopia, 300,000 to Kenya, 65,000 to Yemen and 100,000 to Europe.

After the defeat of Barre, the USC formed a provisional government with Mahdi serving as president.  Aidid opposed the rule of Mahdi and formed his own wing of the USC.  Opposition groups clashed with Mahdi protesting that they had not been consulted in the formation of the government.

The lack of a strong central government and the civil war resulted in Security Council Resolutions 733 and 746 authorizing a coalition of UN peacekeepers, UNITAF, to intervene, led by the U.S.  Its mandate was to ensure the distribution of humanitarian aid for famine relief and the establishment of peace.

In addition to these tasks the United States had another agenda which consisted of a mission to capture Aidid who had challenged the presence of UN and U.S. troops in Somalia.

On October 3, 1993, President Clinton ordered a force of Army Rangers and Delta Force operators to locate and capture Aidid resulting in a battle in Mogadishu that claimed the lives of 19 Americans and hundreds of Somali citizens.

Throughout the remainder of the 1990s, conflict and strife between rival warlords and their factions created chaos and exacerbated the humanitarian disaster.

In October 2004, Somali warlords in Kenya formed the TFG with funding from the CIA who feared that an Islamic government might gain control of Somalia, a very strategically located country.  The TFG with Abdullah Yusuf as its leader, formed the government in Somalia in the same year and was recognized internationally as the official government of Somalia.

Recognizing their inability to gain control of much of the country, their corruption and general incompetence, the U.S. government could only maintain them in power until they were defeated by an Islamic group, called the Union of Islamic Courts, in 2006.

A number of Islamic Sharia Courts were established in the chaos of the 1990s to administer justice in an attempt to maintain law and order.  In 2000, eleven of these courts united in an effort to become a political force and formed the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) with an agenda to eradicate clan rivalry and restore peace to Somalia. The UIC’s popularity and strength grew and by 2006, they controlled Mogadishu and the majority of Southern Somalia, forcing the warlords who controlled the TFG into retreat.

The UIC established a conservative Islamic state while squashing clan rivalry in order to promote stability and order.

Bush and his administration were not about to tolerate an Islamic government in Somalia for the ostensible rationale that it might harbour terrorist elements but, in reality, the U.S. was determined to gain control of Somali oil resources and strategic location.

The Bush administration planned an attack on Somalia through its proxy, Ethiopia but, at the same time, American forces were involved in the assault on the UIC along with US Navy warships and AC-1130 gunships which they used to shell “suspected” insurgents in villages near the Kenya border.  The purpose of the invasion was to bring about regime change installing the more American-friendly government-in-exile of President Abdullah Yusuf and the TFG.

Ethiopia’s U.S.-supported invasion of Somalia deepened an already devastating humanitarian crises to an egregious state of horror, suffering and death.   It triggered a civil war between UIC, Al-Shabaab, the radical wing of UIC, Ethiopian forces and the forces of the TFG.

Ethiopian forces indiscriminately shelled civilian areas in the capital and moved from house to house kidnapping hundreds of men who were transported by the truckload to unknown destinations.  Many citizens of Mogadishu sought refuge in the outskirts of the city where they lacked water food and shelter and where they were vulnerable to contracting cholera which was reaching epidemic proportions.

Exacerbating the crisis, America’s Joint Special Operations Command conducted clandestine operations from an air strip in Ethiopia.  In addition, U.S. attempts to bomb Al-Shabaab strongholds resulted in the deaths of innocent civilians.

According to UN estimates 600,000 people became refugees in 2007 and 800,000 in 2008.  Amnesty International reported on the horrific human rights abuses suffered by the refugees including killings, wounding and attacks on homes, schools and hospitals.  Recruiting of children by the TFG forces was detailed by Amnesty International in a report which reveals that: “The recruitment of children of armed groups is rife, and Somali refugees have described cases of individuals who have been killed, captured or threatened with death and forced to flee for opposing recruitment.”

UIC forces were losing city after city and by December 28, 2006, they were forced to abandon Mogadishu.  The moderate members of the ICU sought refuge in Eritrea and Djibouti where they formed the Alliance for the Re-Liberation of Somalia (ARS) in 2007.  Al-Shabaab, the radical wing, remained in Somalia to fight Ethiopian and TFG forces.

In January 2009, the TFG and ARS reached a unity agreement in Djibouti under the auspices of the UN after which the Ethiopian government withdrew from Somalia.  Following the agreement, parliament was expanded to include members of the ARS and Yusuf resigned as president.  Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed of the ARS was voted in as the new president.

Despite the new coalition government, which now included former members of the UIC, al-Shabaab continued their war against the TFG and against the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISON) which was created by the African Union.

In February 2011, AMISON and the TFG launched an offensive to drive Al-Shabaab from the capital but Al-Shabaab had gained control over most of the towns in Southern and Central Somalia.   Militias in Somalia supported by Ethiopia attacked towns controlled by Al-Shabaab in Southern Somalia.

As of June 11, 2011, the ongoing warfare has precipitated further humanitarian crises as 1.46 million people have been internally displaced and 750,000 have become refugees.

Clearly drought, famine and corrupt leaders contributed significantly to the humanitarian crisis but the intervention of the United States incalculably magnified the degree of suffering and death sustained by the people of Somalia.  Supporting Barre, the TFG and Ethiopian invasion  to advance American interests  has been very costly to innocent civilians in Somalia.

David Model is a Professor of Political Science and International Affairs
Seneca College, Toronto, Ontario.
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