Passive policies of the US and the West towards Somalia might have unprecedented results globally. The world leaders need to act quickly before deaths start to rise rapidly.
It was George Bush Senior who sent American soldiers to Somalia, taking the decision in December 1992 in his last few days in the Oval Office. But it was Bill Clinton who pulled them out, largely due to the backlash of public opinion at home following the publication of a gut-wrenching photograph of a US serviceman’s body being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu.
Later, Osama bin Laden would famously say that the US was unable to stomach the setbacks: “One American was dragged in the streets of Mogadishu (and) you left; the extent of your impotence and weaknesses became very clear.” Years later, George W Bush told his aides that he believed that the Black Hawk Down moment—made famous by the 2001 Hollywood blockbuster of the same name—actually inspired terrorists to attack and bring down the Twin Towers.
Back in 1993, Clinton had been pursuing an absurd campaign to hunt down General Farrah Aidid, who was conveniently framed as central to all of Somalia’s problems. Until then, the emphasis on US/UN troops in Somalia was all about letting vital food aid reach the far corners of the country, as convoys were often blocked and robbed by gunmen working for warlords. For some, US intervention in Somalia, contrary to public opinion, was largely successful and is believed by some to have saved the lives of up to a million people, while others think otherwise.
But the fiasco of ‘Black Hawk Down’, which took the lives of 18 Americans and was crystallised by a Canadian photographer’s candid shot, changed the course of history and America’s role in the world. The news of cheering Aidid supporters torturing and killing Staff Sgt. William David Cleveland and dragging his body through the streets of Mogadishu had left the world numb.
Everything changed, even the UN’s zeal for intervention in civil wars and genocides in Africa like Rwanda, as America showed the world that despite having the military capability and hardware, it didn’t have the stomach – a case in point, the ongoing war in Ukraine. The list of the UN's subsequent failures in the continent is shameful as it is extensive. And the list of failed US interventions is becoming an internet meme that should embarrass most Americans.
Clinton didn’t really understand what was happening in Somalia, how the fall of the Siad Barre regime would hurl the Horn of Africa into a state of disarray. Barre, who fled to Kenya initially despite being one of Africa’s cruellest tyrants, managed to keep clans from fighting one another while playing off the US against the Soviets – the latter grooming him, at times, to be a great African leader rather than the beast that he became in terms of atrocities right at the end of his rule.
The Americans finally pulled out in 1995, leaving Somalia a failed state. And then 9/11 happened, which produced a new group of Al Qaeda extremists – teenagers – with their radical ideology towards governance. It is this group today which is repeating history and producing a hell-on-earth scenario for Joe Biden to mull, as these youngsters are blocking the food aid shipments from reaching the interior of the country.
History is literally repeating itself, and we are going back to 1992 when, as a young reporter, I was one of the first to enter Mogadishu – a capital where anything built by the Barre regime was destroyed by a thousand AK-47 rounds. Even the post office.
Today Somalia is facing another famine and another civil war which could be worse than the one I witnessed and where irony plays a cruel hand. Aidid and his clans – as an ‘opposition’ - have been replaced by Al Shabab, which came about from the prominence of Al Qaeda, which George W Bush and others reckon was accelerated by America’s Black Hawk Down moment of pusillanimity in Somalia.
Biden recently sent 500 US soldiers to Somalia after Trump pulled them out previously and also promised 500 million dollars in food aid. In reality, the UN estimates that Somalia needs close to 1.5 billion dollars.
But there are no obvious signs that Western donors are going to cough up.
The 500 million from the US is a band-aid on a 50 calibre open wound, and if the West doesn’t act quickly, Somalia will erupt again, like a volcano covering us all with toxic ash.
The country has all the ingredients in place for a civil war to quickly permeate the entire region. The implications are that a famine will give even more power to Al Shabab, who, in turn, will make a fortuitous bid to take over the entire infrastructure of the country, which, until now, is still officially in the hands of the government.
Other clans may well break away and fight too for land, for food, or to settle old scores. The politics of food will determine much. Who gets to eat, and who starves? Currently, one million people have been displaced in one of the worst droughts in decades, leaving 5 million at risk of starvation.
What Somalia needs right now is initiative. A bold initiative which we saw with EU leaders, who acted so quickly to hit back at Putin in Ukraine. Somalia needs this verve from world leaders who need to act quickly before the deaths start to rise rapidly. Some countries in the region understand the implications of Somalia failing once again, namely the UAE, which recently sent food aid, and Türkiye, which sent around 1 billion dollars worth of humanitarian and development aid in the last ten years.
But much more needs to come from the richest countries in the region. And the UN needs to garner support and interest from Biden and EU leaders to move fast to head off a famine. The implications are clear.
Since May of this year, Somalia has had Hassan Mohamud as its new president.
Mohamud is acknowledged for bringing fighting clans to the negotiating table and for uniting Mogadishu in 1997, as a ‘green line’ broadly dividing its north and south was removed, ending years of a capital controlled by Aidid in the south and the UN-appointed President Ali Mahdi in the north.
Much later on, he would emerge as a prominent player who would create his own political movement before winning a landslide election at the polls this year. Mohamud now needs to reach out to the UN hierarchy and Europeans for help. And we should help Somalia and neighbouring Somaliland as the situation there now cannot be compared to the early ’90s. Climate change is inflicting its most barbaric and vociferous blow on these people, and they played no role in it whatsoever.
But given the imploding economies of Europe due to the war in Ukraine, will they respond, or will Somalia be the latest victim of the West’s foibles or obsession with Putin?
And can Biden “stomach the casualties” even if he has the guts to fix what was left undone in 1993? What is needed is action rather than words. Indeed, it is a Somali proverb that says, “a sweet hand is better than a sweet mouth”.
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