The famine gripping Somalia is no “natural disaster”. Even leaving aside the question of what impact man-made climate change has had on the frequency of drought episodes (now recurring every three years or so, a far cry from the predictable decennial droughts that afflicted the region half a century ago), or the knock-on effects of deforestation (as foreign demand for charcoal accelerates the destruction of trees), the instant translation of that drought into a massive and cruel famine can only be explained by the complete social and economic devastation wreaked upon Somalia over many decades by imperialism.
How did Somalia get here?
In the early years of her independence, Somalia struggled hard against a legacy of clan conflicts bequeathed by colonial rule, rendering the country vulnerable to neo-colonial manipulation. After Siad Barre came to power in 1969 strenuous efforts were made to overcome clan divisions, unify the nation and achieve economic independence. Most major industries, farms and banks were nationalised, discrimination by clan was outlawed and a number of cooperative farms and factories were established. On the cultural front, a standardised writing system was introduced for the Somali language. It was taught in all schools and all government employees had to speak and write it. This was designed both to stop those equipped with the old colonial languages (English or Italian) bagging all the best jobs and to promote national identity over tribal identity. Great efforts were also made to deal with environmental problems, including a massive tree-planting scheme to slow the advance of desertification and, in the mid ’70s, a Soviet-assisted airlift of drought-stricken nomadic families to more viable fishing and farming settlements.
Such progressive developments as these began to unravel in 1977 when unresolved border disputes between Somalia and Ethiopia were manipulated by imperialism into a war in the Ogaden. Somalia’s mistaken policy of annexation weakened her armed forces, wrecked her economy and lost her the support of the Soviet Union. With its gaze fixed on Somalia’s strategic importance at the mouth of the Red Sea, the US naturally posed as Somalia’s friend and saviour, over the next decade pumping in about $100 million a year in economic and military aid. The rest followed a familiar pattern: IMF loans accompanied by “structural adjustment”, other shotgun “agreements” with the Paris Club and the International Development Agency, culminating in an economic collapse in 1990 which set the scene for Barre’s overthrow the following year.
With the central authority gone, Somalia descended into a civil war fought out between rival clans. When in 1993 Clinton tried to shape the outcome of the feuding in a manner favourable to the US, sending US Army Rangers in to settle accounts with General Aidid, the relatively poorly equipped Somalis took heavy losses but were able to inflict humiliating reverses on the imperialist forces, most famously downing a Black Hawk helicopter gunship. The US withdrew with burned fingers from a conflagration it had helped to stoke up, for the moment restricting its meddling to covert CIA operations backing this or that warlord.
Impotent to establish a stable proxy regime to serve its interests, Washington understandably took no comfort when Somalis seemed to be on the way to achieving a stable government of their own. A number of groups coalesced to form the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) and took Mogadishu, defeating the CIA’s pet warlords and bringing a degree of stability and order to the war-ravaged country. Enraged by this display of independence, in 2006 imperialism again set Somalis and Ethiopians at each other’s throats, prevailing upon its pliant regime in Addis to inflict bloody war on its neighbour and tip Somalia back into the nightmare of civil war. In place of the ICU, the “international community” (imperialism) attempted to impose its own rootless “Transitional Federal Government” (TSG).
Yet all that imperialism has achieved by paying Ethiopia to smash the ICU alliance is to drive into new prominence one strand of it, Al Shabaab, which reportedly now controls all of Mogadishu bar the roughly 30 square miles of territory clung onto by the TSG. Al Shabaab is commonly recognised as the real government and would rapidly take power were African Union forces (9,000 strong) to be withdrawn. (see interview with investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill posted on 13th July on Democracy Now website, www. democracynow.org)
Playing politics with starvation
A country that has been deprived of any civil peace and stable government by the repeated meddling of imperialism over a period of decades, a country whose economy has been destroyed by IMF loan sharks, a country whose fishing industry has been wiped out by giant factory ships deployed by monopoly capitalist poachers, and whose fishermen have been transformed into pirates, is not well-equipped to deal with the consequences of major drought. Whilst the drought is, in some measure, a natural phenomenon, the famine is entirely man-made: the consequence of the decades of imperialist meddling which have effectively sabotaged any hope of peace and order for the Somalis.
Now to add insult to injury, US imperialism has chosen this time of immense human suffering to play politics with food aid. Even the United Nations, criminally pliant to imperialist interests though it has become since the demise of the Soviet Union, has offered some mild criticism of US behaviour in face of this humanitarian crisis. Whilst it is blindingly obvious to everyone in Somalia that the TSG is a legal fiction and Al Shabaab is in many areas the sole governmental authority, Washington has been refusing to send any assistance to any communities where Al Shabaab has influence – i.e. most of the country. According to the Huffington Post on 21st July, Mark Bowden, the head of the U.N.’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Somalia said that Western nations should set politics aside and concentrate on getting aid to the nigh-on four million at risk of severe malnutrition. Bowden added, “The risks involved with working with al-Shabaab have been a matter of considerable discussion here. No operation in Africa, and particularly Somalia, is risk free, but what we’re saying is that donors have to share some of the risk that organizations already working there are dealing with.” Bowden further noted that since the US stopped delivering aid to al-Shabaab areas two years ago, it has slumped from number one donor to about seven or eight in line. The Somali people, pauperised by IMF “assistance” in the ’80s, are now condemned to starve as punishment for their lack of enthusiasm for the joke “transitional government”.
Under the spotlight, USAID chief Steinberg pretends to be looking for a way to send aid that won’t infringe US law, lamenting that this can only happen if the UN “tell us affirmatively” that aid workers will come to no harm and won’t have to deal with Al Shabaab – in the middle of a civil war and under circumstances where in many areas Al Shabaab will be the sole administrative presence capable of organising aid distribution! Small wonder that, as the Huffington report notes, “The U.N., and OCHA in particular, have long made little secret of their frustrations with the American approach to foreign humanitarian aid and the country’s self-imposed restrictions on working with groups that have been designated as terrorists. ‘He’s been frustrated for a long time,’ Stephanie Bunker, a spokeswoman for OCHA in New York, said of Bowden… ‘He is the humanitarian coordinator for this country, he’s trying to coordinate the aid and he hasn’t had enough aid to coordinate.’”
Secret war continues
In the Democracy Now interview Jeremy Scahill makes it clear that US imperialism does not rely on the weapon of starvation alone in its struggle for domination in the region. There have been several US strikes inside Somalia in recent weeks, including one on 23rd June targeting an alleged Shabaab convoy, where Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) forces went in after the butchery to collect the slain. On 6th July there were three more US strikes in Kismayo district, and this time JSOC boots were on the ground, directly conducting operations.
In Mogadishu itself evidence has emerged that the CIA is running both a covert “anti-terror” headquarters and an underground prison to hold Somalis suffering rendition from Kenya and elsewhere. Yet despite the CIA’s efforts to train up mercenary Somali forces to conduct operations against Al Shabaab, this has so far proved a dismal failure. An attempted operation against an Al Shabaab stronghold of Mogadishu late in 2010 ended in disaster, with the Somali agents getting wiped out. Since then the mercenaries have shown a marked reluctance to repeat the experience.
In a pattern that is starting to be sickeningly familiar to imperialism, every effort at brutal suppression of its enemies simply brings new enemies to the fore, as ever more of the world’s masses are brought into the struggle against imperialism. In Somalia imperialism has never flinched at stirring up internecine wars, sabotaging national economic development or trying to turn Mogadishu into a new Guantanamo. Washington is now plumbing new depths, using the weapon of famine to force Somalis into neo-colonial submission. Yet at every turn on its brutal and cynical path imperialism encounters new enemies, as ever wider sections of the masses are drawn into battle. This confirms again the truth of Mao’s dictum, that imperialism behaves like a fool who picks up a rock to crush his enemy, only to drop it upon his own feet.