Somalia and Yemen

Stories about the Palestinian suicide bomber and the Nigerian who tried to blow up the U.S. Air flight stir memories of young men I worked with in several trips to Somalia several years ago. This was before terrorism and modern-day piracy. Many of them pleaded to leave with me–an impossibility for many reasons–and others asked me to carry their school records, letters of application, or other documents to the U.S. and some tried to exact a pledge that I would assist them to leave the country and enter a college in U.S. When I see the young pirates now menacing shipping in the Indian Ocean, I wonder how many young, uneducated Somali men have found pirating and other illicit means of employment a desirable alternative to the un-ending turmoil of anarchic Somalia.

A recent report from Kenya details a boom in construction and skyrocketing housing prices in that country due to an influx of Somali money, the proceeds of pirates looking to invest in a more stable economy. And other reports bring tales of more dangerous results.

A story about Yemen’s role as a training ground for terrorists states that "the Somali problem is merging with the Yemen issue." Yemen is a poor country torn by internal division and led by a corrupt government. The  report says 200,000 Somalis have migrated to Yemen, adding even more potential recruits for terrorist actions and certainly adding to the population of the economically disadvantaged.

Another story opens with the claim that  a decade after the bombing of the USS Cole, deep mistrust between Yemen and the U.S., plus a lack of political will to deal with Al Queda, has allowed the organization time to rebuild and regroup in Yemen. The two stories contribute to  a holistic view but probably could offer even deeper context.

Several factors contribute to the wasting of opportunity for these young people. The deterioration dates back decades and is rooted in the way Somalia was created as a nation by European negotiators. Land use patterns and tribal differences were not managed by the Somalis in the same way Europeans manage nation-states but the European governance model was imposed on the territory never the less.

In the post-colonial era a strong-arm government held competing tribal interests together after a fashion but insurgency and open warfare with its neighbors kept Somalia in a state of instability.

The superpowers in the Cold War played Somalia and Ethiopia against one another, and at one point Russia and the U.S. flipped sides and created alliances with their former enemy states. Siad Barre , a military officer, toppled the government and ruled by dictate until his government fell under its own corrupt weight. After the Cold War Somalia seemed so remote and inconsequential it slipped from world  attention until famine brought international response and the presence of the U.S. military.

Rule by warlords, regionally powerful tribal leaders who constitute their own militias and rule by force illustrates the lack of any social or political capacity to pull Somalia together. Many creative and street-savvy Somalis are working to make life better. But they labor in one of the most unique social situations I can imagine. This fragmented power contributes to on-going instability.

The absence of a formalized civil society means a generation of Somali young people have known rule by force and tribal governance but not standardized education nor elected leadership or governance. The Somali migration from one of the poorest countries in the Horn of Africa to one of the poorest in the Middle East is telling.

The long-term neglect of human well-being and internal tribal fighting in Somalia is now manifesting itself as a threat to global security. Corruption, tribalism and economic neglect are paying dividends to terrorists. A population of young Somali males is a recruiting pool for terror.

Right now options for people of good will are limited. The World Food Program has suspended operations in the southern Somalia due to armed conflict. However, the world can learn from Somalia. Hunger and lack of development breed instability. This opens the door for those who seek political control by manipulating unstable conditions. We can encourage the Obama administration to support the Global Hunger and Food Security Initiative as one means of prevention, and a proactive step toward preventing instability elsewhere. Other  options for dealing with Somalia seem limited to peacekeeping and diplomacy.

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