The International Monetary Fund (IMF) announced Friday that it will recognize Somalia's government for the first time in twenty-two years, a sign that the country is starting to emerge from the anarchic hell it has known since the fall of the Siad Barre dictatorship in the early 1990's. (Barre's rule was nominally preferable to the anarchy: he once imprisoned medical students for building a hospital because it interfered with his corrupt business practices.) This headline ("IMF Recognizes Somalia"), however, says a lot more about Somalia's past than it does about its future. While foreign institutions have spent the past twenty years botching Somalia's nation-building and worse, the northern province of Somaliland has forged an enduring climate of peace and stability without any formal international recognition. All of which should lead us to question the dominant western narrative regarding Somalia, that of a nation in chaos desperate for international salvation.
The fact is, international intervention, beginning with the U.S.-led fiasco Operation Restore Hope in 1992-1993, made famous through the "Black Hawk Down" incident, has brought increased ruin for Somalia and its people. While numerous peace conferences failed to bring about a legitimate government that could represent the Somali people, U.S. counter-terrorism policies radicalized the Somali population and at one point led to the ouster of one of the few stabilizing forces in Mogadishu: the Union of Islamic Courts (ICU). After the ICU freed Mogadishu from the stranglehold of mafia-style Somali warlords, the CIA turned around and funded those very same warlords to kidnap suspected militants and hand them over to American authorities. Some of those so-called militants were nothing more than peaceful Islamic scholars, but as the Americans paid the warlords bounties regardless, the kidnappings continued.
A disastrous Ethiopian invasion, backed by the United States, the blow-back emergence of Al-Shabaab, and an entirely preventable famine followed. The ICU, whatever its faults, had cleaned up Mogadishu, re-opened its airport, and evicted the warlords. After the Ethiopians invaded, and then promptly left, Al-Shabaab took over large swaths of the country, further exacerbating the ensuing famine by denying access to relief agencies and even holding Somalis hostage in famine areas, preventing them from reaching refugee camps across the border in Kenya. All of this followed several decades of alternating U.S. and Soviet support for the brutal dictatorship of Siad Barre, support aimed at winning cold war allegiance regardless of the cost to the Somali people.
Today, as Somalia's government begins to finally establish the formal
trappings of a functioning state, western institutions are lining up to
offer their endorsement of its existence, in essence asserting that
Somalia is finally ready to be a mature and functioning member of the
community of nations. This paternalistic attitude would be insulting enough even without a recounting of the history of foreign intervention in Somalia. And such endorsements always come with self-interested motives in tow.
As the IMF re-engages with the Somali government, for instance, it does so with the
understanding that the Somalis will be paying back the hundreds of
millions of dollars they supposedly owe the IMF, money that was borrowed
during the Barre dictatorship. Those loans were almost certainly spent either to enhance the security system that repressed the individual liberties of the Somali people or to fund the corrupt patronage system that kept Barre in power, or both. The prospect of fresh IMF loans will undoubtedly be attractive to Somalia's new leaders, who will inevitably benefit from the influx of foreign cash in any number of ways. That the Somali people, impoverished from half a century of dictatorship and anarchy, will pay this ransom speaks volumes about the international system of finance that the IMF embodies.
Meanwhile, in the north of the country, numerous Somali clans sat down together almost two decades ago and worked out a peace agreement that led to the formation of the Somaliland Republic. Somaliland has democratic elections and is at peace, but is unrecognized by the rest of the world. No UN peacekeepers were needed to bridge the supposedly tribal and atavistic differences between its various clans. No IMF loans fund its economic development. Nobody really talks about it, either. Grassroots democratic peacemaking doesn't attract readers the way an article about, say, Madonna's spat with the Malawi government does.
The IMF "recognizes" Somalia. To paraphrase James Ferguson, institutions like the IMF cannot imagine how things can ever get better except through their own expertise. Somalia is a country that sadly needs many things. The IMF is not one of them.