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July 2002

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By Andrew Cockburn
Somalia appears to be the very definition of what we call a failed state. The last time this desert country possessed anything approaching a "normal" government, with tax collection, social services, and law enforcement, was under a bloody dictator named Siad Barre. After Barre was driven out by a national rebellion early in 1991, political power over most of Somalia fell into the hands of feuding warlords, who, like grand dukes from the European Middle Ages, deployed their private armies to battle for power even as hundreds of thousands of other Somalis were dying of hunger. Outside intervention, often with good intentions, has done little to help—and has usually made things worse.
Draped around the Horn of Africa, its coasts washed by the Indian Ocean to the east and the Gulf of Aden to the north, Somalia is for the most part an arid land with only two permanent rivers, one of which dries up intermittently. The country is largely flat, except for the low but rugged mountain ranges of the north. Some of the salient features of the landscape and its inhabitants were enumerated a century ago by nationalist leader Mohamed Abdullah Hassan, known to his enemies as the Mad Mullah: "I like war, and you do not," he wrote in a threatening note to the British colonial authorities then occupying the northern part of the country (the Italians colonized the south). "The country . . . is no use to you. If you want wood and stone you can get them in plenty. There are also many ant heaps. The sun is very hot."
Relief from the aridity, at least in good times, comes twice a year, between April and June and October and December, when minimal rain-fall replenishes the water holes and briefly blankets the plateau covering the center of the country with grass and wildflowers. Most settled farming is in the south between the Jubba and Shabeelle Rivers, where there is enough constant moisture—except that for the past three years there has been little or no rain, raising the specter of widespread famine. Elsewhere rural Somalis tend their sheep, goats, and cattle along with their camels, which the nomadic herdsmen venerate as "living boulders, placed by God in the wilderness."
Sharing a common language and the Sunni Muslim faith, Somalis are both linked and divided by the pervasive clan system. Each clan traces its descent from a common ancestor in the remote past. Within clans there are family subclans, often bitterly divided against each other. It is to his subclan that a Somali looks for protection against the outside world, and it is the subclan that exacts revenge or compensation for a Somali who is killed. "I and my clan against the world," goes a Somali saying, "I and my brother against my clan."
After Siad Barre was overthrown, the existing clan leaders, who traditionally adjudicated disputes within and among clans, lost control to military strongmen who had emerged during the revolt. No one could stop the quarrels of these warlords, who, armed with modern weapons, took over the clans and pillaged the country to supply and pay their private armies. The northwest, where the Isaaq clan predominates, seceded, declaring itself the independent state of Somaliland. It has survived ever since despite minimal resources, a couple of civil wars, and lack of recognition from the outside world. In the northeast the Harti clan of the Darod created a similar entity, Puntland (though without declaring independence), with rather less success.
Meanwhile Somalia's capital city of Mogadishu, now the stronghold of the Hawiye clan, was divided by fighting between its Habr Gedir and Abgal subclans as their respective leaders struggled for power. In 1993 a United States military force, originally dispatched to Somalia as part of a United Nations humani-tarian peacekeeping mission in the midst of a horrific famine, concluded that the Habr Gedir leader, Mohamed Aideed, was the principal source of local disorder and launched an intensive manhunt to arrest or kill him. Uniting in the face of this assault on their leader, the Habr Gedir fought back, culminating in the October 3, 1993, battle in south Mogadishu—the subject of the recent film Black Hawk Down—in which 18 Americans and as many as a thousand Somalis were killed.
The shock of American casualties quelled any appetite among Western powers for further intervention. There seemed every reason to expect that Somalia, abandoned by the outside world, would sink into a morass of starvation and war. That has not happened. Instead, like plants sprouting after a forest fire, Somalis have managed to survive and build on their own, in some respects with more success than developing nations on the receiving end of international aid and advice.
In the northwestern city of Hargeysa, in the congested Sheikh Nur community for returned refugees, the Ismail family invested their meager resources in a water tap to supply the entire neighborhood. Abdi Ismail not only garners a weekly profit of $20 but also points out: "We are contributing to rebuilding Somaliland."
Some Somali businessmen engaged in more ambitious enterprises say they have succeeded, at least initially, because of the total lack of oversight and regulation. "We have been through some hard times," admits telecommunications tycoon Abdirizak Ido, "but the worst was when we had a government. Once there was no government, there was opportunity!
"I can say that we have a more efficient communications system than neighboring countries like Ethiopia and Kenya," says Ido, the founder of Nationlink, one of Somalia's ten fiercely competitive telephone companies. "In Mogadishu you get landline service eight hours after you order it—for ten dollars a month." (Cell service is instantaneous.) Local calls are free, and international calls cost 60 cents to a dollar a minute, even from remote villages linked to a phone center by shortwave radio.
With the phone service as pump primer, other businesses have been flourishing in Mogadishu and elsewhere. Gaalkacyo, a desert town in the center of the country, has streetlights, thanks to Abdirizak Osman, a local entrepreneur who branched out from phones to electrical generators, not only lighting the town but also supplying free power to the hospital. Abdul Dini, one of the Nationlink partners (though he and Ido belong to different sub-clans), rattles off his growing list of subsidiaries: A spaghetti factory in Mogadishu (one legacy of a half century of Italian occupation is the Somali avidity for pasta), a plastics factory, a mineral-water plant, a bakery. Mogadishu has two fiercely competing cable TV companies, and a (pirated) copy of Black Hawk Down was playing in one of the city's cinemas within days of its nationwide release in the U.S.
But where, I asked Dini, does all the money to support this economy come from? There are few exports to speak of, especially since the Saudi Arabian government has twice banned the import of Somali livestock—a particular disaster for Somaliland—on the grounds that the animals are infected with Rift Valley fever, which can be fatal to humans. (UN experts, however, dispute the claim of infection.) Rice, the staple diet, is imported, along with a huge volume of qat, the mildly stimulating shrub chewed by many Somalis, flown in daily from Kenya.
"We live off the international community—of Somalis," Dini answered with a chuckle. "That is where all the money in the country comes from." There are more than a million Somalis living and working throughout the world, a diaspora accelerated by the disorders of the nineties. Dutifully conscious of their obligations to family at home, these expatriates send back as much as 700 million dollars a year, "20 million dollars a month into Mogadishu alone," says Dini.
It is a system based entirely on trust. "Ali" in, say, Minneapolis, a U.S. city heavily populated with Somalis, will go to his local Somali money-transfer office and hand over a hundred dollars for his cousin "Ahmed" in Gaalkacyo. (The office will probably know him, at least by reputation, and may front the money if necessary.) The Minneapolis office simply notifies the office in Gaalkacyo by fax to hand the money over to the cousin, and the offices settle up later. Thanks to the phone system, the entire process typically takes about 24 hours.
Until last year the largest such transfer operation was a company called al Barakat, but last November Washington announced that the company had been moving cash for Osama bin Laden and closed it down. Other companies swiftly moved in to fill the gap, but the shutdown bolstered suspicions in the U.S. media that the "failed state" had to be a perfect nest for al Qaeda terrorists.
However, says professor Ken Menkhaus of Davidson College in North Carolina, a UN consultant and expert on Somalia, "There are at this time no terrorist bases or training camps in Somalia." Commenting on reports earlier this year that the al Qaeda leader might be heading for his country, Somali novelist Nuruddin Farah pointed out that if Osama bin Laden turned up in Somalia, he would promptly be cashed in for the 25-million-dollar reward offered by the U.S. government. Farah suggested that bin Laden might want to seek a refuge "where he would be less likely to be sold."
Somalia does have its own fundamentalist Islamic group, al-Ittihad, which made considerable inroads in the early nineties, thanks partly to donations for schools and services coming from Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf. AlIttihad is still a presence, but, according to many Somalis, the organization has been no match for clan loyalties. "It tried to force its ideology on people," says one Mogadishu businessman, but when al-Ittihad clashed with clan warlords, even al-Ittihad's people supported their clans.
The warlords have also frustrated such Somali political initiatives as the Transitional National Government (TNG), elected by representatives from different clans in August 2000. Despite the attractive possibility of a reemerging national government, the TNG has lacked money and hence authority—its control extends over no more than half of Mogadishu, and does not include the port or airport. Without a central bank to regulate currency, self-serving businessmen have been able to print large numbers of counterfeit notes, which they've used to back the TNG. The result has been the devaluation of the Somali shilling.
Nevertheless, there is a strong appetite for order and stability in Somalia. Commenting on the lack of social life and surplus of armed gangs in Mogadishu, Ido jokes mordantly: "There is no life here—sometimes there is death." Bemoaning the power of the fractious warlords, sponsors of the chaos that first brought him opportunity, he insists that the time is ripe for real government and personally feels that the U.S. could and should impose a political solution. Recent history, however, suggests that Somalis may fare better when left on their own.


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