Somalia is strategically situated on the Horn of Africa, lying to the south of the route through the Red Sea and Suez Canal. A quarter of the world’s oil production passes through this maritime zone. The US has a military base in Djibouti, within this maritime zone Somalis possess a common language and culture and believe in one religion, Islam. Agriculture and livestock are the most important sectors of the economy. Many pastoral nomads live in Somalia. A clan system operates within Somali society extending all the way down to close kinsmen and family groups. Somali peoples like all victims of colonialism were divided among many countries :Kenya, Ethiopia and Djibouti, in addition to Somalia itself.
At independence in 1960, British Somaliland and Italian Somalia were joined to form the Somali Republic. It remained the ambition of Somali nationalists to establish a “Greater Somalia,” reuniting the Somali communities in the “lost lands” of Ogaden and Djibouti. The military dictator, Siyad Barre, who had seized power in 1969, invaded and captured most of the Ogaden, but Ethiopia counterattacked and he was forced to withdraw his troops. Following Siyad’s defeat by warlords in 1991, attempts by UN forces to quell the warlords failed. There have been fifteen attempts to reconcile the country’s warlords and form a national government without success. These warlords base themselves on shifting allegiances and temporary clan coalitions, making the system inherently unstable. To break the cycle of competing warlords wreaking havoc on their lives, the Somali people turned to their own organisations and religious institutions. In 2006, the Union of Islamic Courts(UIC) were able to unite Somalis for the first time since 1991, defeat the warlords backed by the US and bring a sense of security and peace based on the notions of Islamic law and social justice. The US branded the UIC, enemies in the war against “international terrorism”. While the Ethiopian invasion force were able to defeat the UIC, assisted by US bombing of Somali villages, the presence of foreign troops succeeded in uniting a disparate Islamic opposition.
The Transitional Federal Government (TFG) with the backing of countries neighbouring Somalia was installed by the Ethiopian army with US support in Mogadishu. As the resistance against the Ethiopian occupation intensified, civilians in the capital were caught up in the crossfire and thousands fled to other parts of the country and to neighbouring countries. Mogadishu has become a ghost town. A contingent of African Union troops, the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) from Uganda and Burundi, was sent into Somalia in 2007 to back up the TFG.
A defeat for US imperialism
The withdrawal of Ethiopian troops from Somalia undoubtedly represents a defeat for US imperialism and it is having to reconsider its strategy for the country and the region as a whole. The TFG was reconstituted in 2009 and Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed, one of the important leaders of the UIC, returned from exile to head the government. It has received the full endorsement of the US. Sheik Ahmed has brought with him some of his supporters and it is his policy to seek reconciliation with the resistance movements. He has also reached out to the Somali diaspora. Among the resistance movements are Al-Shabab, a spinoff from the UIC, and the other, Hisbul Islam, one of whose main components is the Eritrean based Alliance for the Re-liberation of Somalia (ARSA). They refuse to recognise the TFG because, according to an ARSA spokesman it is “not a sovereign government and is commanded by foreign powers”. The “parliament” made a decision to implement Islamist Sharia law as national law and the TFG hopes this will undermine support for the resistance movements, who are fighting for that, among other things.
The TFG are obtaining significant external support. In April 09, an international donor conference in Brussels at which 60 nations were present, pledged $213m to Somalia, led by the EU’s $72m. This show of support will go towards maintaining and enlarging an embattled 5,000-strong African Union force and also training Somali security forces. These nations have been galvanised into action by the threat posed to world trade by Somali pirates. Last year they made 92 attacks on ships with 36 successful hijackings and collected millions of dollars in ransom. There is a realisation among the donor nations that naval vessels from around the world now patrolling the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean are insufficient to curtail attacks by Somali pirates. What the donor nations have not promised is to stop their fishermen poaching the fish off the Somali coast and taking away the livelihood of Somali fishermen, many of whom have turned to piracy.The foreign minister of the TFG, Mohammed Abdullahi Omar’s answer to piracy is to fund and equip Somali forces capable of patrolling their own waters and taking the fight to the pirates in their bases on land. He adds that this would be at 1% of the cost of keeping the international flotilla in the water
The position of the TFG in the country is precarious because although it is popular with many Somalis, it directly controls only Mogadishu’s airport, its seaport and a small corner of the ruined city where the presidential palace is fortified by 4,000 African Union peacekeepers. The al-Shabaab resistance movement continues to make headway, having captured towns to the north of Mogadishu . The resistance forces remain divided. There is a big question mark as to whether Sheik Ahmed’s government can succeed in getting the resistance movements or a significant section of them to lay down their arms.
Whatever happens in the short term in Somalia, the long term agenda of the US is to maintain a military presence in the Horn of Africa to protect its oil and other interests on the continent. It uses the “global war on terror” to increase its military presence in Africa. From the struggles in Somalia, right across Africa, the people cannot tackle their problems in isolation. Nkrumah’s belief that the continent could not free itself until it was politically united, holds true today. Revolutionary Pan Africanism, the building of the organisations from below to create that unity, can take the people forward in their struggles against their internal and external foes and deal with the ecological crisis.