War All the Time

African Union forces destroy a cache of explosives outside Mogadishu

The truck bombing in Mogadishu and appalled everyone who heard about it. Indeed, the level of carnage was horrific. But far fewer people know what lies behind the misery of Somalia than heard of this fresh atrocity.

What we commonly refer to as ‘Somalia’ in the media is really just the southwest of the country, where the African Union has been trying to establish a federal government. To do so, the AU has fallen back on international aid and Western support for a multinational army. Meanwhile the government in question has been largely composed of former Puntland rebels and supported by warlords.

Other parts of Somalia are self-governing and even comparably stable. The northern region of Somaliland has been established as an unrecognised state outside the international community and without any major support. It was the region most devastated by the Barre regime during the civil war. As a result, the rebels of Somaliland began to build a separate civil society with its own government. It has been a success.

Meanwhile Puntland and Galmudug also have self-governing institutions. This raises the question: why has the AU effort to build a federal government failed? Perhaps the failure was always likely when the government is parachuted in by a foreign military occupation.

The popular narrative is that the country is completely lawless and has been for more than 25 years. This is not the case, even in Mogadishu. The Islamic Union of Courts was an attempt by Muslim clerics and legal scholars to establish the rule of law before going further towards a conventional government. It definitely was not a bed of roses, but it was a starting point for a legal system.

In 2006 Ethiopia invaded Somalia with US approval to smash the Islamic Courts Union. AMISOM was set up to foster a new government in Mogadishu, but al-Shabaab soon came out of the woodwork to challenge the AU forces occupying the country. Al-Shabaab was formed out of the remnants of the militant wing of the Islamic Courts movement.

As an insurgency the Islamists have driven back the Ethiopian occupation and struck at Kenyan society in retaliation to the Kenya’s war in Somalia. What is not widely understood outside Somalia is that these two countries, Kenya and Ethiopia, have a stake in preventing Somalia from becoming a rival power again. Both countries have restive Muslim populations and contested borders with Somalia.

In the 1960s, Somali bandits rampaged across the Kenyan border and later in the 70s General Said Barre would wage war on Ethiopia laying claim to the Ogaden desert in a catastrophic war. This war would cost the Barre regime its alliance with the Soviet Union and put it on track for a new alliance. The consequences are still with Somalis today.

Although the Barre regime had first tried to justify itself as an Islamic socialist government, the defeat in the Ogaden desert would lead the regime into the embrace of the US. The Barre regime would sacrifice its socio-economic policies for US military support. Instead General Barre would implement neoliberal reforms and shred the social fabric of the society. He tried to play each clan against one another to maintain his power. The result was civil war and the collapse of the state.

The US was quick to intervene in Somalia to seek out a new client state, but it failed and was forced to pull out following the Black Hawk Down episode. So the US shifted to new allies in Ethiopia and Djibouti. The US was just looking for a launchpad somewhere on the Horn of Africa, as part of its wider strategy around the world. This remains the case today.

On Obama’s watch, the US repeatedly bombed Somali targets with drones. Key US allies Rwanda and Uganda were providing ground troops to mop up resistance. Much to its own detriment, Kenya joined the occupation of Somalia in 2011. Al-Shabaab has struck back at Uganda with the Kampala bombings of 2010 and Kenya with the Westgate mall siege in 2013 and the 2015 massacre of Garissa University students.

None of this has seen the Kenyan government to question its role in Somalia. For example, when al-Shabaab attacked a Kenyan AU base possibly killing more than 200 soldiers, the Kenyan government refused to publish the official body count. In response, US drones targeted al-Shabaab and killed over 150 people in one operation. This pattern will likely continue for years to come.

Still, the conflict is painted as the Somali federal government versus the radical Islamist threat amid a lawless wasteland. As if the only legitimate force in Somalia is the US-approved government and the AU military presence defending it. The West is meant to look on at the chaos and shrug as if it has played no part in this.

Photograph courtesy of AMISOM Public Information. Published under a Creative Commons license.