Saving Somalia? - reflections on the last 20 years, and the upcoming 'London
Conference' - By Richard Dowden
February 7, 2012
Foreign Minister William Hague visits Mogadishu in the build-up to the
London Conference on the future of Somalia
If I were a Somali I would thank Allah for the pirates. For more than 20
years the world has stood by while successive civil wars destroyed the
country, killing hundreds of thousands of people by bullets, disease and
starvation and reducing what was once a prosperous land to a war zone. But
the seizure of more than 200 ships by kids with guns in small craft has
changed all that. Britain, for whom shipping and trade around the Red Sea
and the Gulf are vital national interests, has decided to take action.
Pirates, the government has realised, cannot be stopped as long as their
land bases are not ruled by a government. But on land the government is
under attack from Islamic fundamentalists who are recruiting and training
terrorists. So a political solution must now be found for Somalia. So
declared William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, clad in flack jacket and
helmet, in Mogadishu last Thursday. The search will begin at a conference in
London on February 23rd. At last.
And what a conference it will be. Some 40 heads of government have been
invited to Lancaster House. This was where traditionally former British
territories negotiated their independence, but in a curious irony of
history, this conference will instead discuss the take-over of Somalia. At
least that is what the Italians, the former rulers of southern Somalia,
Somalia has been at war since the late 1980s when rebel movements fought the
government of Siad Barre. He fled, but then they fell out with each other
and the country broke up. The North West, the old British-ruled Somaliland,
re-established that state and declared independence. The rest of the north,
Puntland, is also relatively peaceful and rules itself but awaits the
re-establishment of a Somali state. So does some of the centre. But in the
south and the capital, Mogadishu, there have been only two periods of peace.
One followed the American invasion in 1992 after the first famine. But after
losing 18 members of special forces - the Blackhawk Down incident -
President Bill Clinton pulled out the US force and stopped supporting UN
peacekeeping there. Somalia was left to stew.
The second peace period was a few months in 2006 when a united mass uprising
threw out the warlords and their rapacious armies. Governance was taken over
by local Islamic courts which gradually formed themselves into the Islamic
Courts Union. For a few months people were able to walk the streets safely.
Peace reigned and trade and investment began to flow. But with US support,
the Ethiopians, who have no interest in a strong united Somalia, invaded,
broke up the courts and installed a warlord as president. The wars resumed.
The cost of neglect has been immense. According to a recent report from the
Center for American Progress, a Washington think tank, the death toll from
the wars is between 450,000 and 1.5 million and some 2 million displaced.
The accumulative cost of Somalia's collapse has been more than $55 billion,
including $22 billion from piracy. $13 billion has been spent on
humanitarian aid which is almost matched by
the estimated amount Somalis outside the country send back in remittances.
After the Ethiopians were forced to withdraw, the world handed Somalia over
to Africa. Never has the phrase "African solutions to African problems" been
used so cynically. Ugandan and Burundian troops under an African Union flag,
died protecting a few square kilometres of Mogadishu in the pretence there
was a government there to protect. There wasn't. The so-called government
lives in luxury hotels and apartments in Nairobi. According to a recent
audit of the Somali government in 2009 - 10, 96% - yes Ninety Six per cent!
- of direct bilateral assistance disappeared, presumably stolen by corrupt
politicians and officials. An official report by the UN Monitoring Group
said: "The endemic corruption of the leadership of the Transitional Federal
institutions. is the greatest impediment to the emergence of a cohesive
transitional authority and effective state institutions." But it is these
people who will be coming to Lancaster House on February 23rd. At the same
time we know that in much of Somalia there are very strong civil society
organisations led by highly respected men and women. They however will not
So perhaps the first thing this great conference should do is apologise to
the people of Somalia for ignoring their plight for so long. The second is
to usher Somalia's professional politicians into the garden or off to smart
hotels and bring in some Somalis who really represent the interests of the
country and its long-suffering people.
Richard Dowden is Director of the Royal African Society.
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Received on Tue Feb 07 2012 - 18:44:21 EST