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The truth about Somalia

Why did US troops go into Somalia? Kenan Malik separates the facts from the fictions about American motives. Barry Crawford examines how the Western powers sowed the seeds of the conflict in Somalia

A land where millions starve while warlords pillage and kill. A country in which bandits and common criminals loot Western aid before it can reach those dying from hunger. A nation of anarchy in thrall to ruthless gunmen. These are the images of Somalia in the West. When US president George Bush announced that he was to dispatch 30 000 troops to guard aid convoys most people welcomed the move. 'At last somebody is doing something about it', was the general reaction.

In fact the picture of Somalia as a country which is being torn apart by warlords, and desperate for Western intervention, has been manufactured to provide a pretext for just such an intervention. Western intervention, far from solving the country's terrible problems, was responsible for causing them in the first place - and can only exacerbate Somalia's plight now.

Sudden concern

Somalia is certainly a desperately poor country whose economy has been destroyed, whose infrastructure is in tatters and whose population is haunted by hunger. But the whole country is not ravaged by famine and nor are two million people in danger of dying from starvation.

The famine is restricted to the south-west corner of the country. According to independent observers about 150 000 have died so far and another 100 000 are at risk, more from disease than starvation. All this amounts to a terrible toll of suffering. But the situation in Somalia is no worse than that in other parts of Africa - such as Angola or Mozambique - which for years have been ignored by Western journalists and politicians. The sudden concern about Somalia has little to do with the real sufferings of the people there.

Somalia is not in the grip of anarchy. Most of the country is relatively peaceful and stable. Central authority in Somalia has certainly collapsed. But this has been caused not by feuding 'warlords', but by American interference. The current civil conflict and fragmentation of the country are the direct consequences of America's political manoeuvrings in Africa during the Cold War (see box).

According to the Guardian's Martin Walker 'as much as 80 per cent of relief supplies are being stolen by the warlords'. But as Rakiya Omaar and Alex de Waal of the Africa Watch organisation have observed, the Save the Children Fund 'have distributed 4000 tons in Mogadishu without losing a single bag' (Guardian, 6 December 1992). Other relief agencies, they say, have lost between two and 10 per cent of supplies. The one organisation to suffer higher losses has been the United Nations. This is because, unlike the other agencies, the UN has ridden roughshod over local people and is widely regarded with suspicion and contempt.

Reagan explains

Why should the USA want to manipulate the facts about Somalia in order to justify an invasion? American intervention has nothing to do with Somalia itself. It is a result of the uncertain nature of the New World Order.

While the marines were on their way to Somalia, former US president Ronald Reagan admitted in a speech in Britain that the end of the Cold War 'has robbed much of the West of its common, uplifting purpose'. How could it find such common purpose again, asked Reagan. By uniting, he said, 'to impose civilised standards of behaviour on those who flout every measure of human decency' - and pointed to Somalia as an example.

This is the real reason for the US invasion of Somalia. Washington needs a 'common, uplifting purpose' which, like the fight against the Soviet 'evil empire', can be used to assert America's international leadership against potential rivals within the Western Alliance. Somalia, and the rest of the third world, has been set up as 'uncivilised' in an attempt to provide America with a new moral authority.

What we are witnessing in Somalia is not a humanitarian mission, but a new colonialism. It has become widely accepted that the West is morally superior to, and more civilised than, the third world. But the West is the cause of, not the solution to, the problems of the third world. And, however worthy the motives that inform the call for more Western intervention, the consequences for the peoples of the third world will ultimately be devastating.

The Americans might be able to show the world some quick pictures of marines handing food to hungry Somalis. But in the end, the record shows that Western intervention, motivated as it always is by great power politics, can only make things worse for those on the receiving end.

'The operation
stinks of arrogance.
All this bullshit about
80 per cent of food
being looted and all
that - it's all very
stage-managed by
the United States....
This whole operation
is a test case for
future conflict
resolution. It's as
if the US had a new
vaccine they wanted
to test. Now they
have found an
animal to test it on.'

United Nations official in Mogadishu, as the US marines came ashore on 8 December 1992

Made in the USA

Many commentators have emphasised that Somalia's problems are rooted in its past. Some claim that the Somalis' 'warlike nature' is an inherent racial characteristic; others identify tribal blood feuds which have been going on for more than a century. But the history which has really shaped the recent conflict in Somalia is that of European colonialism and American militarism in Africa.

By the end of the nineteenth century, European colonialists had divided the Somali people into British, French and Italian subjects. Britain also handed the million Somalis of the Ogaden region over to Ethiopia. The British and Italian regions were joined together in the republic of Somalia in 1960. But many Somalis remained divided under the rule of Ethiopia, Kenya and (until 1977) France.

The era of European colonialism left Somalis a legacy of poverty and civil strife. That legacy was built upon by the Americans during the Cold War.

General Mohammed Siad Barre seized power in Somalia in 1969, taking advantage of popular discontent with the ruling elites sponsored by Britain and Italy. In a bid to break the hold of the West, Barre declared Somalia a socialist republic and provided naval facilities for the Soviets. Meanwhile, Somalis fought against the French, Ethiopian and Kenyan authorities for a united Somalia.

By the late seventies, the Americans, having suffered setbacks in the third world after their defeat in Vietnam, sought to re-establish their global authority by launching a militaristic offensive which became known as the Second Cold War.

In 1977 president Jimmy Carter identified Somalia as one of six third world countries in which the Soviets looked most vulnerable. So Carter cut off all aid to Ethiopia, and encouraged Barre to believe that he would get US backing if he seized the Ogaden. When Barre duly invaded early in 1978, the Soviet Union switched its support from Somalia to Ethiopia, and Cuban forces helped drive the Somalis out. American national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski declared that US-Soviet detente 'lies buried in the sands of the Ogaden', and Somalia returned to the Western fold.

In August 1980, Barre signed a defence pact with the Carter administration which gave US troops access to the air and naval facilities at the Soviet-built port of Berbera. It became a key base for America's Rapid Deployment Force, and US aid flooded into Somalia.

Through the eighties, the USA under Ronald Reagan and George Bush funded and armed Barre's increasingly corrupt dictatorship. Any notion of uniting Somalis was buried by Cold War politics. Through Barre, the Americans manipulated and intensified ethnic divisions in Somalia. He used US dollars to buy allies, and US arms to keep down his enemies. Somalia became an American-built armed camp.

With the end of the Cold War, however, Barre became expendable. Since the USA no longer needed a proxy power to counter Soviet influence, it had no further interest in what happened to the Somalis. In 1991 America pulled out, the Barre regime fell and central authority collapsed. The divisions fostered under Barre now burst into war, and the country was split along the lines of the old Anglo-Italian carve up. In 1992, the Americans had the nerve to use the conflict caused by their policies as a pretext for re-invading Somalia and reasserting their global authority. Yet again, the Somalis have been caught up in Western intrigue.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 51, January 1993

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