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One intervention after another

Why Somalia has no national state

Published Jan 7, 2007 8:57 PM

Almost every description of Somalia to appear in the corporate U.S. media over the last 15 years or so has included the words “anarchy,” “lawlessness” and “failed state.” What they don’t say is that there has been no functioning national state in this period because the Somali people have refused to accept puppet regimes forced on them by the United States.

Somalia is an arid, largely pastoral country whose grasslands stretch along the east coast of Africa in the area known as the Horn. Imperialist treachery, subversion and military intervention have marked its history and left it in desperate shape.

When the European capitalist powers carved up Africa in the 19th century, the Somali-speaking people who led a nomadic life along the Horn of Africa were divided up. Italy took the largest area and called it Italian Somaliland. Britain grabbed a piece, too, calling it British Somaliland. After World War II, these two imperialist powers withdrew their troops and the two territories united as Somalia in 1960. Like all former colonies, however, it remained dominated by Western capital.

Decolonization came with high hopes and promises. Somalia, like other former colonies, looked to the socialist bloc headed by the Soviet Union for development assistance, as well as to Western-based aid organizations. Mohamed Siad Barre, who became president after a military coup in 1969, called himself a socialist and for a number of years the Somali state played the major role in trying to develop the infrastructure and improve farming and livestock production. But a severe drought in the early 1970s created a crisis for this very poor country.

While hundreds of thousands were dying of famine in nearby Ethiopia, at that time under the rule of Emperor Haile Selassie, the USSR helped Somalia save lives by airlifting 90,000 people from the drought-stricken areas of the north to the south. But the economy continued to be in deep trouble.

U.S. pitted Somalia against Ethiopian Revolution

By 1974, a revolution in Ethiopia had Washington very worried. The Pentagon had a very important air base there called Kagnew from which it launched spy planes to monitor the whole Middle East. It had kept the semi-feudal Selassie regime in power with large amounts of military equipment and training. But the famine exacerbated the class struggle inside Ethiopia. Peasants began taking over land and expelling the landlords; city workers and students carried out strikes and demonstrations against the monarchy.

By 1974 this mass uprising had reached into the military. A council, called the Derg, was formed of mostly lower-ranking officers. It overthrew Selassie, abolished the autocratic Crown Council that had run the country and began to nationalize all land, banks and the small industrial sector. As the Derg moved to the left, top generals who had come from the aristocracy were removed; some were killed in actual gun battles that erupted in the large meetings of the council. Mengistu Haile Mariam, who came not from the aristocracy but from a national minority that had once been their slaves, became head of the Derg.

The U.S. government, both openly and covertly, made overturning the Ethiopian Revolution a priority in the region. Its strategy was to break up Ethiopia by encouraging internal secessionist movements and the territorial claims of its neighbors.

The U.S. made overtures to the Siad Barre regime in Somalia, whose resources had been exhausted by the drought. The editor of Newsweek, Arnaud de Borchgrave, revealed in the Sept. 26, 1977, issue of that magazine that the Somali president had received a secret message from President Jimmy Carter encouraging him to seize Ethiopian territory. The U.S. soon arranged $500 million in aid to Somalia from Saudi Arabia—a sum equal at that time to two years of Somalia’s gross national product.

Arms and money began pouring into Somalia, which soon attacked Ethiopia in the Ogaden, a province where most of the people were Somali-speaking. By 1978, revolutionary Ethiopia had been able to defeat the invaders with Cuba’s help but still faced another war in Eritrea and a landlord army backed by a consortium of reactionary regimes.

These wars drained the economies of both Ethiopia and Somalia. The full-court press against the Ethiopian Revolution, while it did not restore the monarchy, did lead to the overthrow of Mengistu in 1991, at the same time that the USSR was being broken up.

After that, the U.S. had little interest in aiding Somalia.

Siad Barre was by this time discredited at home and was overthrown that same year by Mohammed Farah Aidid, who refused to take his orders from Washington. The U.S. posture toward Somalia became increasingly hostile. Toward the end of his administration, President George H.W. Bush announced he was sending U.S. troops to Somalia, but that he envisioned “no greater role for American troops than simply distributing aid.” (New York Times, Dec. 2, 1992)

But once the troops were there, their mission became clear. These highly trained soldiers, some the notorious U.S. Rangers and elite Delta Force commandos, did not come to deliver loaves of bread on the ends of their bayonets. They were there to remove Aidid and the forces around him and replace them with U.S. puppets. The U.S. troops began coming under fire.

‘Black Hawk down!’

Finally, on Oct. 3, 1993, heavily armed U.S. Black Hawk helicopters launched a major assault on downtown Mogadishu, the capital, firing from the air on a crowded marketplace. But resistance was fierce and a helicopter was shot down, leading to the deaths of 18 U.S. soldiers at the hands of an outraged population.

The intense anger of the Somali crowds showed that controlling the country militarily would be impossible. Bill Clinton, the new president, pulled U.S. troops out of Somalia in 1994.

What followed were years of internal warfare among rival clan leaders, some of them supported covertly by the U.S. This dragged the country down further and alienated the population from any officials who had the blessings of the West.

Finally an alliance of Islamic forces emerged with growing popular support and began organizing public services in more and more territory as they pushed back the militias of the clan leaders.

It was revealed last June by several news sources, including Reuters, Newsweek and the New York Times, that the CIA had been backing the clan leaders with money and arms, giving “counterterrorism” as its excuse for this new intervention. But as they lost ground, a struggle opened up within the U.S. foreign policy establishment and its secret police agencies, leading to admissions in the media about U.S. support for the “warlords.”

On June 8, 2006, when it had become clear that the Islamic forces were occupying a large part of the capital, Mogadishu, the Times reported that “the CIA effort, run from the agency’s station in Nairobi, Kenya, had channeled hundreds of thousands of dollars over the past year to secular warlords inside Somalia.” All this was in violation of a U.N.-declared international arms embargo on Somalia.

John Prendergast, who had worked in the State Department and the National Security Council during the Clinton administration, was one of those who criticized the failed U.S. strategy after the fact, saying, “This has blown up in our face, frankly.”

The Islamic alliance made progress this past summer and fall. When its fighters took Mogadishu and other cities, they were welcomed by huge crowds.

But Washington didn’t give up trying to control Somalia. It just changed its strategy. It began giving money, arms and advisers to the Ethiopian government, now headed by a U.S. ally, to attack the Islamic forces in Somalia. A major invasion began towards the end of December.

Ethiopian planes bombed Mogadishu as its troops swept down through the country. They shelled Kismayo, the Islamists’ last holdout, with heavy artillery. Within weeks, Ethiopian troops had taken Mogadishu and the Islamic forces had withdrawn in order to regroup.

The imperialist news media have shed no tears over this ruthless invasion by Washington’s Ethiopian allies. This is in stark contrast to their constant drumbeat of propaganda against Ethiopia during the years when it had a revolutionary government.

U.S. imperialism has once again intervened in the Horn of Africa, bringing suffering and chaos for the masses of people. Washington has switched sides several times, but always with the same objective: to keep this strategic area under its domination and cut down any national movement with popular support.

This is the real reason why Somalia has not been able to build a stable government.

Griswold visited Ethiopia twice in 1978. She witnessed large amounts of war materiel left behind by retreating Somali troops outside the ancient city

of Harar and met Cuban soldiers helping Ethiopia defend its border near Jijiga on the Ogaden plain.

E-mail: [email protected]