Posted on 27/10/2010


The recent dramatic rout of the U.S.-backed Transitional Federal Government (TFG) of Somalia’s forces in the Somali capital of Mogadishu by militias loyal to the al-Qaeda-linked al-Shabaab group and the latter’s ensuing rapid expansion into much of southern Somalia has caught the world by surprise.  Thus, the Islamists’ sudden rise as a force in the land to be reckoned with has alarmed the U.S. that Somalia might become “a haven for terrorists.”  Faced with the unwelcome prospect of an Islamic jihadist takeover in Somalia, America has rushed in with munitions and logistics to the tune of $5 m to bolster the tottering TFG, headed by interim president Sheikh Shariif Sheikh Ahmed (1)   Admittedly, 5m is peanuts by American standards, but it signals the beginning of a sliding slope–American advisors have a way of following American money for arms, a phenomenon that foreign policy wonks refer to as “Mission Creep” (MC).

The driving force behind the U.N-U.S. obsession to re-create a central government for Somalia is rooted in the West’s fear that: 1. stateless–and therefore, in their stated view, lawless–Somalia might become a “Nursery” for “Terror International,”  especially given the various cells of al-Qaeda-linked jihadists lurking in Somalia, and in the recesses of rogue nations, like nearby Yemen,  and 2. the global nightmare of Somali highwaymen on the high seas will end only when Somalia enjoys a government with sufficient resources to patrol its coastal lines. The former is especially urgent, they argue, in view of the fact that the al-Qaeda-connected-al-Shabaab Somali terrorists already control large swaths of Somalia, including much of the capital of Mogadishu.  Let’s speak to each of these concerns individually. 

First, the issue of restoring a central government for Somalia. The effort to re-create a Somali central government is already underway, with “MC” seeming to have ballooned into “Mission Go For It.”  The press and the Internet are abuzz these days with news reports of a coming massive international commitment to Somalia.  Led by the U.S., the new initiative forecasts committing enough financial resources to the rickety regime of the cleric Sheikh Shariif Sheikh Ahmed to reverse the steady losses it has lately suffered at the hands of al-Shabaab militants. (2)  Though the Sheikh’s government enjoys U.N. recognition, it merely controls a few streets of the capital of Mogadishu with the help of the 4,000-man force of Ugandan and Burundan peacekeepers.  The rest of southern Somalia–the largest part of the country–is in the hands of the al-Qaeda-linked radical al-Shabaab jihadists, from the port city of Kismayu in the extreme south close to the Kenya border to much of central Somalia. The new aid is designed to strengthen the Shariif government by raising a 10,000-strong police force along with arms and numerous kinds of logistical support. (3)  Units of the would-be force are, at the moment, being trained in neighboring countries, such as Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia and Djibouti. The aim is to eject al-Shabaab and restore a united Somalia with a central government.  I argue in a forthcoming book of mine that the world community’s new campaign to “fix” Somalia amounts to a “Fool’s Errand,” (this is the title of the book-to-be) and is destined to dismal failure. Herewith my reasoning.                                                       

The Definition of Insanity

An ancient Chinese maxim defines insanity as “doing the same thing in the same way and expecting a different outcome.”(4)  To judge by their attitude and approach to dealing with the insane, the Somalis may have been, unwittingly, channeling the Chinese proverb.  In the course of my fieldwork for a graduate study in early 1977, I arranged for an interview, in a suburb of Mogadishu, with the encyclopedic Oromo informant, Sheikh M. Daadhi, who was more Somali than the Somalis in his perfection of Somali language and culture.  During the interview we spotted in a nearby grove a rather wild-looking half naked man repeatedly emptying a can of sand into a bottomless barrel.  The man, scowling and cursing by turns, kept at his duties for the better part of a day, encouraged and egged on by a crowd of enthusiastic onlookers.  The more his labors went unrewarded, the more feverishly he increased the pace of his emptying, humming and hissing.   At long last he was so exhausted that he keeled over as stiff and as motionless as, to borrow a Twainism, a “carpenter’s workbench.” (5)  I inquired from the great Sheikh as to the meaning of the spectacle. Said he,

  “The idea is to over-exhaust the insane man’s agitated nerves into calmness.”  I asked,   “Does it work?”  He said, “It almost always does.”  He went on, “It is an effective therapeutic technique.”  

Thus do Somalis unknowingly dip into the Chinese psyche!  In nearly two decades, from “Operation Restore Hope” in 1992–when the U.N. fielded a coalition force 28,000 strong, the bulk of them representing the pick of American military might–to Embigathi, Kenya in 2004, the world came to the rescue of Somalia no fewer than 17 times to restore peace and tranquility to that unhappy country, and to resuscitate the moribund Somali central government–all to no avail, failure following failure higgledy-piggledy.  Operation Restore Hope itself ended in a military disaster when the late and unlamented General M. F. Aydiid (who ran me out of town in 1992, but this belongs to another narrative) turned on the U.N. forces and in June, 1993, slaughtered 23 Pakistani servicemen, their mutilated bodies dumped on the streets. And then on Bloody Sunday, October 3, 1993, Aydiid’s militia mauled a force of U. S. Rangers, killing 17 soldiers. The Clinton administration proceeded to pull out U. S. personnel, a move that was quickly followed by other nations.  As for Embigathi, it too ended in the embarrassing spectacle of Somali hildhibaans, or parliamentarians beginning to bash in each other’s heads with clubs and chairs in broad daylight, TV cameras and all, before a shocked international community, thereby creating Somalia’s most humiliating moment.  (The word hildhibaan means in Somali “he who is seared to the bone by the heat of responsibility!” whence my graduate students reminded me of the irony embedded in the word hildhibaan when they asked, “when your responsibility-seared leaders take to fist-fighting before the world press, how do your ordinary non-responsibility-seared folks behave!?”). At that question I merely cringed, speechless.)

The cautionary tale in all this revolves around the obvious fact that you cannot force a central government on a people who seem not to want one, or rather a people to whom the notion of a government may well be an alien concept in their cultural traditions.  The point is that throughout their long pre-colonial history, Somalis belonged to a class of African peoples social anthropologists refer to as “individualistic, extremely egalitarian and stateless.”(6)  In addition to the Somalis, there are the Nuer and Dinka of the Sudan, and the Tellenesi of Ghana.    
This perhaps is the place to point out that Somalia holds no monopoly on catastrophic social upheavals culminating in political collapse in the history of post-independence Africa.  For two decades (1985-2005), Liberia sank into the bottomless pit of a reign of terror under the brutal Charles Taylor (who is now in the dock before the International Criminal Court).  Then in 2005, the world came to the aid of Liberia, giving the Liberians a chance to stand on their feet.  They did so in a fair and free election under U.N. personnel supervision, electing Ellen Surleaf-Johnson, the first woman president in Africa.  Under her able leadership, Liberians are today managing their affairs well, and looking to the future with optimism.  Similarly, Sierra Leone as a state disappeared into a political black hole for two decades (1980-2000) during which a gang of limb-slicing terrorist thugs that went by the name of Revolutionary United Front (RUF) so traumatized the Sierra Leonean body politic as to stir an international outcry.  Then under U. N. prodding, the British intervened and stabilized the country, thereby giving the terrorized people of Sierra Leone a chance to go to the polls and elect a new president, once again in a fair and free competition, and to make a fresh start.  Having at last found peace and tranquility, Sierra Leoneans now look forward to a future of peace and progress.  In January, 2008 Kenya exploded into an orgy of internecine killings after the Kikuyu elite under the leadership of president Mwai Kibaki stole the election from Raila Odinga’s Orange Movement party.  Accustomed to easy entitlements ever since the days of Jomo Kenyatta, the first president of independent Kenya, who gave his fellow Kikuyus the fabled White Highlands vacated by the fleeing whites in the wake of decolonization, the Kikuyu walked the earth like colossuses.(7)  But this time around the Kikuyu could not get away with stealing the election.  Massive anti-Kikuyu hostility erupted in which hundreds lost their lives and hundreds of thousands were internally displaced.  It took all the diplomatic skills of former U. N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to negotiate a political power-sharing deal between the squabbling parties.  Even Zimbabwe is having a hint of hope in a new power-dealing arrangement between Morgan Tsvangirai of the opposition and the tyrant Robert Mugabe who dragged a once prosperous Zimbabwe through thirty years of nightmarish misrule. Mugabe is fond of defiantly telling the world, “Only God can remove me.”  At 83, the doddering Mugabe could discover that God might oblige him sooner than he suspects. 

Even Africa’s proverbial Heart of Darkness–the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)– is miraculously on the mend.  In all these cases, each country learned to stand on its feet when the international community intervened to help them help themselves.  Only Somalia, Africa’s Cassandra of riddles, refuses to help itself, despite sustained international effort to help it.  The reason for Somalia’s seeming destiny to be mired up in clannish feuds and vendettas is not far to seek.  The concept of a centralized political system is alien to the indigenous Somali psyche.  And the successor Somali state that emerged in 1960 in the wake of decolonization continued to stumble along fitfully until it crashed in early 1991 into its component clans.  A perceptive Somali professor put it this way:

We blundered into this so-called central power somewhat like a crew of somnambulists with little idea of what a state was and less of how to run one, the whole thing being something of a mystery to us until we sleepwalked off the cliff.(8)

Given this state of historical statelessness, it is, in my view, an act of insanity to force a centralized state on a people who neither understand it nor seek to have one.  I realize that this assertion of mine is bound to bring down  on my head a cacophony of hostile criticism from kindred Somalis as well as assorted expatriate fellow travelers, but the sooner we concede to reality, the more we are likely to avoid the fate of the mad man encountered above.

 Commission of Overseers

So far my argument has been that Somalis, both traditionally and under present conditions, have shown themselves to be unprepared to handle the demands of a centralized government, and that it would be an act of lunacy to try to force an overarching centralization like the failed one of dictator Muhammad Siyaad Barre on a people who are either unwilling or ill-prepared to have one.  Moreover, empirical experience in the annals of African governance shows that it is over-centralization that breaks up countries, while decentralization makes for political and economic stability.   Still, some sort of a central authority is indispensable even for unwilling Somalia.  The imperatives of a passport-issuing office, postal and telecommunications, foreign policy and, above all, the general security of all the four statelets into which the country has split make it essential to create some kind of federal structure.  To frame up the necessary federal authority, I would recommend the setting up of a commission of overseers composed of a representative from each of the four zones under a U.N.-appointed high commissioner.  Such a commission’s task would be to take administrative responsibility for the four departments mentioned above, to arbitrate the likely territorial, political and economic disputes that are bound to arise among the four statelets stated above. 

Currently, for example, Somaliland and Puntland are embroiled in a heated dispute with brief but deadly armed clashes over the territory of the Dhulbahante and Warsangali clans in the eastern border between Somaliland and Puntland.  Somaliland argues that the territory in question was part and parcel of the former British Somaliland Protectorate, and therefore should belong to Somaliland, while Puntland contends that the Dhulbahante and Warsangali, being part of the Daarood clan-family that dominates Puntland, should be with their kinsfolk in Puntland.  Blood, they say, is thicker than water.  It would be the overriding responsibility of the projected commission to arbitrate disputes of this sort. Further, the commission should represent Somalia in all international arenas, to look out for Somalia’s interests globally and, in short, to serve as a federal governing body for the whole country with ultimate political authority for all vital country-wide national interests.  It may be objected that to intrude a U.N. role into the country’s affairs would be to compromise Somalia’s sovereignty.  This is no more than a canard objection.  Somalia has already lost all vestiges of sovereignty, and could gain, not lose, by a light-handed U.N. tutelage.     

By Said S. Samatar
April 25, 2010               

(1) Andrew Bast, “It’s Time To Leave Somalia.” Newsweek. August 8, 3, 2009. P. 9.

(2) Jeffrey Gettleman.  “U.S.Aiding Somalia in its Plan to Re-take its Capital.” NYT March 5, 2010,  p. A1.

(3) Ibid.

(5) Mark Twain, a documentary biography directed by Ken Burns, volume 1, 2001.

(6) I. M. Lewis, A Pastoral Democracy: A study of pastoralism and politics among the northern Somali of the Horn of Africa.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1961. passim.

(7) See review of Michela Wrong’s It Is Our Turn to Eat: the Story of a Kenyan Whistle-Blower, reviewed in the New York Review of Books, March 14, 2010, Volume LVII, No. 1, Pp.  35-38.

(8) Ahmed Nasser Abdi, personal interview, South Orange, NJ, summer 2009.

Posted in: African papers