Somalia: Intervention or Complicity?


November 26, 2008 18:32 | By Jake Lynch

What are we going to do about Somalia? A question, seemingly, now pushing its way up the agenda of foreign and defence ministries concerned at the antics of 'pirates', who recently added a tanker of Saudi oil to a haul already including a shipment of Russian tanks. They constitute a 'threat to global trade and prosperity', we're now being told, by making one of the world's key shipping lanes too dangerous for traffic.

It's a story that could have been made for reporting, from editorials about the heads being wagged sagely in Chancelleries of Europe, to intrigues over one-upmanship between the French, the Brits and latterly the Indians and, of course, tales of derring-do on the high seas. And, like many stories, it appears, many journalists regard it as 'too good to check', or at least to contextualise.

The free online dictionary defines a pirate as "one who robs at sea or plunders the land from the sea without commission from a sovereign nation". That could, indeed, apply to many who've plied the waters off Somalia, including fishing boats from EU countries, flying flags of convenience, who cut deals with illegitimate authorities in Somalia and effectively destroyed the local fishing industry, removing the main lawful form of livelihood from people's reach. The 'pirates' could quite reasonably say they have more right to the country's coastal waters, and any proceeds from trade in them, than many of those who are now 'intervening' to stop their activities.

Have a go at net-searching for news about Somalia and see how many times either or both of the words "lawless" and "anarchy" crop up in recent reports. Many date this state of affairs back to the moment when the regime of President Mohammed Siad Barre fell, in 1991. The US led a UN-mandated military intervention to restore order, the typical narrative goes on, only to withdraw after the 'Black Hawk Down' incident in which 18 elite Army Rangers were killed. Since then, according to the Daily Telegraph of London, "the country has been divided into a patchwork of fiefdoms, fought over by warlords". It is Somalia's "anarchy", the paper's Diplomatic Editor David Blair wrote, that has "turned it into a pirate kingdom".

Across town, the Guardian's Security Editor, Richard Norton-Taylor, reported on the EU plan to send an "armada" to the Gulf of Aden to "disrupt and tackle the scourge of piracy" - a ringing phrase from the UK's foreign minister, David Miliband. "Most European countries take the view that piracy is intrinsically linked to the economic and political crisis in Somalia, a failed state", Norton-Taylor continued.

And across the Atlantic, the New York Times brought readers news of a "drama on the night-time waters of the Indian Ocean" as the Indian Navy sank one suspect vessel and forced a pirate crew to abandon another.

One significant omission from such reports is any proper account of the home-grown attempt to restore order in Somalia: namely, the Union of the Islamic Courts and their rise from the mid-1990s to the point, ten years later, where they controlled most of Somali territory, an area including all the country's main cities and the vast majority of its population.

The aforementioned David Blair characterises this moment as proof that "radical Islamists have clearly identified Somalia as a target for expansion. In 2006", he continues, "an extremist group styling itself the Union of Islamic Courts captured Mogadishu and briefly controlled most of southern Somalia".

Isn't anyone curious about this highly unusual phenomenon - a country being taken over by judges? The Courts practised Sharia law, which, to many in the west, conjures up images of hands and heads being chopped off, but their popularity in Somalia was accounted for by their work in training hundreds of magistrates to use Sharia to adjudicate on property claims.

The "complex alliances, made and broken with bewildering speed" between rival clans, which Blair identifies as the nub of Somalia's problems, have caused countless families to spend years moving from one patch of Mogadishu to another. The legacy, of keyholders retaining the title of their houses in areas they had long vacated, was and remains a major obstacle to any prospect of peace. The UIC were the first and - so far - only group to come along and make any sort of inroads into this problem.

By this stage, of course, the 'war on terrorism' was in full swing, and an Islamic government emerging in a strategically vital country was evidently too much for Washington to stomach. Steve Bloomfield, in a feature article in my old paper, the Independent - filed months before the present excitement over piracy - recounts the US plot to train and equip the armed forces of neighbouring Ethiopia as a proxy army, since American public opinion would constrain any deployment of their own troops to the country.

As the Ethiopians invaded in December, 2006, "the US had given its approval for the operation and provided key intelligence and technical support", he reported. "CIA agents travelled with the Ethiopian troops, helping to direct operations" after months during which US Predator drones had been circling over Mogadishu, on reconnaissance. Bloomfield had talked to a US military training officer in Ethiopia who "gave the US embassy a list of weapons the Ethiopians could do with. 'They got what they needed'. He won't say what".

The United States has an Arms Export Control Act, which is supposed to limit weapons sales to countries using them for internal security, legitimate self-defence or to take part in UN peacekeeping missions. But this was, in fact, one in long line of examples of where the US intervened covertly, in order to transform a political problem into a military one. During the rise of the UIC, Somalia had a "transitional federal government", which basically did very little except sit on its hands at its HQ in the town of Baidoa. The proper role for the "international community" would have been to promote negotiation between the TFG and the UIC, but that was pre-empted by the Ethiopian invasion.

The results have been disastrous. Respected monitoring groups including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have queued up to condemn the egregious human rights abuses, war crimes in the form of area-bombing of villages and sheer all-round destructive force of this demarche, which has given Somalia the world's largest refugee population. Air attacks claimed by the US - and reported in the media - as successful missions to 'take out' top targets from 'Al Qaida' turn out, on closer inspection, to have been indiscriminate strikes on civilian areas.

The Islamic Courts movement has mutated into a militia group, Al-Shabab, which is carrying out an effective guerrilla war against the invaders. A report from the Senlis Council documents the political fallout from such episodes, comparing Somalia and Afghanistan, remarking: "The Taliban and Al-Shabab are successfully exploiting policy mistakes such as aerial bombings, ongoing poverty, and aggressive foreign military presence to the extent that they are increasingly viewed by local populations as representatives of their legitimate political grievances".

In so far as the 'piracy' problem is, indeed, connected to the political meltdown in Somalia, then discussing it as a question of what 'we' now intend to do, how we are going to intervene to "disrupt and tackle" it, obscures our complicity in getting this far. No-one in those Chancelleries of Europe raised a whisper of protest over the proxy invasion that dispelled any chance of a negotiated peace and a restoration of law and order, at least for the time being.

Back in 2001, I directed a series of discussions for journalists, titled, Reporting the World. We came up with a checklist for reporting conflicts, one of which was the following:

What is 'our' role in this story?

o Is the underlying or implicit message that 'these people will not be OK until our (benign) intervention, now in prospect'?

o Or does the report suggest that 'they would be OK, but for our record of (malign) intervention'?

o Is there anything in the reporting about interventions already underway, albeit perhaps undeclared?

o Is there any examination of the influence of previous or prospective interventions on people's behaviour?

o Does it equip us to assess whether more, or less intervention might represent a solution, or to discriminate between different kinds of intervention?

It's still a very salient template to apply to any analysis of reporting from the dramas on the high seas off Somalia today. The next time you see the country described as "lawless", remind yourself how and why it came to be that way.

Jake Lynch works for the Transcend Media Service