In 1992 Somalia provided the world’s imperial powers with a testing ground, and an opportunity — with the strategic field recently swept clear of Soviet counterforce — to establish a useful precedent.
The UN World Food Program, and private NGOs and international aid agencies including CARE, Oxfam and Human Rights Watch, publicly and successfully advocated military intervention (‘peacekeeping operations’) with the declared purpose of providing humanitarian assistance and disaster relief to famine victims.
Over the subsequent two decades, blue helmets and US Marines have been deployed here and there throughout the world’s ‘crisis zones’ (Haiti, Bosnia, Timor-Leste, etc.).
Their personnel have been granted immunity from domestic law of the host state via Status of Forces Agreements and freedom from the Fourth Geneva Convention, because they aren’t quite occupying forces, exactly.
An ideological quest had begun following the Biafra secession conflict to legitimize, among North American and European public opinion, extraterritorial military intrusions into formally sovereign jurisdictions.
By the early 1990s this project sans frontières — taken up in the relevant chancelleries, foreign ministries and top military echelons — had marshalled the support of relief workers, civil servants, journalists and activists. Almost the entire left-liberal commentariat had climbed eagerly on board by the time the ‘humanitarian’ ship set sail for Kosovo, East Timor and Libya.
The basis for these calls during late 1992 was that relief food was being looted on a grand scale. This was based on the (exaggerated, as it turned out) say-so of relief-agency heads, and lurid media photographs of starving children and General Aidid’s gun-toting thugs on the back of pickup trucks.
Together these pricked, as is said, the moral conscience of the ‘international community’.
Meanwhile the absence of a stable local government removed many of the administrative checks on aid-agency field missions. NGOs could consequently bypass the usual host-country bureaucratic encumbrances, dealing directly on each side with donors and the needy, and expanding their usual roles.
The stakes thus upped, NGOs jockeyed for publicity and position as the favoured lead agency for receiving and disbursing donor resources. Hence the ‘disaster pornography’ of helpless victims, evil warlords, etc.
The President of CARE International at this time was former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser; his daughter, who worked in the marketing and communications department for the organization, and later as its head of fundraising, contributed dramatic pictures and interviews for The Australian newspaper.
This inflamed collective conscience survived the bloody reality of peacekeeping — details of which, in 1993, even pliant foreign correspondents could not keep from readers.
Far from being an impartial and apolitical provider of humanitarian needs — merely giving corn from Kansas and wheat from Saskatchewan — relief agencies were used as policy instruments through which interested external powers could take sides between belligerents fighting over the scraps of a collapsed state located in strategic territory at the mouth of the Red Sea, with a separatist Somali minority nearby to the north in oil-rich Ogaden, and with a vast Indian Ocean littoral.
On the pretext of protecting aid supplies, the troops despatched were providing military advantage to their favoured adversaries.
In June 1993 the Chicago Tribune revealed blatant war crimes:
The scene at Digfer Hospital, Mogadishu’s biggest medical facility, speaks volumes about the dilemma confronting the United Nations as it tests the uncharted waters of its new power to use military might to enforce peace.
There is a gaping hole in the wall of the recovery room, where three anesthetized patients had been lying when a projectile struck. The ground floor main reception area is a jumble of glass shards and twisted shrapnel from another bomb.
Hospital director Dr. Fuji Mohammed says three women were killed when the bomb exploded. He says the hospital received six or seven hits, but he does not know the total number of victims because patients and their relatives fled when the attack started, taking the dead and wounded with them.
The United Nations flexed its newfound muscles in Mogadishu last week with devastating, and potentially disturbing, effect. But the message is clear: If the UN is going to enforce peace, rather than simply monitor it, people will die.
Hospitals will be hit, missiles will go astray and kill children and the UN itself will become party to at least some of the horrors confronting the world.
The UN says Digfer Hospital was attacked only because gunmen loyal to Gen. Mohammed Farah Aidid, the warlord whose power it is seeking to destroy, had holed up there and were attacking the blue-helmeted peacekeepers.
It probably will never be known how many Somalis died in the UN onslaught against Aidid. In Somalia, deaths are not registered and the hospital has ceased to function. Anyway, those killed in the fighting simply would be taken home to be buried by their families.
But the indications of civilian casualties are high, running into the dozens or more. Five peacekeepers – four Moroccans and a Pakistani – also gave their lives in the drive to neutralize the warlord who had plagued the international community’s efforts to protect relief supplies to starving Somalis…
The normal rules of engagement do not apply in this nation, said a senior UN official. Militias fire on peacekeepers from a hospital. Women and children mingle with gunmen on the capital’s densely populated streets, and sometimes help them attack UN soldiers.
“No one has trained our troops to fire on women and children,” the UN official said…
If the UN was to retain any credibility in Somalia, it had to strike back, and strike back forcefully, said Mike McDonagh, head of operations for the Irish agency Concern.
The withdrawal of US soldiers and marines followed the notorious Battle of Mogadishu — portrayed in Ridley Scott’s equally notorious film Black Hawk Down — an experience which contributed to all the subsequent work on Military Operations on Urban Terrain.
This strategic focus in turn led to ‘pre-emptive preparation’. The latter involved equipping ‘potential hotspots around the globe’ with ‘secure, surreptitious’ unattended ground sensors, development of non-lethal (i.e. acoustic and EM) ‘access denial’ weapons and deployment of remote guided munitions that could survive the ‘urban canyons’ and signals disruption of the Pentagon’s declared new ‘battlespace’: teeming slum-filled metropoles like Lagos, Jakarta and Karachi.
This project led ultimately to the likes of Operation Phantom Fury, when a Carthaginian peace was imposed on Fallujah.
In decades past, leadership of the Somali state meant control over almost the entire surplus product: under President Siad Barre, aid revenues largely financed a bloated security apparatus and bestowed favours via a patronage network.
Those close to the government (through clan ties or military service) were granted private title to irrigable land, newly-enclosed property which then could be used as collateral for loans from foreign donors. These borrowed funds financed control over the livestock trade (in the north the best land was used mostly for grazing herds, and alluvial soil in the south used to a lesser extent for cash-crop plantations, rather than agriculture for subsistence or the domestic market).
Land speculation, and the abolition of grain-price ceilings in 1984, saw hyperinflation emerge just as crops failed in the late 1980s.
Smallholders were dispossessed and became rural labourers for the wealthy, or part of the immiserated ‘informal’ sector in the cities.
Food prices spiked, as did the cost of land in Mogadishu as members of international relief and technical-assistance organizations sought housing and other amenities.
Rich merchants, army officers and urban elites thus ‘got rich quick by milking the cows of international refugee relief, foreign development aid, and military assistance’, allowing them to ‘educate their children overseas, build lavish villas for themselves or for rental to foreign expatriates, and purchase fleets of cars with hard currency that was supposedly scarce in the country’ (Lee Cassanelli).
Famine conditions thus arose through activity which was supposed to forestall famine: funded by a massive monetary inflow (Somalia has been the largest per capita recipient of foreign aid in Africa since the 1980s) a rent-seeking mercantile and political class, swapping USAID dollars for Somali shillings, taking kickbacks from ‘development’ contractors delivering overpriced products, and generally buying low and selling high, enriched itself and took over the country’s productive assets (i.e. fertile land) for external trade and domestic speculation.
This engrossment of people’s livelihoods produced more of the captive needy for relief organizations.
This logic has more-or-less survived down to the present day.
But the collapse of the state in 1991, and the influx of relief organizations and aid, meant direct physical control over ports and airstrips became a new source of wealth and power. Banditry — imposition of roadblocks and blockades — plus capture of humans as booty — in other words, slavery — and other forms of asset stripping and primary accumulation by violence have arisen.
Thanks to the funds channelled inwards by the aid industry (representing claims on wealth impossibly vast compared to the size of the physical economy itself) the conquest of Somali state power has presented such an anticipated prize that no group has, for two decades now, been able to achieve it.
In the north, semi-independent Somaliland and Puntland have revived husbandry and trade in livestock, and Berbera port in the Gulf of Aden has re-opened, restoring links to the Ethiopian market and to wage remittances from southwest Asia and elsewhere.
Dahabshiil, a funds-transfer company headquartered in Dubai, services a worldwide Somali diaspora along with the international organizations based in the Horn of Africa. It recently has diversified into banking and telecommunications.
In the breadbasket Jubba and Shebelle valleys of the south, things are much grimmer.
Today, near the Somali border with Kenya, the US is firing Hellfire missiles at al-Shabaab ‘militants’ from unmanned airfcraft. In Somali waters, US naval vessels provide floating offshore facilities for secret detention and prolonged interrogation of alleged ‘enemy combatants’ captured in third countries. The CIA has recently been revealed to operate a similar facility in Mogadishu itself, to which people are rendered from across East Africa.
Somalia is the focus of Washington’s programme of maritime interdiction in the Horn of Africa, ‘piracy’ providing the pretext for a continuous naval presence in the waters just south of Yemen, in the sea route linking China, India and Japan with their main energy providers.
At roughly the same latitude, on the west coast of Africa, the Gulf of Guinea is a new strategic priority, thanks to its energy resources, Chinese inward investment and consequent influence in Gabon, Equatorial Guinea and nearby Angola and Zambia, and the chronic low-intensity violence, oilfield sabotage, gangsterism, money laundering and state instability in Nigeria.
As China’s working-age population peaks over the next decade, Chinese firms will increasingly look to invest abroad. Africa will be one of the few regions offering competitive rates of return, and capital inflow will likely allow some new industrialization.
But it is unlikely to bring ‘development’ of a helpful sort for the agrarian smallholders and pastoralists of the semiarid Horn of Africa and the savannahs of the Sahel. The quantity of fixed capital required to develop infrastructure from its current state, and the labour reserves available, would make anything besides agribusiness an unprofitable and univiting prospect.
Thus the most likely outcome is development of irrigation and other hydraulic-management infrastructure (barrages, canals, wells, pipes, pumps, etc.) in the alluvial plains of Somalia’s densely-populated riverine south to a level sufficient to allow banana and sugar plantations to produce for export markets.
Large industrial farms (aziende) were run in the past by Italian colonists and, more recently, firms such as De Nadai (through its subsidiary Somalfruit) and Dole Food Company (Sombana), the world’s largest producer of fresh fruit and vegetables. These survived during the 1990s, when the companies contracted local militias to capture port facilities and oversee forced labour.
But since state breakdown the stock of equipment (e.g. tractors, diesel fuel) and infrastructure has run down due to looting and lack of investment. The agricultural surplus has been extracted as protection payments and ‘tax’ at the point of a gun, and has been squandered by militias on weaponry and other forms of unproductive consumption. This has left irrigation channels vulnerable to violent ENSO and Indian Ocean Dipole events (and perhaps human-induced climate change), alternately bringing floods and disruption of the monsoon.
For decades now, technical-assistance manuals put out by development agencies (UN, EU, etc.) have stressed that the cash-crop sector can only be revived by ensuring secure property rights, leading to renewal of the water-delivery infrastructure, mechanized production and scale economies.
Should this vision be realized, it will mean displacement for the small-scale commercial farmers of maize, fruit trees, tomatoes, rice and groundnuts, and for the subsistence pastoralists raising livestock for milk, etc. Large-scale capital-intensive production using wage labour will disrupt existing rural society, eliminating whole social layers, just as Italian colonialism broke up the previous pattern of communal, open-access landholding.
The smallholding peasant class will be propelled into urban centres such as Mogadishu, Baidoa and Kismayo, where its members will face an uncertain fate, lacking jobs, other means of subsistence, sanitary waste disposal and other basic utilities.
But even this scenario, given the current state of things, supposes an inflow of development grants and long-term loans.
How likely is it that a capital-exporting country would be allowed to build up a stock of assets in a country surrounded on all sides by close allies of Washington, and subject to recurrent military raids by one of them (Ethiopia) and by the US itself?
The US has shown itself concerned enough about Chinese influence in Sudan to allow partition of that country, leading to probable revision by South Sudan’s energy ministry of existing contracts with CNPC, Petronas and ONGC, and possible diversion of downstream activity away from the existing refinery in Khartoum and export terminal at Port Sudan to a pipeline through Kenya.
Chinese construction services, infrastructure investment and influence-peddling in Somalia are surely unwelcome; Washington would prefer the managed disorder of ongoing civil war, periodic famine and Bono’s appeals for emergency relief.