Occupied Somalia

22 December 2007

Occupied Somalia

By Gwynne Dyer

It is exactly a year since Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, fell to Ethiopian troops (28 December), and the occupation has been one of the most brutal on record. The resistance started at once, and Ethiopian counter-insurgency tactics are not gentle.

As early as last April Germany’s ambassador to Somalia, Walter Lindner, wrote a public letter condemning the indiscriminate use of air strikes and heavy artillery in densely populated parts of Mogadishu, the systematic rape of women, and even the bombing of hospitals. By now, the Ethiopian army’s attempts to terrorise the residents of Mogadishu into submission have driven 600,000 of them — 60 percent of the population — to flee the city.

The Ethiopians and their local allies indignantly deny these figures, but they come from the United Nations aid coordinator for Somalia, Eric Laroche, and the makeshift camps along the roads leading away from Mogadishu are there for all to see. It is, says Laroche, the worst humanitarian crisis in Africa, worse even than Darfur. But “since it is in Somalia, no one cares.”

You will notice that some of the phrases used above do not appear in the agency reports about Somalia. The wire services do not talk about an Ethiopian occupation of Somalia, and they refer to the local Somali collaborators as the “transitional federal government” (TFG). This is mainly in deference to the United States, which organised and backed the Ethiopian invasion of Somalia.

The curse of Somalia is the clan system. It is the main point of reference for most Somalis, and it really became a crippling burden when long-ruling dictator Mohammed Siad Barre was overthrown in 1991. In the pre-independence days and the early years afterwards, the clans were able to unite against their Italian and British colonial rulers, but in 1991 they had to create a new government without an external enemy. They couldn’t do it.

As the clans fought it out in the streets, the whole infrastructure of an organised state collapsed. By 1992 American and United Nations forces arrived to help the millions of famine-stricken refugees, but they were only drawn into the inter-clan fighting as well, and by 1994 they had all withdrawn, leaving Somalia to anarchy and civil war for the next decade. But in fact most of the country was fairly stable under the control of one clan or another, with only the Mogadishu area still a battleground between rival clan warlords.

This did not greatly inconvenience the United States, which developed a keen interest in the politics of the region after the atrocities of 9/11. At first the US just made deals with the various warlords to ensure that no jihadi fanatics created a base there. But it got more upset when an organisation called the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) chased drove all the warlords out of Mogadishu in 2006 and gave the capital its first taste of peace and good government since 1991.

The UIC was actually created by prominent merchants from the locally dominant Hawiye clan who wanted a safe environment in which to do business. The “Islamic” aspect of it was mainly there to provide a rallying point that other clans could identify with, though that obviously also attracted a certain number of earnest and bearded young men. Some of them, unfortunately, favoured a rhetorical style that triggers a knee-jerk reaction in jittery post-9/11 Americans.

The people of Mogadishu, enjoying their first taste of normality in fifteen years, overwhelmingly supported the UIC, but the United States decided it must be overthrown. To do the job, Washington turned to its close ally Ethiopia, Somalia’s perennial enemy. The Ethiopians, who have no interest in a stable and strong Somalia, were happy to oblige — and for diplomatic cover, the US could use the “transitional federal government” of Somalia.

The TFG had been created in Kenya in 2004 under UN auspices. Each of the major clans (Hawiye, Darod, Dir and Rahanweyn) appointed 61 members to a “parliament” while all the minor clans shared 31 members between them. The “parliament” then chose a president, Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed. It was the fourteenth attempt since the overthrow of Siad Barre to create a Somali government.

The TFG set up in the town of Baidoa in early 2006, and promptly went to war with the Union of Islamic Courts that controlled the capital. Since it had only about 5,000 soldiers of its own, the TFG depended from the start on far larger numbers of Ethiopian troops to do the actual fighting. Large numbers of government members resigned as it became clear that the TFG had fallen into the hands of the Central Intelligence Agency and the Ethiopians, but a force of about 20,000 Ethiopian troops (with some US air support) fought its way into Mogadishu a year ago.

With the occupation of Mogadishu, the interval of peace ended, and the past year’s fighting has driven more than half the city’s population into flight. The TFG has been permanently discredited by its link to the hated Ethiopians, but it will probably take more years of war to end the occupation, and a lot more Somalis will die. All because they called it the Union of Islamic Courts.

If only they had called it the Union of Buddhist Courts. Or Protestant Courts. Anything but the “I” word.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 10. (“The Ethiopians…cares”‘ and “The TFG…government”