February 21, 2011

Africa & US Policy - Insisting On A Strong Central Government In Somalia Prolongs Suffering Of Somali People

Kenya's Dadaab Camp: Aid Agencies Make Appeal, BBC, July 12, 2012.  Dadaab is now home to nearly a half million refugees, most of whom are from Somalia.  From the link:  "Nigel Tricks, head of Oxfam in Kenya, said: 'Refugee camps are only temporary solutions and the situation is increasingly untenable. Funds are needed now to save lives, but we can't keep pumping money in year after year while the camp keeps getting bigger. A change in approach is urgently needed. However, right now, the world has an obligation not to turn its back on Dadaab and the needs of the people there.'"

I interviewed thousands of Somali refugees in 23 African countries while serving as the assistant immigration attaché in the US Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya from 1996-1998.  I then supervised teams of US refugee officers on circuit rides throughout Africa from 1998-2007 where we also interviewed Somali refugee individuals and families, as well as other nationalities.  This work required extensive and detailed knowledge of the social and cultural aspects of all the Somali clans, their inter-clan relationships and their relationships to the central government in Mogadishu prior and subsequent to the fall of Siad Barre in 1991.

The legal framework for the interviews required an analysis of the need for protection of the principal on each case, whether the harm the principal claimed met the US definition of persecution, and who the alleged persecutors were and why they harmed the principal.  Other factors such as the credibility of the principle's interview testimony, whether s/he was barred from resettlement in the US, and whether s/he was otherwise admissible to the US were also considered.

Generally, the cases involved members of the largest, most powerful and most heavily-armed clans persecuting members of smaller less powerful clans and even less powerful minority ethnic groups in Somalia.  However, in the state of anarchy that has prevailed in Somalia since 1991, every possible clan-to-clan, persecutor-to-victim relationship occurred and was presented in the cases.  The atrocities credibility presented by the principals were among the most ghastly and horrific imaginable.  Although the brutality of the violence in Somalia was less in scale compared to the numbers killed during the Holocaust of World War II and the Rwandan genocide of 1994, it equaled and in some cases surpassed these two hellish nightmares of humanity in terms of viciousness.  In many ways the harm inflicted between various Somali clans, sub-clans and minority groups equaled the macabre violence that my officers and I encountered in the refugee cases of Liberians and Sierra Leoneans who were brutally persecuted during in the 1990s.  The personal accounts of torture, including rape, and murder the refugees narrated to me still resonate.

As a sub-Saharan Africanist the one thing that has always struck me most about Somalia is that of all the 53 nations of Africa, it is the one country least likely to succeed as a nation-state using the strong central government European model.  With the exception of the Somali Bantu and the Barawans and Benadiri minority groups, most members of the Somali clans, which taken collectively form a huge majority in Somalia, speak one language, engage in a similar pastoral economy, and are fairly homogeneous culturally.  Although this would lead one to think that such a majority should be able to lead the formation of and sustain a European-style nation-state.  This has not happened.  To appreciate the social and cultural complexity of Somalia and the Somali people see the following diagram:

The past twenty years of efforts to reconstitute the Somali Democratic Republic that was formed in 1969 have failed for one primary reason - the leaders of Somali clan social organization and it alliance dynamics, something most suited to a pastoral economy, have had no external impetus or internal reason to change their sociopolitical behavior or cede power to a strong central government located in the capital.

There are an estimated 17-19 million ethnic Somalis resident in the Horn of Africa and Yemen.  Nine million live in Somalia.  The total population of ethnic Somalis is comprised of at least 52 clans and 79 sub-clans.  The economy of Somalia, with the exception of light manufacturing and fish and cattle processing in the north and in Mogadishu, has remained virtually unchanged for the majority of Somalis since antiquity.  Today, 80% of the population remain nomadic or semi-nomadic pastoralists who keep goats, sheep, camels and cattle.  Historically, Somalia has had no significant industries, cash crops or natural resource commodities around which to rally a nationalistic consensus among the clan leaders or upon which to base a strong and stable central government.  I am not a strong techno-economic determinist in the sense of anthropologist Marvin Harris.  However, a strong case can be made for Somali clan-based social structure and organization remaining unchanged since about 4,000BP because of insufficient techno-economic stimulus.

To expect a people whose majority have a livelihood and associated social organization based on localized pastoralism to accept domination by a central government in a capital city that has no industrial, natural resource or commercial agricultural legitimacy is unrealistic, to say the least.  For the West and the broader international community to insist that they nevertheless do so is ludicrous.  [For more information on the failure of European-style nation-states in Africa see The Black Man's Burden:  Africa and the Curse of the Nation-State (1992) by British historian Basil Davidson.]

The International Crisis Group's (ICG) call for a new approach to the political rebuilding of Somalia (see link below) is right on the mark.  They recommend "a more decentralized system of governance in which most power and resources are devolved to local administrations, while the federal government takes a modest role of primarily coordinating the activities of those administrations."

A weak central government in Somalia is not something the West favors.  A weak Somali central government makes it more difficult for the West, particularly the US, to exert its influence and control over Somalia and the Horn of Africa.  One pressure point is easier to manipulate than are multiple, locally empowered points.

Much is at stake here for the US in terms of securing American military strategic interests and commercial shipping, and denying Islamic fundamentalism a foothold in an increasingly autocratic and politically volatile Greater Horn of Africa, and more broadly in East Africa.  As with all nation-states, its own national interests always come first, sometimes, regrettably, over the humanitarian interests of other peoples and cultures.  Such is nationalism.

Also, regrettably, the careerists and the politically-appointed at the US State Department in Foggy Bottom will probably not support the ICG's approach to Somalia governance.  As the US supports a brutal regime in Ethiopia because it advances our global interests (see my post Africa & US Policy - Ethiopia on the Frontline of a "Clash of Civilizations"?), so will it will likely continue to insist on a strong central government in Somalia to further US interests over the interests of the still-suffering people of Somalia.

A new, pluralistic global ethic and global civilization governance are urgently needed, not a continuation of a world where the nationalistic preferences of a few dominant nation-states rule.

Somalia:  The Transitional Government on Life Support

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