Somalia and Anarchy

Somalia, which has existed for fifteen years
in a state of anarchy, has once again fallen into open street warfare that has
left 150 people dead in the past few days.


News reports tell of street fighting returning to Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia, the government-less nation that forms the Horn of Africa.

Given our penchant for global illiteracy in the United States this might seem remote and inconsequential. It isn’t. It’s an open invitation to terrorist training facilities on Somali soil, unchecked gunrunning and counterfeit operations from money to passports to anything else of value.

security services
and Western-
backed counter-
terrorism networks
are engaged
in a shadowy
and complex
contest waged
by intimidation,
abduction and
Crisis Group

I pity the poor Somali people who have survived in an environment of clan turf control under local warlords who operate neighborhood fiefdoms by maintaining heavily armed private militias.

It’s been a long haul for ordinary Somalis who simply want to live their lives in peace, go to work, get an education, and enjoy time with family and friends. They have not had it easy. They’ve contended with a civil society that functions under tenuous peace agreements between warlords. These agreements may enable people to enter one neighborhood or another, but when they break down Mogadishu and the countryside become a conglomeration of armed camps into which non-residents venture at risk of their lives.

Despite this they have created a remarkably well-functioning private sector. The difficulty is that they cannot build the wider infrastructure they need and that is properly the role of effective government. In peaceful times people move about and conduct their affairs with a degree of normalcy. But everyone who can afford it, from teenagers to adults, owns an assault rifle or other deadly weapon. When peace agreements are broken and tension escalates, it takes a tremendous amount of goodwill, caution and political expertise just to survive.

Why should this concern people beyond the borders of this strife-torn land? Because an ungovernable Somalia is outside the community of nations and alliances with any local warlord can enhance the capability of terrorists to conduct training on their turf; it’s an open territory for gun smuggling that continues to sustain insurgencies across Africa; and it’s a base of operation for pirates who menace shipping lanes along the Somali coast on the Indian Ocean.

The international community bears some responsibility for the neglect of nation-building in Somalia. The country was created by European colonial powers who partitioned Africa in 1884 at the Berlin Conference, disregarding land use patterns and clan distinctions. In the Cold War-era Somalia was a low-priority pawn in the tit-for-tat game the Soviet Union and the U.S. played in East Africa. When it appeared Somalia might sit atop oil reserves it received attention but as this proved to not be the case interest declined and the strong-arm government of Said Barre collapsed in 1991 under the weight of its own corruption. Somalia has been a lawless, anarchic state since.

There are credible, creative Somali leaders but they are subject to the entrenched warlords who exploit clan rivalries and keep the people divided. It’s a complex, highly conflicted situation in need of a great deal of partnership with the international community to enable social and civic development.

“…most people
are just
desperate to
be able to
go about
their daily
lives without
the fear
of being
killed by
a stray
BBC News

Given recent history there is only a glimmer of hope that a greater Somali nation will emerge. Clearly, the Somali people want this, but their current political leaders have not shown much ability to make this national wish happen. There have been effective small-scale development projects by non-governmental organizations from the U.S. and Europe that have made a difference in local communities. They are imperiled by lack of security, however.

Today, for example, the delivery of humanitarian aid is subject to confiscation by armed militias so that even the ability to meet urgent human need is tenuous. The Somalis need advocates similar to those who have been pressing the U.S. and Europe on behalf of the people at Darfur in the Sudan. There is a large expatriate Somali community in the U.S. and Europe but unlike Darfur there is no natural constituency such as Christian communities to connect Europeans and U.S. citizens to Somalis. Somalia is predominantly Islamic.

This should not be an issue. Human suffering is human suffering. What more needs to be said? The creation of a solid, responsible nation-state in present-day Somalia is an imperative as the world recognizes the danger that anarchy in this part of the world represents to all of us in this perilous time.

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