Gwynne Dyer: Somalia's comeback

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      There have been no elections in Somalia since 1967 and there won’t be any this year either. But the country has a new parliament (appointed on the advice of clan elders) who have elected a new president, and the new government actually now controls a significant part of the country. The world’s only fully “failed state” may finally be starting to return to normality.

      A failed state is a horrendous thing: no government, no army, no police, no courts, no law, just bands of armed men taking what they want. Somalia has been like that for more than 20 years, but now there is hope. So much hope that last month the United Nations Security Council partially lifted its embargo on arms sales to Somalia in order to let the new Somali government buy arms, and last week the U.S. government followed suit.

      The new government replaces the “Transitional Federal Government”, another unelected body that had enjoyed the support of the UN and the African Union for eight pointless years. Then last year a World Bank report demonstrated the sheer scale of its corruption: seven out of every ten dollars of foreign aid vanished into the pockets of TFG officials before reaching the state’s coffers.

      Fully a quarter of the “national budget” was being absorbed by the offices of the president, the vice-president and the speaker of parliament. The fact that after all that the TFG still only controlled about one square kilometre (less than one square mile) of Mogadishu, the capital, while the rest of the shattered city was run by the Islamist al-Shabaab militia, an affiliate of al-Qaeda, also contributed to the international disillusionment.

      That tiny patch of ground, moreover, was being defended not by Somali troops but by thousands of Ugandan and Burundian soldiers of the African Union Mission in Somalia (Unisom). More than 500 of them had lost their lives defending the useless TFG, and the foreign donors were losing faith in the mission. But the Unisom soldiers did achieve one major thing: they fought al-Shabaab to a standstill in Mogadishu.

      In August 2011 the Islamist militia pulled its troops out of the capital. That created an opening, and the international community seized it. It ruthlessly initiated a process designed to push the TFG aside: Somali clan elders were asked to nominate members for a new 250-seat parliament, which was then asked to vote for a new president and government.

       It was obviously impossible to hold a free election in a country much of which was still under al-Shabaab’s control, but this process also had the advantage that it allowed the foreigners to shape the result. The corrupt officials who had run the old TFG all re-applied for their old jobs, but none of them succeeded.

      The new president who emerged from this process, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, is a former academic and human rights worker who only entered politics in 2011. No whiff of corruption clings to him, and he has worked tirelessly to bring about national reconciliation. And he has the wind at his back: just after he was chosen last September, a Kenyan force evicted al-Shebaab from Somalia’s second city, Kismayo.

      That still leaves about 95 percent of the country’s territory and three-quarters of its population beyond the government’s direct control. Al-Shabaab still rules in most rural parts of the country, and Ethiopian troops and their militia allies control much of the western border areas. Pirates with a lot of guns and money effectively dominate much of the north.

      One whole chunk of the country, calling itself Somaliland, has declared its independence (and runs its affairs much more peacefully and efficiently than any other part of Somalia). No other country recognizes its independence at the moment, but it used to be a British colony, quite separate from Italian-ruled Somalia, and in principle it can make exactly the same case for independence as Eritrea did when it broke away from Ethiopia.

      The worst problem facing President Mohamud is the venal and cunning politicians who have exploited the clan loyalties that pervade every aspect of Somali life to carve out their own little empires. Some are frankly and unashamedly warlords; others, including all the senior officials in the defunct TFG, masquerade as national politicians but work for their own interests.

      They have not gone away, nor have the clan rivalries that kept the fighting going for 21 years. Drawing up the rules and sharing out the power for a new federal Somalia (none of which has yet been decided) will give them plenty of opportunities to make trouble for the new president and regain their former power. Mohamud definitely has his work cut out for him.

      Nevertheless, he has strong UN and African Union support, and he now has a chance to create a spreading zone of peace in the country and start rebuilding national institutions. So last week the United States declared that it was now willing to provide military aid, including arms exports, to Somalia. Weirdly, that actually means that thing are looking up in the world’s only failed state.

      Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.


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      Apr 11, 2013 at 1:58pm

      So, the US is supporting the new government. That must mean that they've agreed to put a Burger King on every corner and prop up a Coca-Cola sign on every storefront.


      Apr 12, 2013 at 11:43pm

      Why don't they start from somaliland then spread outwards? Seems to me the west is too self interested to deal with a government that doesn't need them.

      Mark Mosby

      Apr 14, 2013 at 12:28pm

      "So last week the United States declared that it was now willing to provide military aid, including arms exports, to Somalia. Weirdly, that actually means that thing are looking up in the world’s only failed state."

      Looking up for weapons manufacturers and Western corporations, no doubt, but not looking good for citizens of Somalia who will reap no benefit and likely get caught in the crossfire. As usual.

      It's the same recipe the US has followed in dozens of other places around the world since WWII, namely: supply some local politico/junta with weapons to fight off the opposition (and shoot the local plebes if they get uppity) so that the door is opened for Western interests to make boatloads of money in one or more of the following ways:

      1. sell arms to the foreigners -- with profits going to the US military-industrial complex

      2. build infrastructure in the foreign land -- with profits going to selected Western building contractors

      3. loan money at high rates of compounded interest (to help pay for 1 & 2 above) -- with profits going to IMF and WTO bankers

      4. make deals to mine the country's minerals -- with profits going to selected Western corporations

      5. make deals to extract the country's fossil fuels -- with profits going to selected Western corporations

      6. make deals to harvest the country's renewable resources -- with profits going to selected Western corporations

      7. make deals to exploit the country's citizens as labourers -- with profits going to selected Western corporations

      8. make deals to exploit the country's citizens as consumers -- with profits going to selected Western corporations

      And if the recipients don't want to "make a deal" or are not satisfied with the terms of the deal, too bad for them. The US will then take one or more actions that may include: bombing the country, assassinating selected political figures, invading and occupying the country, overthrowing the government and installing a US-friendly replacement, capturing and torturing dissidents, imposing harmful sanctions, bribing officials for political gain, etc.

      You don't become the world's only superpower by giving people gifts and treating them kindly. You do it by repeatedly exploiting & killing people and forcefully taking what isn't yours.

      For a list of US military interventions since 1945, see


      May 7, 2013 at 5:22pm

      It is a great relief, to me, to see the people of Somalia coming out the other side of the American backed civil war that virtually destroyed the country.


      Jun 1, 2013 at 7:57am

      Somalia was, I believe, originally a tripartite colony of Britain, France, and Italy. It will be interesting to see if they can finally make one country out of this mess.