A few months ago, it looked as if Somalia might be on the verge of recovery. Somalia’s parliament in exile finally met in Somalia, rather than in Kenya. The BBC was sufficiently optimistic that they ran a series of stories titled: Somalia, Emerging from Ruins?
Unfortunately, recent news from Somalia has been uniformly bad. (An important distincion – “Somalia” exists in name only. Somaliland and Puntland have both declared their independence and formed somewhat functional governments. Though impoverished, both regions are in better shape than the remainder of the nation, which is what I refer to when I write “Somalia”.) In late March, fierce fighting broke out between two coalitions of warlords.
One coalition, the Union of Islamic Courts, is an Islamist group which promises to bring peace and stability to Somalia through instituting Sharia law. Some of their leaders are accused of having ties to Al-Qaeda, and there is speculation that wanted Al-Qaeda figures are being sheltered by UIC in Somalia. Other warlords have formed a counter-coalition, the Alliance for Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism, and shoot-outs between the two groups killed at least 70 people over three days.
The AP offered the surprising news this weekend that the US was backing ARPCT over UIC – this information was offered to the AP by an anonymous Bush administration spokesperson. It’s certainly no surprise that the US has interests in Somalia – the archetypical failed state, it’s widely believed to be home to suspects in the “war on terror”. And the anonymous administration official invokes terrorism in explaining US support for ARPCT:
The same official, who monitors the situation in Somalia, also repeated the long-standing U.S. policy of working with anyone who is ready to cooperate in the fight against al-Qaida, adding that U.S. officials had made contact with a wide range of Somalis. He declined to say what kind of support the U.S. was supplying.
In this sense, the US is making the same calculations aid agencies are making in working in Somalia. Counter to their policy in most nations, Doctors without Borders keeps a team of gunmen on staff, paying them roughly as well as they pay experienced field nurses. Without gunmen, it would be unsafe for doctors to provide assistance outside of their heavily guarded compounds. Even with gunmen, it’s difficult to provide relief in Somalia, as the World Food Programme found when their convoy was attacked by gunmen who wanted a share of food supplies – four of WFP’s gunmen were killed in the ensuing melee. But it’s a reminder of the US’s unwillingness and fear of operating in Somalia, a result of the brutal deaths of US Army Rangers in operations during the 1993 UN mission to stabilize the nation. Would we be backing one milita over another in a country where we believed terror suspects were at large had we not been so badly scarred by our previous experiences in the country?
What’s amazing to me when I read about Somalia is the extent to which individuals are able to survive under such impossible conditions. A major reason is remittances Somalis send home to their families. The Boston Globe has a portrait of Nuuh Hassan, a 33-year old Somali who lives in Boston and makes under $20,000 a year as a metalworker. But he sends $300 a month home using Dahabshil, a remittance service that specializes in sending money to East Africa. After 9/11, the US government froze the funds of Al Barakat, the largest Somali money transfer agency – UNDP intervened to prevent Dahabshil from being closed down, realizing what hardship would result in Somalia if remittances from expat Somalis were frozen. It’s worth remembering, as people take to the streets today in the US to march for immigration reform, that immigrants – legal and illegal – are the most important factor in the survival of their families in countries like Somalia.
Thanks to Bill Ainashe of Ainashe.net for the link that got me thinking about Somalia today…