In 2016, Somalia was declared the most fragile state in the world – worse off than Syria. Famine struck yet again in 2017, compounded by President Trump’s attempt to ban Somalis from entering the US. But for the first time since 1991, when Somalia collapsed along with its one-time ally, the Soviet Union, Somalia now has functioning political institutions.
Dual US-Somali citizen Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo became president in February 2017, approved by the US, refugees are returning from the US, Canada and Europe, and remittances from them buttress the economy. Just to make sure Farmajo knows who’s really in charge, Trump ordered an air strike on suspected militant bases in April 2017, near the Bab el-Mandeb strait choke point separating Yemen from Eritrea, boasting it killed 150 Shabab fighters.
The 1980s were a monstrous decade. We are still living out the disasters that the Cold War and the US war to prevent ‘the advance of socialism’, which had been on the books since the end of WWII, and was reaching its logical conclusion by then. After two world wars, everyone expected peace, and the vast majority — socialism. No such luck. Hundreds of coups in the 1950s — 60s orchestrated by the CIA kept most countries toeing the imperial line. But after Vietnam, for a few shining moments in the 1970s, there was a shift by a slightly sobered America.
The world breathed a sigh of relief. Somalia was prospering, free of British shackles, not yet embraced by the US. Ethiopia had a Nasser-like military coup in 1974 promising socialism next door. Sudan was at peace and pursuing a Nasserist policy under Colonel Gaafar Nimeiri. But the region was beginning its ‘time of troubles’, soon experiencing the fallout of its century of imperialism with a vengeance.
British, French, Italian ‘Scramble’
Somalia, a country of 12.3m, has one of the most illustrious histories among Muslim states, prosperous for thousands of years as a trading nation perched on the strategic Horn of Africa, an early convert to Islam. As with all of Africa, it went into sharp decline in the late 19th century, after the Berlin conference of 1884, when European powers began the “Scramble for Africa”.
In the last heroic resistance to imperialism, the Dervish leader Mohammed Abdullah Hassan rallied support from across the Horn of Africa and began one of the longest colonial resistance wars. Hassan emphasized that the British “have destroyed our religion and made our children their children” and that the Christian Ethiopians in league with the British were bent upon plundering the political and religious freedom of the Somali nation. While all other Muslim states fell to Christian invaders, Somalia held out.
Hassan acquired weapons from the Ottomans and Sudan. But the Ottoman caliphate collapsed, and Churchill was free to use the new airplanes in 1920 to bomb the “mad mullah” and Somali forces, just as he was doing in Iraq. It took four invasion attempts before Hassan’s Dervish state was defeated, and territories turned into a British ‘protectorate’.
The 1920s — 30s were a busy time for Britain in the Muslim world. Somalia was every bit as strategic as Palestine, and British schemes for both proved to be time bombs which still are plagued by and plague the West. Britain ceded most of the present territory of Somalia to Mussolini in 1925 as a reward for the Italians having joined the Allies in WWI. The British retained control of the southern half of the partitioned Jubaland territory, which was later called the Northern Frontier District, and the northwestern province Somaliland, which declared independence in 1991, and is now a member of the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization. Italy administered central Somalia after WWII, until independence in 1960. French Somaliland (Djibouti) stayed with France till 1977, just too convenient strategically to give up, and is now the headquarters of the US AFRICOM regional military command.
Italy proved to be the most helpful of the lot to Somalis, providing education and otherwise preparing Somalis for independence, and are now remembered more or less fondly. Italian was the lingua franca till 1970s, there being no Somali alphabet and the population illiterate till independence. The British did nothing, and created the conditions for endless regional war by giving the predominantly Somali Muslim Ogaden plateau to (largely Christian) Ethiopia, and another Somali territory to (largely Christian) Kenya. At the same time, of course, it was preparing to bequeath Muslim Palestine to (European) Jews.
In all three cases, Muslims were treated as second rate, of no use to the imperialists, as they would never abandon Islam and join in imperial schemes. The British set the stage for Somalia to fail without colonial ‘guidance’. To be fair, Britain (and France) were just doing what the new masters, the US, demanded in the 1950s, shaping up Africa to meet its own needs, so the blame must be shared today.
Socialism vs clanism and nationalism
Given its handicaps, Somali independence was bitter-sweet. After a halting start, a military coup put Siad Barre (1910–1995) in the presidency from 1969–91. Like Lumumba in the Congo, Nkruma in Ghana, and Nasser in Egypt, Barre took the Soviet Union and socialism as the template for development. Volunteer labour harvested and planted crops, and built roads, hospitals and universities. Almost all industry, banks and businesses were nationalized, and cooperative farms were set up. A new writing system for the Somali language was also adopted, and Somali replaced Italian as the language of the public sphere.
Although his government forbade clanism and stressed loyalty to the central authorities, Barre’s dictatorship became a hostage to his own clans. Even so, it was popular, presiding over a vibrant economy and stabilized by egalitarian economic policies. Portraits of him in the company of Marx and Lenin lined the streets on public occasions, though he did not promote a personality cult. He advocated a form of scientific socialism based on the Quran and Marx, emphasizing Somalia’s traditional and religious links with the Arab world, eventually joining the Arab League in 1974. That same year, Barre also served as chairman of the Organization of African Unity (OAU), the predecessor of the African Union (AU). The mid-1970s were halcyon days for Somalia. Barre was the Soviet Union’s poster child, not so willful, it seemed, as Egypt’s Nasser, and not (yet) toppled like Lumumba and Nkrumah.
But storm clouds were on the horizon. In the late 1970s, buoyed by Somalia’s success, fed up with a corrupt (Christian) government under the aging Emperor Selassie, and inspired by the Ethiopian revolution, the Western Somali Liberation Front in Ogaden, began a campaign for union with Somalia. Rebels wanted Islam and socialism, emulating liberation movements throughout the colonial world. Their plea for help was heard, and in July 1977, the Somali national army marched into the Ogaden, capturing most of the territory, welcomed by the native Somalis, but attracting the ire of the entire international community.
This was at the height of detente, and the Soviet Union was playing more-or-less by the implicit rules of detente — 1/ don’t provoke revolution or civil war, but help friendly regimes. 2/ ‘Socialist countries shouldn’t invade other socialist countries. The Soviet Union was forced to chose between Barre and Mengistu, both socialists. It joined the international outcry against Somalia’s occupation of the Ogaden, though Ethiopia was wracked by civil war and Mengistu had no friends.
The invasion was reversed, and the US was able to take advantage of the crisis, and cultivate Barre as a useful ally, shunned by the Soviet Union. Only a year later, in 1979, abandoning detente and following ‘great game’ rules, an eerily similar scenario would play itself out in Afghanistan. This time the US chose to side with the mujahideen against the Soviets.
Though Barre was a pariah, he became ‘our pariah’ by 1980,* along with the Afghan mujahideen. Instead of working with the Soviets in Africa (pushing Barre out of his ‘greater Somalia’) and in central Asia (stabilizing the now socialist secular regime of Babrak Karmal to fight the Muslim extremists), the US under Reagan launched old-fashioned war and subversion of anything that was socialist, leaving only rubble and terror in Somalia, Ethiopia and Afghanistan, which continues to plague the world.
* Barre was ousted in 1991. Barre’s Ethiopian nemesis, Mengistu Haile Miriam, was also ousted in 1991, both victims of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Barre died in political exile in Nigeria in 1995. Mengistu lives in Zimbabwe.
• First published in Crescent International