SOMALIA IS in the news a lot these days, almost always in reference to the latest pirate hijacking in the Gulf of Aden, one of the busiest, and now the riskiest, shipping routes in the world. Words like “swashbuckling” are bandied about to describe the derring-do of sophisticated and well-armed Somalis who have brought GPS technology and international wire transfers to the profession. Some reports tell of new international restaurants that have opened in Somali port towns catering to the non-Somali tastes of long-term guests, i.e. hostages. Naval ships from China, India, Europe, and the U.S. have entered these same waters and even engaged in a few pitched battles with the pirates. The most violent skirmish to date has involved an Indian naval ship that fired on and sunk what turned out to be a hijacked Thai fishing trawler, killing most of the hostages on board.
“Everybody is so concentrated on piracy on the water that it’s completely overshadowing the humanitarian disaster inland,” explains Sadia Ali Aden, president of the Northern Virginia-based, all-volunteer Somali Diaspora Network. “For me, the biggest heartbreak, what really destroys me, is knowing that my own tax money is being used to kill my own people.”
To understand Ali Aden’s heartbreak is to understand that while
pirates crowd the headlines, her tax dollars, and ours, have been
funding America’s largely hidden war in Somalia for years now—a war
that has remained one of the most underreported fronts in the outgoing
administration’s “global war on terror.” And piracy, like many of the
other outgrowths of a failed U.S. policy in the region, is one of its
unintended consequences. Political decisions made largely out of public
view helped create not only a massive humanitarian disaster in Somalia,
they also produced a political and security vacuum in the country that
dwarfed previous periods of instability, a fairly difficult thing to do
in a country best known for fifteen years of uninterrupted anarchy. And
where there’s a vacuum and opportunity for profit, fools rush in, and
pirates and those who finance them have not been the only ones. Private
military contractors like Blackwater Worldwide are also eager to mine
the proverbial gold that crisis, lack of governance, and humanitarian
strife have given birth to.
SOMALIA HAS hardly been a model of stability over the years, but the U.S.-backed Ethiopian invasion in the last days of 2006, and the insurgency it gave life to, have created a humanitarian crisis that the International Committee of the Red Cross describes as “catastrophic.” The UN says that up to 3.5 million people (nearly half the country’s population) need immediate food aid to avoid starvation. Up to a million and a half people, many of them former residents of the capital, have been made internal refugees, living in sprawling tent cities outside of war-torn Mogadishu. The city itself is largely destroyed and much of it stands abandoned. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have each reported extensive war crimes committed by Ethiopian troops, soldiers loyal to the Ethiopian-installed TFG (Transitional Federal Government), and Islamic rebels, and at least 10,000 civilians have been killed in the fighting. Without the estimated $1 billion that Diaspora Somalis send back annually, according to UNDP, the cash economy would likely collapse.
“The Bush administration policy in Somalia has not only been ineffective, it has made the situation on the ground considerably worse,” says John Prendergast, co-chair of the Enough Project and former Special Advisor on African Affairs to the Department of State. According to a recent Human Rights Watch report, “TFG security forces and allied militia have tortured detainees, and killed and raped civilians and looted their homes, sometimes in the context of house-to-house joint security operations with Ethiopian troops. Ethiopian forces, who were relatively disciplined in 2007, have been more widely implicated in acts of violent criminality this year.” Amnesty International has documented extensive extra-judicial killings by Ethiopian troops, including children. Insurgents have recruited children and killed “traitors,” amongst them poor Somalis trying to eke out a living by selling tea to Ethiopian soldiers.
Compared to the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s a clandestine war fought on the cheap, mostly by proxy through Ethiopia and various C.I.A.-funded warlords. The U.S. does intervene militarily from time to time though, largely through missile strikes on suspected terrorists or Al Qaeda members. More often than not, these strikes, much like the drone strikes in Afghanistan, kill civilians. One such strike in 2007, ostensibly targeting Islamists in southern Somalia, killed seventy nomadic herdsmen, according to Oxfam. After a U.S. strike in May of this year that killed a well-known Islamist militia leader, as well as up to a dozen civilians, retaliatory attacks were levied against African Union peacekeeping troops, potentially further destabilizing the country just before UN-backed peace talks were set to begin. All are reasons that piracy might begin to look like a pretty viable job option in a country with the longest coast line in Africa.
“Imagine if you are 30-years-old now, you were 14-years-old when the civil war started. And after all of that, your country is occupied by Ethiopian troops,” says Guled Kassim, the director of the Maryland-based Institute for Global Civic Empowerment, an organization that promotes civil society development in the Horn of Africa. “A lot of the guys I meet of this generation are shell-shocked, this is the only reality they know.”
“Everybody is fascinated with the piracy, but these are not the Robin Hoods of the sea,” says Hassan Warsame, Ali Aden’s co-founder at the Somali Diaspora Network. “They’re not taking these millions and giving them to the poor of Mogadishu. A lot of these guys were involved in other forms of crime before.” In fact, incidents of piracy were greatly diminished during the short window of time in 2006 during which Mogadishu and swaths of the south were administered by the Islamic Courts Union (ICU).
While the ICU brought about a period of security not seen in Mogadishu for years, provocative comments made by some of its more radical elements proved to be the tipping point for Ethiopia. After a number of highly publicized accusations against the ICU, including alleged ties to Al Qaeda members linked to the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, Ethiopia invaded on Christmas Eve in 2006 with tacit U.S. support, bringing with them many of the C.I.A.-funded warlords previously ousted by the ICU.*
Like the ephemeral WMDs in Iraq, the individuals responsible for the
Kenya bombings have never been apprehended, prompting some to call the
invasion and ensuing bloody insurgency, “Ethiopia’s Iraq.” And as in
Iraq, Somalia has become another sad illustration of the law of
unintended consequences, where war games mapped out in Addis Ababa and
Washington led to consequences that have not only been disastrous from
a humanitarian point of view, but also from a realpolitik point of view.
LESS THAN two years after the invasion Ethiopian-backed President Abdullahi Yusuf has resigned after being accused of being an obstacle to UN-hosted peace talks, Ethiopia has begun to pull out its troops, and the TFG is near collapse. The Islamist and anti-occupation Al Shabaab movement (meaning “Party of the Youth“), a group recently designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department, is now on the brink of controlling the country. As in Iraq, where neoconservative visions of a secular, democratic government borne out of a foreign occupation quickly gave rise to an astonishing array of well-armed sectarian militias, those who will likely sweep to power in Somalia are much more radical and anti-American than those in the ICU who were initially ousted by Ethiopia.
Yet it has taken a vast new economy of banditry on the high seas to call attention to a region that has largely been off the radar of mainstream policy discussion. But not all of the attention the region has received is good. Amidst all the chaos, the pirates aren’t the only ones looking to make money. A “new market” is now emerging—one for private military contractors like Blackwater Worldwide and Hollowpoint who will take up the task of battling pirates and escorting threatened freighters through the region.
“People forget the history of private military contractors, that it was actually in Africa where they first got really big,” says Roxanne Lawson, Africa Policy Director for the DC-based TransAfrica Forum. “If you step away from politics, and just remember that military contractors are businesses like any other business, you know that their business managers have to figure out how to create markets for their own services in the long-term. Their financial advisors are looking at the next eight years, and they know the American public is suffering from invasion fatigue. So the question is: What’s the next big market? Is it proxy wars? Or is it battling pirates?”
Joseph Huff-Hannon is a writer on politics and culture, based in Brooklyn, NY. Photo: Somalian pirates holding the crew of the Chinese fishing vessel FV Tianyu 8 in 2008 (Jason R. Zalasky / U.S. Navy / Wikimedia Commons).
*Ethiopia, by the way, is hardly a bastion of democracy, although it does have a number of well positioned lobbyists in Washington who have been remarkably successful in pushing Congress to approve hundreds of millions in aid every year, much of it military aid. In 2005, hundreds of Ethiopian civilians were gunned down by government troops in Addis Ababa following protests of a suspect election that kept Prime Minister Zenawi’s party in power. And Human Rights Watch recently accused Ethiopian troops of war crimes and crimes against humanity in the Ogaden, listing countless examples of summary executions, massacres, widespread use of rape and torture, and the burning of entire villages in a region bordering Somalia with an active separatist movement.