Somalia: Do We Know What We're Doing in Somalia?

3 January 1993
African News Service
opinion

To many Somalis, it is puzzling that the United States has decided to rescue them, when there are so many homeless Americans. Somalis also wonder why the United States has been willing to send troops to save civilians from violence in Somalia - but not in Sudan or Liberia or Angola. Hence, there is a great search for ulterior motives.

Some wonder if President Bush is trying to set President-elect Clinton up for a fall. Or if he is responding to moderate allies in the Middle East who fear the growth of Islamic fundamentalism in Somalia. Maybe the military is being retooled to be nicer, gentler and more useful. Or more cynically still, Somalia might be just an experiment.

Now that the Communists are no longer good foils for low-intensity conflict, perhaps the new rhetorical shield behind which U.S. leaders will safeguard America's position as world superpower is the protection of innocent civilians. Indeed, the type of warfare we may be forced to wage in the future could very well begin with humanitarianism serving as the thin end of the wedge, as countries around the world dissolve, and power blocs wielding weapons threaten the powerless. Certainly, Somalia - a "poor," "backward" country at the edge of Africa - would seem an excellent place to practice this new form of aggressive intervention. The situation in Somalia offers an entire country in which to practice drawing the lines of new world order.

Even if both Bush and Clinton are being forthright that humanitarianism is their only aim, they still are misleading the American people. After all, how is it possible to reduce a situation that has taken years to unfold to the simplistic solution of feeding the starving?

For example, automatic weapons have become the staff of life throughout northeastern Africa, vital to both acquiring and protecting property. It is hard to imagine U.S. or UN troops being able to disarm Somalis without also demilitarizing Ethiopia, northern Kenya, and southern Sudan. Merely setting up security zones in portions of Somalia will do nothing more than keep starving people in one place, away from the land they need to sustain themselves.

We should be facing up to the question of how long the Somali masses will have to be fed. Most of those starving in the south are farmers, who have been unable to plant their crops due to fighting. A further complication is that the agriculturists also happen to be marginal people in Somalia's political/military lexicon. Despite the rhetoric of one ethnicity, one language, one culture and one religion, many of these farmers come from different ethnic roots and speak a different language than the people toting the guns. If all the farmers vanished, the currently feuding factions would hardly be inconvenienced. To the contrary, the new power elite would have more land for itself. This raises a sticky question for Operation Restore Hope: Will the farmers who populate the feeding camps be able to reclaim their former property? And if they are, how will they do it, given the decimation of entire villages and the dismemberment of so many families?

Clearly, one problem in Somalia feeds into and compounds the next, although looming over all of them is the issue of how to rebuild, restructure and re-govern the country.

Ironically, this is precisely what the West said it was doing prior to Siad Barre's demise. After all, the World Bank was restructuring Somalia's economy, rebuilding Mogadishu's port and resurfacing vital roads. The United Nations fed Ethiopian refugees and stabilized sand dunes. The United States promoted privatization, commodity production and better finances. The Finns, the Norwegians, the Germans, the British and others all were purportedly doing good works.

Somalia is in the limelight today largely because the country's leadership was unusually adept at inflating Somalia's geo-strategic value well beyond its actual worth. Money poured into the country and the resultant assistance-fed inequity bred opposition and led to the breakdown of order and subsequent famine.

Nor were independent aid agencies an innocent force for progress. Their dollars, hiring practices and projects fueled corruption. Today, new representatives from the same organizations have hired armed protectors and paid extortionate prices in order to be able to stake out their turf and once again ply their business of aid.

The departments of State and Defense might claim over and over that the United States is not going to be in the business of deciding Somalia's political future. Nevertheless, just as large swaths of Somalia are lawless due to absence of government, once the United States imposes law and order it will have formed a sort of de facto government. Somalis, it seems, understand this connection between law and order and government better than America's leaders. They also understand the geography of Somalia. If the "technicals" can't roam throughout the south, then the relatively calm northeast and north will beckon. Will that cause the U.S. cavalry to remount?

While some Somalis might seek conspiracies where none exist, the fact that the military officials in charge of Operation Restore Hope can't allay their fears suggests that both sides should be worried about a lack of understanding.

Yet, it is the Americans in media, the administration and foreign policy think tanks who may be most dangerously amiss - disregarding recent history, badly underestimating Somalis and, even worse, not even considering how confused our help may be.

Anna Simons is a professor of anthropology at the University of California, Los Angeles, who has done field research in Somalia.

From AFRICA NEWS, December 21, 1992-January 3, 1993

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