By Andrew Hanauer
When a severe drought spread across the Horn of Africa over the past year, it did not have to result in a famine. Indeed, the idea that famines are natural disasters free of human agency has been thoroughly discredited; author Thomas Keneally recently noted, for instance, that a similar drought in the western United States would never lead to thousands of Americans starving to death. (Keneally, 2011) The reality is that famines are man-made, the result of a combination of economic and political conditions that allow for the unthinkable widespread starvation of a nation’s citizens.
The famine in the Horn of Africa is no exception; it was entirely preventable and its principal causes are man-made. These causes are diverse, ranging from agricultural policies to geopolitical conflict to the impact of climate change. In this paper, I will focus on two principal causes of the famine: the instability caused by the conflict in southern Somalia and the absence of democratic institutions in the country. Without question, the conflict in southern Somalia helped to create the conditions of the famine and has exacerbated its effects, while the lack of a democratic government prevented necessary preemptive measures from being implemented to prevent the famine from occurring.
These issues, however, have deeper roots that stretch back to Somalia’s colonial history. In a broader historical context, the famine is the result of U.S. economic imperialism and the legacy of Somalia’s colonial rule. Specifically, U.S. oil policy led to a catastrophic intervention in Somalia that created the current conflict in the south, while colonial partition of Somalia created arbitrary borders that severely hampered the emergence of a coherent democratic nation-state. Together, these processes helped to create the 2011 famine.
This paper will be organized as follows: first, a brief overview of the current situation in Somalia; second, a review of the historical causes of Somalia’s failure to establish democratic institutions; third, an examination of the conflict in southern Somalia and its historical roots; and fourth, a concluding discussion of the dynamics of colonialism and unintended consequences.
THE 2011 FAMINE
On July 20, 2011, the United Nations officially declared a famine in parts of southern Somalia, the first time it had made such a declaration in almost thirty years. (UK Telegraph, 2011) Famine is defined by the United Nations as a situation in which “at least 20 percent of households face extreme food shortages, acute malnutrition in over 30 percent of people, and two deaths per 10,000 people every day.” (Discovery News, 2011) At that time, tens of thousands of people were believed to have already died of starvation, and many more were leaving Somalia for refugee camps in Kenya and Ethiopia. (UK Telegraph, 2011) The immediate trigger for the famine was a severe drought that struck the Horn of Africa, impacting some 12 million people in Ethiopia, Djibouti, Somalia, Kenya, and possibly Eritrea. (UK Telegraph, 2011) Below is a relatively current map of food insecurity in the region courtesy of USAID’s “Famine Early Warning System” (FEWS.net) demonstrating the impact of the drought; of particular note is that despite the widespread presence of drought conditions, only Somalia has experienced actual famine.
In Somalia, several million people are in need of food assistance, and roughly 1.5 million are displaced within the country (which does not count those who have fled to refugee camps in foreign countries), or more than 15% of the entire Somali population. (UK Telegraph, 2011) Almost half a million Somali children are malnourished, and in some parts of the country, malnutrition rates are as high as 50%, the highest in the world. (UK Telegraph, 2011) Looming over all other statistics is the UN warning that 750,000 Somalis are at risk of dying of starvation. (BBC News, 2011)
The famine is also exacerbated by a conflict in southern Somalia between a radical militant group known as al Shabaab and the country’s weak Transitional Federal Government (TFG), located in the capital city of Mogadishu. Al Shabaab controls wide swaths of territory in the southern region, and stands accused of forcing Somali residents back into famine areas from which they had fled; banning immunizations; forcing Somalis to remain in the country at gunpoint; threatening aid workers; stealing aid from famine victims; and selling stolen aid on the open market and using the money to buy guns. (The New York Times, 2011)
FAMINE, DEMOCRACY, and COLONIAL PARTITION
The famine is in part the result of the lack of democratic institutions in Somalia, which is, in turn, the direct result of the arbitrary nature of colonial rule. Specifically, colonial partition and subsequent re-unification presented two unique and paradoxical dynamics that left Somalia vulnerable to anarchy and state failure. While partition created arbitrary borders separating people who largely shared customs, language, and ethnicity, it also created divisions between those same people that made re-unification problematic. In the end, both factors were damaging for different reasons, and they have reinforced the destructive legacy of colonialism.
The Somali state was officially created out of the former colonies of “British Somaliland” and “Italian Somaliland” in the aftermath of World War II, as both the losing Axis powers and the victorious allies moved to dismantle their colonial systems. Somalia was formally granted independence by the United Nations on June 26, 1960 and promptly created a constitutional democracy. (US Department of State, 2011)
The principal irony of the newly created Somali state was that it did not fully realize pan-Somalism and yet it also attempted to merge lands that had previously been partitioned by colonial powers and thus had established unique identities. This compounded the issue of divergent clan loyalties in Somalia, a societal trait that already made the concept of a unified pan-Somali state problematic to begin with. “Although the UN ‘experiment’ (unification) in Somalia had worked in the simple sense of providing a European-style centralized state framework,” writes anthropology professor Ioan Lewis. “…No serious thought had been given to considering how appropriate this would prove in the local setting, or above all in conjunction with the highly decentralized nature of traditional Somali political institutions.” (Lewis, 2008, page 34)
Somalia was originally partitioned in the late 19th century in the midst of a colonial fight over control of the waterways of the Nile. The five sections of land containing ethnic Somalis included Djibouti (France), British Somaliland (UK, currently Somaliland), Italian Somalia (Italy, present day Somalia), Northern Kenya (UK), and Ogaden (Ethiopia). This partition did not, of course, make any sense with regards to the creation of a coherent nation-state, but rather served the interests of colonial powers competing for land, resources, and power.
As a result of the partition, different societies and systems of government emerged in different areas. “(Britain’s) Somaliand…remained an essentially Somali territory very different from cosmopolitan Somalia,” argues Lewis. (Lewis, page 30) Linguistic differences emerged in the different territories as well, and the partition between British Somaliland and the Italian colony of Somalia may have furthered what some analysts claim is an under-examined dichotomy between northern and southern Somalia. Two such analysts, writing in Third-World Quarterly, argue that “Somali society has always been divided into nomadic pastoralists in the north and southern agro-pastoralists ‘which have distinctly different cultural, linguistic, and social structures.’” (Ahmed and Green, 1999, page 3)
One of the reasons for the differences that emerged during colonialism is the distinction between British imperial colonialism and Italian settler colonialism. While the British desired Somaliland for largely strategic economic reasons, namely its status as a port on a crucial waterway, the Italians established a true colony in greater Somalia, a place where Italians could settle. Hannah Arendt reflects on the difference between imperialism and colonialism, and argues that the British were imperial in that they left “the conquered peoples to their own devices as far as culture, religion, and law were concerned.” (Arendt, 1953, page 130)
Indeed, the difference between Italian colonialism and British imperialism caused problems for the fledgling re-unified state from the beginning. Writes Lewis, “apart from the language problem which pervaded all spheres of activity, there were wide divergencies between Italian and British practice in administration, bureaucratic procedure, accounting, law etc…there was often considerable friction between British- and Italian-trained personnel.” (Lewis, page 34) There is also evidence that the democratic institutions that began in Somaliland under British protectorate rule helped set the stage for the current democracy (and lack of famine) in the north while the lack of such institutions under Italian rule prevented such a development. Lewis argues that these political parties were “encouraged by the benevolent paternalism of British military rule.” (Lewis, page 32) Green and Ahmed, meanwhile, note that “latent corruption (in Somalia) has been attributed to residual Italian influence in the public sector.” (Ahmed and Green, page 4)
As a result, the unification of an independent Somalia under the borders set by the United Nations in July of 1960 probably made no more practical sense than did the original partition into Italian and British territories. Pan-Somalism was not achieved by unification as large numbers of ethnic Somalis lived in the Ogaden region of Ethiopia and in areas of northern Kenya. After World War II, there was discussion of granting these areas self-determination and the opportunity to unite with the rest of Somalia, but British opposition scuttled it. The British had interests in their former colony of Kenya and were keen to support Ethiopia, which had been attacked by the Axis country of Italy during the war. (Lewis, page 33) And because pan-Somalism did not result, unification merely brought together two unique regions of “Somalia” that did not necessarily fit together into a coherent nation-state.
Upon unification, for instance, large numbers of the northern Somalilanders boycotted the referendum on approving the constitution of the newly unified state, while the majority of those in the north who did vote opposed the measure. In the south, however, it passed easily. (Lewis, page 35) At this point, it was easy to imagine that a unified Somalia might not lead directly to a functioning democratic state. In fact, this legacy of arbitrary partition and re-unification caused problems for the Somali state immediately after independence.
“After Somalia became independent in 1960 it spent most of its resources regaining the lost regions,” writes Somali academic Afyare Elmi. (Elmi, 2010, page 19) This took the form of multiple military efforts in Ethiopia and Kenya, efforts that were largely unsuccessful. In other words, resources and attention that should have been put toward building a functional state were instead spent attempting to correct the consequences of colonial rule. The war in the Ogaden region was particularly damaging, resulting in over a million ethnic Somali refugees from Ethiopia entering Somalia and creating tension between the new arrivals and those already established inside Somali territory. (Ahmed and Green, page 6) Had colonial powers created a unified Somalia inclusive of all Somalis or simply allowed existing clan leaders to rule independently of each other, this disaster would have been averted. Once again, arbitrary lines drawn by foreigners led Somalia into greater conflict and instability. Writes Elmi: “the current collapse of the Somali state is rooted in the 1977 war…over the ‘Ogaden’ region.” (Elmi, page 19)
Moreover, the colonial legacy that led to an arbitrary unification left Somalia in a destructive predicament. While a strong autocratic government was created in a military coup in 1969, bringing dictator Siyad Barre to power, clan divisions in the country hampered the ability of Somalis to form a unified opposition to authoritarian rule. At the same time, when Barre’s government did fall in the early 1990’s, those same divisions left Somalia unable to create a unified government in its place. This dynamic is largely responsible for the anarchy that resulted from the fall of the Barre regime, which in turn explains the lack of democratic institutions in the country at the time of the famine in 2011.
The emergence of the Somali National Movement (SNM) and the subsequent battle it fought with the Barre government are prime examples of the impact of colonial partition on Somalia. The SNM was a political party based in the northern formerly-British portion of Somalia known as Somaliland that clashed with the Barre government; the conflict led to a brutal crackdown in the north by the government in Mogadishu. A key component of this violence was a direct example of the colonial playbook of “divide-and-rule”: refugees from Ogaden, competing with northern Somalilanders and SNM supporters for scarce resources, were recruited by the government into militias that attacked the Somaliland civilian population. (Ahmed and Green, page 7)
What is particularly telling regarding the role of colonial partition, however, is that when tensions between the SNM and the Barre government reached a tipping point, rather than attempt to alter or overthrow the central government in Mogadishu, the SNM simply declared Somaliland to be an independent state. Arguably, such an action could not have come about had there not been a clear separation already in place to distinguish Somaliland from the rest of Somalia. That separation was the invisible line drawn decades earlier to separate Italian from British territory, and “Somalia had thus now reverted to its two former constituent colonial units, the ex-British and ex-Italian Somalilands…” (Lewis, page 75)
With these divisions and paradoxes woven into the Somali political landscape, the anarchy following the collapse of the Barre government in 1991 is hardly surprising. Had ethnic Somalis truly believed in a pan-Somali state that transcended clan rivalries and hierarchies, the creation of the Somali state at the time of independence would have made sense. But “the pan-Somali ideal (was) founded in cultural identity rather than political unity evoked in opposition to the colonial situation,” and thus the collapse of an artificial government led not to its replacement with another government but rather with separatism, clan-rule, and anarchy. (Lewis, page 76) There was no Somali unity to draw on in the post-Barre era because there had never truly been unity in the first place; it was an imposed unity following an imposed division. To this day, the TFG essentially controls just one city, if that, and the Somali people do not have a voice in their own government.
The link between famine and the absence of democratic institutions is well-documented. As economist Amartya Sen notes, “it is certainly true that there has never been a famine in a functioning multiparty democracy.” (Sen, 1999. Page 161) Sen argues that in a functioning democracy, the failure of the government to successfully combat a famine and essentially allow thousands of its own people to starve to death would result in widespread political repercussions and media criticism. This further underscores that famines have less to do with a lack of available food and more to do with the ability of people to purchase that food and the government’s commitment to ensuring that food gets to starving people when food insecurity emerges.
In the late 1970’s, for instance, the countries of Botswana and Zimbabwe faced huge declines in food production while Sudan and Ethiopia had smaller declines. And yet “Sudan and Ethiopia…had massive famines, Botswana and Zimbabwe had none, and this was largely due to timely and extensive famine prevention policies by these latter countries.” (Ibid, page 179)
Below is a partial list of countries that have experienced famine in the past fifty years and the system of government in place at the time of the catastrophe:
FORM OF GOVERNMENT AT TIME
Weak unelected gov’t and anarchic rule by militia
Limited democracy in wartime
North Korea, 1996
Dictatorship during civil war
Emerging one-party “democracy”
Military dictatorship during Civil War
The common themes across these various famines are conflict and a lack of democratic institutions, either due to authoritarian rule or the failure of the state to function properly. In illustrating this point, Sen points out the prevalence of famine in India up until independence in 1947; since that time, there has not been a famine in India despite “severe crop failures and massive loss of purchasing power…in 1968, 1973, 1979, and 1987…” (Sen, page 180)
China, on the other hand, suffered the famine listed above in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. Sen notes the obvious when he argues “it is hard to imagine that anything like this (the famine) could have happened in a country that goes to the polls regularly and that has an independent press.” (Sen, page 181)
In Somalia, in 2011, there is quite obviously a lack of functioning democratic institutions. The Transitional Federal Government is not democratically elected, and does not have control over most of the country. Moreover, in the north of the country, in the recognized autonomous region of Somaliland, a fully operational democratic system exists and no famine has occurred.
In short, were Somalia to have a democratically elected central state, there would be no famine today. That said, the lack of democratic institutions was but one factor that created the famine; the situation was compounded by the continuing conflict in the south of the country, and the tragic rise of al Shabaab.
EXACERBATING FAMINE: THE ROOTS OF CONFLICT IN SOMALIA
The conflict raging across Somalia, and specifically the rule of al Shabaab in the southern part of the country, helped to create the famine and has exacerbated its duration and scope. The conflict helped to create the famine by preventing the implementation of democratic institutions and reducing the incentive for farmers in al Shabaab territory to grow surplus crops. It has exacerbated the tragedy by making it more difficult for aid to reach the Somali people, making it more difficult for Somalis to flee the country at all, and by increasing the stress on refugee camps in neighboring countries that are attempting to handle forced migrants fleeing both starvation and war.
In short, responsibility for the conflict, and its contribution to the existence and exacerbation of the famine, lies with al Shabaab and with the governments and actors that helped to destabilize Somalia and bring about al Shabaab’s ascension.
This rise to power came about in the aftermath of the Ethiopian invasion of Somalia in 2006 and the subsequent destruction of the temporary Islamic Courts Union (ICU) government. While the list of responsible parties includes multiple African states and individual Somali warlords, the principal actor in the events of 2006 was the United States. Writes Jeremy Scahill in The Nation: “the Shabab’s meteoric rise in Somalia…is blowback sparked by a decade of disastrous US policy.” (Scahill, The Nation, 2011, page 22) To understand the conflict, therefore, it is necessary to understand the historical roots of this failed policy, and its origins in U.S. economic imperialism and the rise of the global oil economy.
After World War II, as oil replaced coal as a principal means of energy, and Americans built miles of highways and constructed numerous suburban communities reliant on vehicular transportation, the United States government set itself on a path of economic imperialism, arguably to protect its ability to access oil around the world. Early signs of the manner in which this policy would play out were evident in Iran, where the democratically elected President Mohammad Mossadegh was overthrown by a CIA-backed coup after he had nationalized Iran’s oil industry. (Agency France-Presse, 2009)
Indeed, the meteoric rise of the U.S. dependence on oil is shocking. While oil passed coal as America’s number one energy source in 1951, it took only 19 years before US oil production had peaked and begun to decline. (United States Energy Information Administration, 2010) The end result was that the United States’ dependence on foreign oil, and its involvement with oil-producing countries became particularly sensitive. It is argued that this dependence on foreign oil led the United States into its heavy involvement in the Middle East, culminating in two wars in the Persian Gulf and the current conflict in Afghanistan.
There is, however, another theory of why the United States would want to manage access to oil: writes David Harvey: “whoever controls the Middle East controls the global oil spigot and whoever controls the global oil spigot can control the global economy…” (Harvey, 2003, page 19) Harvey’s argument is that the U.S. is attempting not merely to secure its own oil needs, but rather to maintain an economic imperialism that allows it to prosper and consume resources at a rate that is inconsistent with international parity.
This form of economic imperialism is defined by Hannah Arendt as “expansion as a permanent and supreme aim of politics…it implies neither temporary looting nor the more lasting assimilation of conquest…” (Arendt, page 125) This concept is similar to the policies of the British in Somaliland, who expanded to serve global economic interests but had no interest in settling their own people (along with their customs and religion) on foreign soil. Arendt argues that the “process of never-ending accumulation of power (is) necessary for the protection of a never-ending accumulation of capital,” and that “imperialism must be considered the first stage in political rule of the bourgeoisie rather than the last stage of capitalism.” (Arendt, pages 143 and 138) The U.S., Arendt would argue, pursues oil to satisfy the interests of the domestic bourgeoisie (read: oil companies) and in doing so must exert increasing levels of military power in order to sustain this accumulation of capital.
Here, Harvey and Arendt both note the particular role of power in this dynamic. Were the United States simply another country in need of oil to support its domestic economy, it might involve itself with oil producing countries and perhaps even do so militarily, but it would hardly pursue a policy of domination and control. The United States, however, is not such a country; it is a global hegemonic superpower, and its policies of military intervention, occupation, and coercion are classic characteristics of economic imperialism.
These policies led the United States to fight a war in the Persian Gulf in 1991 that would have disastrous consequences for both the United States and Somalia. When Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein attacked the tiny oil-rich nation of Kuwait, the United States led a military intervention to expel the Iraqis. As part of that invasion force, the United States stationed five thousand troops in Saudi Arabia, home to Islam’s holiest sites. (BBC News, 2003) At the time, the U.S. feared that Iraq might also attack Saudi Arabia, a country with enormous oil resources and a friendly relationship with the United States. (George Washington University, 2004)
The U.S. won the war, securing its access to Kuwaiti and Saudi oil, but the establishment of military bases by a western power on Saudi soil became the principal rallying cry of Osama Bin Laden. “Saudi Arabia is home to some of Islam's holiest sites and the deployment of US forces there was seen as a historic betrayal by many Islamists, notably Osama Bin Laden,” reported the BBC. “It is one of the main reasons given by the Saudi-born dissident - blamed by Washington for the 11 September attacks - to justify violence against the United States and its allies.” (BBC News, 2003) Bin Laden’s opposition to US involvement in Saudi Arabia morphed into a terror campaign against the United States, culminating in the attacks of September 11, 2001. It is against this backdrop that American involvement in Somalia must be understood. Most notably, American efforts to fight the forces of global jihad led it to intervene in domestic Somali affairs, leading directly to the current conflict.
Since the fall of the Barre government in 1991, Somalia has lacked a central government because “opposition factions failed to fill the power vacuum because no faction…had the power to dominate the other groups militarily…(and) they also failed to reach a negotiated settlement.” (Elmi, page 18) Thus ensued years of anarchy, civil war, failed peace conferences, and suffering for the Somali people. Somali warlords, a ubiquitous image in the west, competed for power and land, and western powers and neighboring countries, particularly Ethiopia and Kenya, supported clan militias with arms and other aid.
“By the beginning of 2006 (if not well before), the…warlords had become universally despised in Mogadishu,” writes Jeremy Scahill for The Nationmagazine. “Nearly everyone I interviewed in Mogadishu about this period characterized them as murderers and criminals.” (Scahill, 2011, page 15)
For the CIA, however, some of these warlords became very useful criminals, and herein lies the tragedy of U.S. involvement in Somalia. In an effort to fight the jihadist monster that arose out of U.S. oil policy, the United States allied itself with questionable organizations with their own agendas for combating local Islamic opponents. In many respects, this dynamic was almost identical to the Cold War American policy of supporting anti-communist regimes regardless of their records on human rights. With regards to Somalia, the United States had long feared the impact that a “failed state” would have on the ability of Islamic terrorists to find sanctuary, and this fear persisted despite the fact that, in 2006, all of the individuals living in Somalia who were affiliated with Al Qaeda and/or had “global jihadist aspirations” probably did not exceed double digits. (Scahill, page 17) Nevertheless, the CIA worked closely with the warlords, who gladly killed Islamic leaders regardless of whether or not they had any affiliation with terrorist groups and then reaped the financial support of the American government.
In 2006, Islamic Somalis opposed to the cruelty and arbitrary rule of the warlords banded together and formed the Islamic Courts Union (ICU). Local businessmen helped supply the ICU with funds and it quickly grew in popularity. The warlords responded by alleging that the ICU was harboring “terrorists” and attacked the ICU. (Elmi, page 83) And, to the surprise of a lot of people and the consternation of Washington, the ICU won, evicting the warlords from Mogadishu, closing illegal checkpoints, reopening the airport and seaport in the capital, and even “cleaning the streets with the help of local people and school children.” (Elmi, page 84) Says Somali analyst Abdirahman Ali, “you could drive in Mogadishu at midnight, no problem, no guards. You could be a foreigner or Somali. It was at total peace. (Scahill, page 15) Writes Somali professor Afyare Abdi Elmi, “overall, women, children, the elderly, unarmed clans, and civilians appreciated and welcomed this change.” (Elmi, page 84)
There were thirteen groups in the ICU, and twelve of them were local groups with no ties to or interest in global jihad. The thirteenth group, al Shabaab, “was the only threat, that was it,” claims Ali. “And they could have been somehow controlled.” (Scahill, page 17) Instead, the U.S. gave its support to a brutal Ethiopian invasion on Christmas Eve of 2006, funding the conflict and sending its own special forces to help the invaders evict the ICU. By New Year’s Day, the ICU had been crushed and the TFG was installed in Mogadishu. Somalis viewed it as a double insult, given the occupation and alleged war crimes of the hated Ethiopians. Says Ali, “an insurgency was born out of there.” (Scahill, page 17)
This atmosphere of occupation and anti-western sentiment was of course exactly what a group like al Shabaab needed to gain traction. “The end result of the US-backed Ethiopian invasion and occupation…(was) driving Somalia into the Al Qaeda fold,” says former Somali Foreign Minister Ismail Mahmoud Hurre. (Scahill, page 18) Adds Ali, “for Shabab, (the Ethiopian invasion and occupation) was the break that they were looking for…it was the anger that they had been looking for, to harness the anger of the people and present themselves as the new nationalist movement that would kick Ethiopia out.” (Scahill, page 20) By 2010, al Shabaab controlled more land in Somalia than did the TFG. (Scahill, page 21)
The rise of al Shabaab left the Somali people particularly vulnerable when the drought hit. Al Shabaab kicked most aid agencies out of the portion of the country it controls in 2009, meaning that when the famine arrived in 2011, roughly two million Somalis were unable to be reached by such organizations. Meanwhile, U.S. aid groups were severely restricted in what they could do to help starving Somalis because al Shabaab had been classified a terrorist organization by Washington and thus paying bribes to the militants to deliver aid would be legally considered aiding terrorism.
More than just exacerbate the famine, however, al Shabaab can reasonably be accused of helping it to occur in the first place. Aside from the chaos sown across the country by the militants, chaos that helped prevent the establishment of democratic institutions that might have mitigated the famine, al Shabaab had a direct role in preventing farmers from growing surplus crops. According to the UK Guardian, “Somali drought victims who lived in territory controlled by al-Shabab say there was little incentive to plant surplus crops because the militants demanded so much of the harvest as a form of tax payment.” (UK Guardian, 2011) Added a Somali farmer: “How can you farm if the profits will be theirs?...Our labor was only profiting al-Shabab. We got nothing, except a few sacks they left to us.” (UK Guardian, 2011)
In addition, al-Shabaab’s conflict with Kenya resulted in the Kenyan government sealing the border between the two countries, further trapping Somalis attempting to flee areas of the country controlled by al Shabaab and ravaged by famine. When al Shabaab launched raids into Kenya, attacking tourist targets and eventually Nairobi, Kenya bombed al Shabaab and invaded southern Somalia, adding to the violence, destruction, and insecurity in the country.
Meanwhile, those Somalis lucky enough to leave southern Somalia to escape the famine are entering refugee camps such as Dadaab in northern Kenya. The largest refugee camp in the world, Dadaab was built to house 90,000 people, but by October of this year, it housed close to 440,000. (Sutherland, The Nation, 2011) This overcrowding is a consequence of the toll the conflict in southern Somalia had already taken on its civilian population before the famine hit. “We thought at some point that the situation would improve, but it did not,” said a UN official at Dadaab. “The congestion in the camp has brought about inadequacy in the delivering of service to people.” (Sutherland, 2011)
Thus a policy of economic domination rooted in the rise of the global oil economy led to a conflict between the United States and Islamic militants which in turn led to a U.S. intervention in Somalia that contributed greatly to the destabilization of the country. Without this intervention, Somalia might well be a very different country today.
CONCLUSION: COLONIALISM - UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES, PREDICTABLE RESULTS
What is illustrated so clearly in the examination of the historical causes of the 2011 famine is the breadth and scope of unintended consequences. That the construction of suburban communities in New York could in part lead to a war in the Persian Gulf or that the establishment of military bases in Saudi Arabia could lead to the overthrow of a fledgling government in Somalia is a testament to the complex, inter-woven dynamics of international relations.
What is less complex, however, is the correlation between unintended consequences and the demonstrably selfish character of colonialism and imperialism. When Britain, Italy, and Ethiopia drew lines in the Somali sand to demarcate their respective colonies, they did not do so with the interests of the Somali people at heart. It is no surprise, therefore, that this partition would lead later to civil strife for Somalia. When the United States paid warlords to kill Islamic clerics and turned a blind eye to whether or not these clerics were even participants in terrorism, it did not do so with the interests of the Somali people at heart. And likewise, it is predictable that a military intervention instigated to protect perceived American interests would result in disaster for the Somali people.
Indeed, the fact that these consequences may have been unintended does not excuse the perpetrators of colonialism and imperialism from responsibility. As Amartya Sen points out, there is an important distinction between intentions and knowledge; “an unintended consequence,” he argues, “need not be unpredictable.” (Sen, page 257) In other words, simply because the United States did not intend to destabilize Somalia does not relieve it of the responsibility that comes from the knowledge that its actions might cause such an event.
In some sense, this is the heart of colonialism; it cannot end well. Conquest, Arendt argues, has as “its logical consequence…the destruction of all living communities, those of the conquered peoples as well as of the people at home.” (Arendt, page 137) This destruction is the ultimate unintended consequence. That it resulted in a famine is merely a manifestation of this destruction in a particular form.
The tragic irony of the famine in Somalia and the U.S. role in destabilizing the region is that the interests of the U.S. government and the interests of the Somali people are actually aligned. A stable, democratic Somalia has no place for al Shabaab or global jihad, a fact of which al Shabaab is keenly aware. In documents found after his killing in Mogadishu, Al Qaeda operative Fazul Abdullah Mohammed wrote that al Shabaab’s problem was that “most people in Somalia are not feeling the pinch of Al Shabab.” Scahill writes that, according to Somali intelligence officers who seized the documents, Fazul argued that al Shabaab should “just wreak havoc, carry out small operations, assassinations, throughout Somalia…that’s his vision, to create a total savagery throughout the country.” (Scahill, page 23)
So while al Shabaab is terrorizing the civilian population, Al Qaeda is increasing its presence in the country, and neither Somali nor U.S. interests are being served. In a testament to the complexity of Somali politics and the difficulties inherent in foreign intervention, attempts by the United States to rectify its mistake have only led to further complications. Rather than directly confront al Shabaab, the U.S. has turned again to a Somali proxy group to do so, and an Islamic one at that. This is clearly a better policy than creating domestic support for al Shabaab through direct and unpopular foreign intervention, as was done in 2006.
But while Ahluu Sunna Wa’Jama (ASWJ), a formerly peaceful religious organization that is now fighting al Shabaab, “has been among the most effective fighters battling the Shabab,” says Scahill, it is not a simple situation. Scahill writes that according to the UN: “(some AWSJ militias) appear to be proxies for neighboring States rather than local authorities.” (Scahill, page 22) These neighboring states are ostensibly Ethiopia and Kenya, the same states who Elmi argues have no interest in the creation of a strong central Somali government. “They had concerns with the notion of a greater Somalia since they both control Somali regions…(Ethiopia) is interested in gaining access to a sea corridor…(and) wants to create several mini-states that are hostile to each other and have good relations with Ethiopia.” (Elmi, page 23)
Defeating al Shabaab will not be the salvation of the Somali people. Somalia will only be able to move forward when foreign nations allow the Somali people to pursue their own national destiny in whatever form that may take, free of colonial, imperial, or ideological interference. As the 2011 famine illustrates so tragically, the grand plans of foreigners lead to misery for the people of Somalia.