A cartoon in a Kenyan newspaper sums up the feeling of many people here regarding the world attitude towards Somalia: a white man, an international bureaucrat, lies snoozing at the foot of a map of Africa. On his briefcase is written World Community; on the map the only country marked is Somalia, and the only other words are Crack! Crack!, the sound of gunfire.

In another newspaper the same day a regular columnist is of the opinion that Africa, specifically Somalia, receives insufficient attention in the media and in the world corridors of power because this is still a white man’s world, but that the United States is at the same time fuelling a civil war there. That Western countries fear becoming directly involved in Somalia is understandable, if you remember the debacle in 1991, dramatised in the movie Black Hawk Down, in which the US was trounced and sent packing.

As of today, 150 people have been killed in one week of fighting in the capital, Mogadishu. They are mainly civilians caught in the crossfire, many women and young children, even babies; and there are hundreds more hiding in storm drains in this city of about one million people. According to residents, this is the worst fighting in more than a decade of lawlessness, and this is the first time civilians have been targeted in such a savage way.

Parties in the conflict

Which are the parties in the conflict? First, the UN-backed transitional government established in Baidoa, about 250 kilometres west of Mogadishu (since the capital is too unsafe), which controls only a small portion of the country. After this government had been elected by representatives of the fighting warlords the leaders spent many months in Nairobi, unable to agree among themselves–and mainly at the expense of the Kenyan government–gathering courage to go back home. While they were vacillating, more warlords emerged all over the country to join those already causing havoc.

Next, the militia loyal to the Islamic Court Union. They have built up their forces as part of a campaign to install an Islamic government in Somalia. This is opposed by the warlords, young men who have been educated outside and returned, with financial means. They divided the country into anarchic clan-based “fiefdoms” following the ousting in 1991 of Siad Barre, who had run the country with an iron fist for many years.

Last, the warlords who belong to the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter Terrorism, and who have been controlling the capital through mayhem. The Alliance accuses the Union of having ties with Al Qaeda, whereas the Union says the warlords are puppets of the United States. The Union, in its turn, is popular because it has provided the only form of government in the city and is considered to be fighting for the country and not some outside force.

Current dispute

The present dispute is over a strategic road in the north of the city. The Alliance holds the road, but the Union controls the neighbourhoods on both sides. The wider issue is power and control of the country. The transitional government agrees with the Union claim that the US is supporting the Alliance. President Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed has said that the US Government supports the Alliance as a way of fighting several top Al Qaeda operatives who are being protected by radical clerics, but has offered no evidence. The United States government has neither confirmed nor denied these charges.

MogadishuBusinessmen and moderate religious leaders have begun trying to negotiate a more lasting cease-fire, but most Somalis foresee only an escalation of the fighting. Some political analysts say the upsurge of fighting suggests that Somalia has become a new proxy battleground for Islamic militants and the United States, which is believed to be funding the warlords.

Certainly, with its hundreds of miles of unsupervised coastline it is very easy for anyone to arrive in Somalia undetected and take advantage of a country in a state of anarchy. Since the regime of Barre, it has been impossible to establish a stable central authority, although more than a dozen attempts have been made. The only significant relationship with a foreign country is a technical and economic cooperation agreement signed with Kenya in September last year, the first one for many years.

To make matters worse, the whole region of the Horn of Africa has been suffering drought for many months. In Somalia two million out of the estimated population of eight million is at risk. Refugees are fleeing into the neighbouring countries, especially Kenya, which is the most stable and which has recently received 15,000. Many thousands have already either settled here or are housed in camps. But we should not imagine that food convoys receive a red carpet welcome: they can only pass after drivers bribe warlords, and with the current conflict in the capital many food convoys are stuck en route. Nor can aid enter the country from the sea since pirates control the coast line and the whole Red Sea area.

Economic potential

Somalia appears irremediable, yet it need not continue to be. It has a coastline of 3,300 kilometres, from Djibouti to Kenya, including Somaliland, and many thousands of square kilometers of economically exploitable marine zone. But trade along the coastal stretch is hardly exploited, and is little more than a source of survival for the fishermen scattered in the villages. This deficiency is also a great opportunity for the development of infrastructure and modern technology, were the country to get organized and settle down.

Foreign investment in Somalia dates back many centuries to the times of the first Arab traders, who came down the coast or across from the Arabian Peninsula. In fact, the first known Islamic settlement is on Manda Island, near the Kenya-Somalia border. A community of foreign traders from the Persian Gulf built a 45-acre settlement in cut blocks of coral in the ninth century. And from the thirteenth to the fifteenth century urbanized Islamic communities built in stone and coral, and imported such goods as Thai stoneware and porcelain of the Sung and Ming dynasties. We are dealing with an old civilization that has known better times.

Image: US Defense Visual Information CenterThe country has been independent since 1960, but little has been achieved at the grassroots, the level of the pastoralists, farmers and fishermen who are the worst affected by the current instability. Before that, during the colonial era, the Italians started sugar plantations and horticulture and the country exported food. The north has gem stones; very likely there is oil. To illustrate its undeveloped potential: a camel in Israel produces six times as much milk as a camel in Somalia, but if Israeli technology were made available and used, camel milk, in great demand in many communities in Africa for its healthful qualities, could be exported and bring in badly needed revenue. This sort of development is not possible under the present circumstances: the absence of peace; no opportunity to create a favourable environment for investment; and lack of trained people and know how.

Wasted opportunities

The country’s recent history is a classic case in misgovernment and wasted opportunities. From Independence until a military regime took over in 1969, investors came from Europe, Egypt, and the United States. The military junta, backed by the Soviet government, undertook a process of nationalisation and confiscated the plantations, manufacturing facilities, the import/export companies and the fuel sector. Local business leaders were branded “petty bourgeois” and fled with their savings; foreign investors left too. In 1972 Siad Barre enacted the Nationalisation of Production Means Directive.

In the Foreign Policy and Fund for Peace (FP) assessment and ranking, carried out between July and December 2005 and therefore not including the present situation, Somalia was close to the top of the list of “failed states”. The assessment was based on the economic, military and social indicators of instability. The FP criteria consider such factors as: the appointment of independent judges in the judicial system of a country; the development of a competent civil service; the implementation of an anti-corruption campaign. A failed state is one without a government in effective control of its territory and/or which is not perceived as legitimate by a significant proportion of the population. At the time of this survey Somalia achieved the highest rating (or lowest, depending how you view it) on this score.

Another factor is whether the country has domestic security. As of now it would undoubtedly top the list of least secure states. Last year it had the highest possible rating the for lack of public services. It also scored high for lack of human rights, a failed security apparatus, and (mis)rule by small elites divided into factions.

Strengths and weaknesses

Since 1991 Somalia has ranked high among the countries that cannot get its act together, but it need not be this way. Given the right enabling environment, Somalia could promise and deliver much. The Somalis are one people – unusual in Africa where most countries are a patchwork of tribes. They have one language and culture. The country is overwhelmingly Moslem – in fact, a certain Islamic radicalism has taken hold in the last few years. The Catholic cathedral in Mogadishu was burned down some years ago and the bishop assassinated.

Image: SomaliaPeace.netBut, rather than being the reason for hope, the fact of being a uniform inward-looking community and culture appears to make the people more vulnerable to manipulation by unruly, fearless gun-toting warlords. The Somalis to a man are intrepid, proud and honourable as warriors and brook absolutely no compromise. They make excellent soldiers and police officers and many Kenyan Somalis serve in the Kenyan armed forces. All go armed, however; even youngsters carry the Somali sword, the njora, a twelve inch double-edged blade.

They are intensely loyal and a Somali will never stab his opponent in the back; he will always take him from the front. They can live in the barest simplicity, like all pastoral peoples, accustomed to the harshest of terrains. They have a deep sense of community and loyalty to their clan or extended family. If they are on your side you are the safest person alive. They can also be extremely hospitable, again like all traditional and nomadic peoples. Their sharp, hustler-style business acumen has developed over time and owing to their relative isolation: to do business they have had to travel long distances under harsh conditions. The haulage sector in this region is dominated by them.

With all this in their favour they can promise much and build up their country, if only they can agree to get together and agree to work together. Easier said than done. When deep-seated rivalries are allowed to fester and then burst out, with no form of control or check, sitting down and calmly discussing a solution that is for everyone’s benefit, and therefore to one’s own immediate disadvantage, does not come naturally. Besides, there are guns everywhere – thousands of guns have also found their way into Kenya, making Nairobi the security hazard it was not ten or fifteen years ago.

A way forward

The legitimate government of Somalia cannot even think of disarming the warlords and the militia any more than a stray sheep will feel at home in a lion’s den. Armed militia are in power throughout the country. External intervention is not very feasible either; the Somalis would consider this an affront to their sovereignty and their national pride, necessary as it might be for the welfare of the innocent.

Perhaps a combination of the two would work: get the different parties to the same table, with the mediation of a friendly power, preferably from this region. Dividing the country into three separate states, Somalia, Somaliland and Puntland, has also been mooted, and has some support. Whatever the solution, something must be done. The country is on a course of self-destruction and, for the sake of the civilians caught in the crossfire and the ensuing spiral of enmity and vengeance, the international community cannot just sit and watch as bands of wild youth drive through the streets perpetuating their reign of terror.

During the first decade after independence the country was progressing in the right direction. The repressive Soviet-backed years of military rule and nationalization stifled growth and healthy development in all directions. It is a scenario not unlike that of former Yugoslavia, where the end of dictatorship saw repressed energies burst out and chaos ensue. The Somali people can live in peace; they have done so in the past. To help bring about this completion of the circle is the greatest service their leaders and, if necessary any external mediators, will be able to achieve.
Martyn Drakard is a Kenyan of British origin, a teacher for many years and now Director of the Community Outreach Programme in Strathmore University, Nairobi. He is a regular columnist on social issues for local publications.

Martyn Drakard is a retired teacher of languages who lives in Kenya.