Warlords who ruled the capital of Somalia, Mogadishu, for 15 years have recently been driven out by a coalition of Muslim groups backing the ‘Islamic Courts Union’.
This has brought U.S. imperialism’s role in the Horn of Africa into sharp focus. The fear of the U.S. Republican ‘neo-conservatives’ is that the very outcome they wished to prevent in their ‘war against terror’ (ie the emergence of a Taliban-style regime harbouring al-Qa’ida guerrillas) is now taking place.
These fears were deepened when Hassan Dahir Aweys, a former Somali army colonel and vice-chairman of al-Itihad (a group labled as ‘terrorist’ by Washington), was named head of the Council of the Islamic Courts. Aweys favours an Islamic state in Somalia.
His appointment comes only days after Islamic leaders came to an agreement with the secular interim government based in Baidoa, 200 kilometres from Mogadishu. Any fighting will stop and the Islamists will recognise the government while the government has recognised the “reality and existence” of the Islamic courts.
But there are still differences, particularly over the use of foreign troops to maintain ‘peace’, which the Islamists oppose. A Swedish cameraman was killed at a ‘peace’ rally in Mogadishu by an unknown assailant, raising questions as to the effectiveness of the Islamists’ ability to maintain stability.
Somalia gained independence in 1960 and was ruled from 1969 by President Mohamed Siad Barre following the so-called ‘October Revolution’. Popular at first, Barre proclaimed Somalia a ‘socialist’ state but capitalism and feudalism were never abolished.
In the late 1970s, Barre attempted to incorporate Ethiopian-held ‘Somali territories’ into the country. But following this failed military adventure, he resorted to increasingly unpopular, dictatorial methods. Trying to rule the country by divide and rule, Barre was eventually overthrown in 1991.
But the very divisions which Barre had played on to rule made Somalia impossible to govern. The warlords gained increasing control of Mogadishu and central rule broke down. As a result, two internationally unrecognised but ‘independent’ or ‘autonomous’ territories in the north, the ‘Republic of Somaliland’ and the ‘Puntland state of Somalia’ seceded from central control in the 1990s.
The United Nations sent in a force, led by U.S. troops, in 1992 to restore order but this faced growing opposition. This culminated in the famous ‘Blackhawk Down’ incident in which two U.S. helicopters were shot down with numerous casualties. As a result of this humiliation for US imperialism, President Clinton withdrew U.S. troops the following year and a full U.N. withdrawal was completed in 1995.
Imperialism allowed the warlords to rule Somalia for some time. They extorted tributes in the ports, airfields and roads. They became relatively wealthy and powerful in a country of extreme poverty and deprivation. Average life expectancy is 46, while 219 in every 1,000 children die before the age of five. Somalia is amongst the poorest nations of the world, although the internal conflicts make data collection very difficult.
Efforts have been made by the African Union to re-establish a central government for Somalia since 2000. Meetings took place in Kenya, where the interim government headed by ‘President’ Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed was established in October 2004. Members of the government began moving back to Somalia from June 2005, although quarrels within this ‘administration’ continued. Eventually, the first assembly of the ‘parliament’ and ‘government’ took place in Baidoa in February 2006. But the writ of this transitional ‘authority’ does not run much further than the city limits.
Effectively, U.S. imperialism allowed the warlords to rule Mogadishu to prevent a radical Islamist regime coming to power in the region, which adjoins an important sea route. But the population became tired and angry with the warlords, their increasing wealth and power, and the lack of stability.
Increasingly, Sharia (Islamic) law was introduced into the mayhem and the population gave their support to the Union of Islamic Courts. They become an increasingly political and military force in society as businessmen began funding the Islamists in an attempt to regain stability.
The U.S.’s effective backing for the warlords has made them even more hated than before. Some business leaders said they recently met U.S. officials in neighbouring Djibouti and said they would stop funding the Islamists if the U.S. stopped using the warlords as proxies. But the U.S. refused and now the Islamists have power in Mogadishu and are attempting to spread their influence outside of the capital.
These recent events will not stabilise Somalia for very long. Depending on the character of any new regime in Mogadishu, and the balance between the Islamists and the interim government, the U.S. may try and intervene in its ‘war on terror’, probably not directly but possibly through intermediaries. Already there are reports of Ethiopian troops crossing the border ‘in support’ of the transitional government but mainly to prevent a radical Islamist state being established over its borders.
“This is a staggering defeat for the U.S. strategy of counter-terrorism by proxy,” said a Horn of Africa analyst to the guardian. “It also represents a seismic shift in Somali politics. For the first time in many years we have a new political group that is capable of forming some sort of administration.”
However, an Islamic regime could easily become a stifling, theocratic dictatorship oppressing any independent movements of workers and poor people. Already the Mogadishu regime has attempted to shut down cinemas for allowing the ‘evils of the Western world’ to be shown, including coverage of World Cup football matches.
The US says it will not allow the ‘Talibanisation’ of Somalia, suggesting interference of various kinds. This could return the country to a violent cycle of instability and poverty which has plagued the people of Somalia and this region for decades.
Capitalism and feudalism cannot develop one of the poorest regions of the world and it will take the development of a united working-class force to pose an alternative to the current alternative governments on offer to the Somali people.