Thursday, November 13, 2008

US/Ethiopian coalition in Somalia fails, Islamists advance

Somalia, yet again, is in turmoil. This time, the Islamists are advancing against Somalia's weak central government, the Transition Federal Government. And far from being a complicated and inexplicable basket case, the story of Somalia actually holds some pretty simple and important lessons: foreign governments cause problems and terrible regimes, while the international community's neglect allows capitalism to bring Somalis' living standards up.

The TFG was created in the mid-2000s as a response to Ethiopia's fear of any coherent state at all in Somalia, and the West's fear of radical Islam. At the time, the Islamic Courts Union was sweeping through the southern half of the country, and damn near took over the parts that hadn't already seceded. (Somaliland and Putland are de facto independent governments, and aren't at risk of collapse from the ICU, though they aren't the most stable regimes.) Ethiopia was understandably worried about Somali revanchism, as it won the Ogaden region from Somalia in a war of that same name in the late '70s, along with the four million Somalis on it that didn't flee into Somalia proper. The West had its own well-being in mind: it was afraid of Somalia becoming a hub for al-Qaeda and Islamic terrorism.

So as a result, the corrupt and ineffective TFG came into being. From what I understand, by now it doesn't have power at all outside of Mogadishu, and the Islamists are currently preparing for a battle there. The general objection to the Islamists is their strictness: the NYT cites the example of a teenager being stoned to death for adultery for reporting a rape. But this rigid interpretation of sharia is alien to most Somalis, especially the vast population of pastoralists who have very tight family and clan-based governance structures. Given the Somalis' distaste for non-autochthonous government (Michael van Notten wrote a fascinating book about the indigenous Somali law system), and the foreignness of Wahhabi Islam, it's unlikely that the Islamists could stay in power long without adapting. But anyway, we'll see now how long the Islamists last, as it looks like the Ethiopian- and American-backed TFG is about to crumble. It just would have been nicer if this were allowed to happen years ago, so that we could have avoided the intervening war.

This pattern of foreign intervention trying to create a state begetting horrific results in Somalia is not limited to the last decade. As early as the colonial period, the imperialists had a very difficult time getting Somalis to register and interact with the state, as their isolated pastoral culture kept them out of coastal towns for the most part. The brief democratic post-colonial period was a failure, because even though it was Somali in its conception, it was the conception of the Westernized Somali diaspora and elite, not of the prevailing Somali culture. The descent into dictatorship and the horrific experiment with Siad Barre's "scientific socialism" again can be seen as a result of foreign powers interfering, with Somalia being a pawn in the proxy war between America and the Soviet Union. First by the USSR, and then to some extent by the US (though not really), Siad Barre was allowed to go on with his destructive domestic policy. Luckily, détente eroded his power and the collapse of the Soviet Union ended the nightmare, as the government collapsed for good. A brutal civil war broke out, and when Barre was finally deposed, a power vacuum led to a nasty competition over who would be heir to the Somali state. The US and international community got involved in 1992 but failed miserably, and only prolonged the civil war. This conflict was rooted in Barre's discriminatory policy towards other clans – it was a war that was destined to be fought.

From then up until the early 2000s, vast expanses of Somalia were more or less stateless. And yet, in many ways its people fared better than those in neighboring African states that had governments, as well as doing better than during the Barre state. The best thing for the West to do right now would be to vow not to interfere anymore in Somalia, and promise to stand by idly if the country is broken up into even smaller factions. Dictators and would-be governments are only egged on by the prevailing nation state norm, and know that if they can establish themselves in power, the international community will help them stay there. But the West should make sure to get out of the mindset that a stable central government is necessary for peace and economic development in Somalia.

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