By Jahanzeb Hussain
The latest catastrophe in the Horn of Africa should be placed in its proper context so that one may come to an understanding as to why the region has been regularly plagued by drought and famine. On the surface the disaster in Somalia appears to be a cruel work of nature, but one also has to analyze the political and economical factors concerning that part of the world. The purpose of this analysis is to highlight the man-made aspects that influence a seemingly natural calamity. When situated in its geo-political context, one will deduce that the tragedy in Somalia is determined by the workings of the international and local political and economical systems rather than nature.
The article begins by examining the effects of Italian colonization on Somalia’s economy, agricultural practices and political structure. Before going through the Italian rule over Somalia, some of the main features of pre-colonial Somalia are shown in order to better illustrate the damages caused by colonization of the country. Then, we take a look at the post-colonial state in Somalia and its bearings on the Somali society. Afterward, we shed a light on Siad Barre’s coup in 1969 and locate his regime in the Cold War era. Special attention is given to land policies during Barre’s dictatorship, as well as the involvement of the IMF, the World Bank and foreign donors in shaping agricultural practices in Somalia. The effects of the Ethiopian invasion and the civil war on human and food security are also evaluated. The last part of the analysis is concerned with Somalia and post-cold war politics and globalization.
Throughout the analysis the consequences of colonization, cold-war, dictatorship and globalization are seen from the point of view of the victims, and their repercussions on human security and food security are emphasized.
The British explorers described Somalia as having a “superabundance” of grain. The Gosha people of the Lower Jubba Valley had a diverse production system, which insured the population against famines. The villagers grew different crops all around the year and had a habit of storing food in case of need. They had access to high quality land and to rivers in order to irrigate their farms. They also fished, which was another source of food. When there were fluctuations in water levels, they switched to rain-fed farming, which shows their ability to adapt to changing circumstances. Trade was also an important part of economical life and there were regular exchanges with outsiders. Villagers had control over political matters that concerned them and power was exercised by local elders and headmen, especially when it came to land rights. The Italian colonial administration acknowledged that the community “almost never suffered from a famine”.
Somalia under colonial rule
What changed after the onset of Italian colonization was that the Gosha people lost their sovereignty and land was expropriated by the colonial administration. The local economy was transformed by the Italians from a versatile and self-sufficient one to a banana plantation, where Somalis were used as slave labor. As a result, economical and human insecurity was created for the first time. The change in the economy meant that food production was almost entirely bypassed for cash-crop production. The Italian merchants exploited both land and labor for their own gains, while leaving the natives in destitution. The region also stopped the production cotton, salt and leather, which meant that trading opportunities were curtailed.
The system that the Italians ran was called Kolonya. It forced a relocation and conscription of villagers, which completely disrupted local agricultural production. Most of the capital and labor and much of the prime riverine land were devoted to the production of bananas for Italy. The alienation of much of southern Somalia’s best irrigable farmland and the diversion of most of its agricultural labor to the production of export crops served to exacerbate a prolonged food shortage in Somalia from 1938 through 1942. Slavery was also accelerated during the fascist rule. These years represented the consequences of a system which was put in place by Italy.
Disrupting the local political system, the Italians superimposed a colonial state structure onto the society, which didn’t serve the values and needs of the locals. The introduction of the state was destructive, not only because it transferred power from local and community level represented village elders to foreign bureaucratic administrators, but it also intensified clan-divisions and rivalry, especially after the end of political colonialism. Colonial powers fought two wars in the Horn of Africa: the 1935 Italian invasion of Ethiopia and the 1941 WWII battles. Some 40,000 Somalis were forcibly removed from their lands and conscripted in the colonial army. In both cases Somalis fought Somalis, thus increasing clan-conflict.
Independence and the post-colonial state
The independent Somali state not only inherited but also greatly increased all the features of the colonial state. The colonial police and authority, which had already diminished the authority of local villagers, was merged into the national army. The coercive apparatus, which was created by the colonizers, was passed down to the functionaries of the new state, this time with substantially more powers. Just like the process of colonization, the nation-state, likewise, completely ignored the environmental conditions, economic adaptive strategies and socio-political structures of the Somali society. There was no allowance for regional differences, and the political system that Somalia received from the Europeans was made more centralized after the independence. In such an aloof system corruption was rampant and the country found itself under a rule that was more despotic than before.
The post-colonial state saw a considerable increase in clan and regional cleavages. Civil services and rule of law were not advanced in the country, and Somali Youth League members who belonged to the Darod clan had a monopoly over the government. The rest of the clans were marginalized along with the regions outside of the capital Mogadishu, which lead to deep grievances. In fact, the most relevant party in the South, the HDMS, representing the Digil/Mirifle clans, had already voiced their opposition during the 30s to the creation of a Somali nation-state out of fear that stronger tribes will overshadow the weaker ones. In the North the Somaliland National League, which consisted of Isaq, Gadabuursi, Issa, Warsangeli and Dulbahante clans, also opposed the unification of the country for the same reasons. It’s important to remark that the unification of different Somali territories didn’t have support among the people. There was resistance to colonialism and slavery, but there was no desire for a nation-state. The state didn’t have consent of the society, neither was it able to establish itself through violence, which made it easier for Somalia to slide into civil war.
As a direct result of colonization, the newly created state wasn’t economically viable either. The banana plantations were owned by Italians rather then Somalis, and when the political situation deteriorated, so did the investments in this sector. The country was destined to rely on foreign aid and the government was unable to create a functioning economy because it was dominated by clan-interests, elites and petty-bourgeoisie who were more concerned with personal power and control rather than the well being of the people.
After the Military coup in 1969
Siad Barre’s coup in 1969 was another disaster for the Somali people. Political power was centralized even more than it previously was, while state coercion also increased. Legislative, juridical and executive powers belonged to Barre, as if he was the state. When regional opposition to Barre’s regime increased, so did the dictator’s retaliation and repression. The counterinsurgency tactics had grave repercussions for the population. Africa Watch noted in 1990:
The pattern of abuses against Majertain civilians, concentrated main in Northeast and Central Somalia, was a bitter foretaste of what was in store for the Issaks, the Ogaden and the Hawiya – extra-judicial executions, rape, the killing of livestock and the destruction of reservoirs.
Before Somalia fell into anarchy and all-out civil war in the late 80s and the beginning of 90s, the country also fought a war with Ethiopia over the Ogaden region in 1977. The dispute is a bloody gift of colonialism and the Scramble of Africa when European powers divided the continent on their own accord, creating disputes over borders and territories that were handed down to countries once they de-colonized. The war created a large number of refugees and the population’s misery was compounded.
Somalia and Cold War
Thorough out his rule, Siad Barre was backed by one super power or another. Somalia was a poster child of Cold War politics between the US and the Soviet Union. Without superpower backing, Barre’s powers would not have been the same as they were. American, Russian and Italian arms and money helped greatly in decimating the country. By 1972, USSR had 2,500 military advisors in Somalia. The Soviet Union shifted its attentions to the country after they were kicked out of Egypt by Anwar Sadat. During the same time the US shifted its intelligence facilities to the Island of Diego Garcia, which was the main cause of Soviet attentions to the Horn of Africa. The US was a supporter of Ethiopia before turning its attentions to Diego Garcia. Siad Barre, aligned with the Russians, took this is an opportunity to attack his neighbor. However, the Soviet Union switched its support and sent $1 Billion worth of arms to Ethiopia, while Cuba dispatched 10,000 of its soldiers. Somalia was entangled not only in a colonial legacy, but also in Russian and American imperialism. The war with Ethiopia was a further blow to the people. After the war with, the United States became the chief funder of the regime till the 1990. During this time thousands of people died under Barre’s dictatorship, even before the famine of 1992.
The country descended into an open civil was in 1988. About 50,000 people were killed and around 500,000 fled the country. The agricultural lands in the Northwest were ruined and farming equipment was destroyed. Here is a description of the effects of the civil war:
Most of the military campaigns, which cress-crossed the agricultural sedentary areas of Shabelle, Middle and Lower Juba regions, Bay, Bakol and Gedo regions virtually destroyed almost all bases of life with massive human lives causing the greatest destitution and misery in the modern history of Somalia. The most effected were the farmers whose crops and plantations were completely laid to waste and forced to flee with nowhere to seek refuge. Here not less than 50% of children and 40% of adults perished. … They were subjected to indiscriminate mass genocidal, expropriation and destruction of urban property and homes, livestock and crops which resulted in the world famous Great Famine and Starvation that made Baidoa and its environs the number one disaster zone in the Somali disasters. The man-made calamity plus exacerbation of severe droughts claimed the lives of not less than 40% of children and 30% of adults.
Land laws under Siad Barre
A part from armed conflict, new land laws were the other main cause of human and food insecurity. All ownership of land was taken up by the state and was centralized. Villagers were supposed to register themselves with the state in order to be able to hold any land. The rules stipulated that one household could have only one farm. Previously families would hold multiple farms, which allowed diversity of production and the capability to adapt to changes in climate and conditions. Thus, this vital aspect of local economy, which was already in precarious condition after years of colonization and bad governance, was dilapidated further. Women, who had the right to land and were responsible taking care of many farming tasks, saw their access to farms truncated. Those with clan affiliations, connections and better social status found it easier to own land through the state, while poor peasants were made land less and dependant on wage labor. This meant that social and income insecurity were increased. Farm lands were used for property speculation rather than farming, which led to a decrease in food production. Environmental insecurity was also aggravated as soil cover was exposed to degradation on farm lands that were not in use.
Some of the best land was expropriated by the state. These farm lands were used to cultivate bananas as a cash-crop under the guidance of the IMF. As under the Italian colonial rule, Somalia was not producing food required for domestic consumption, but bananas to be sold in international markets. The only difference this time was that the people making these policies were called foreign economic advisors instead of colonial administrators. A large number of farmers were also evicted from their farms as land was used for internationally funded development projects, which had no relation to the needs of the population whatsoever. In any case, these projects failed to reach their economical goals and failed miserably. Those who were evicted received little or no compensation. In the South 6,000 hectares of land was grabbed by the state, while 16,000 was lost to banana plantations. The villagers were unable to resist state coercion just as they were helpless in the face of colonization. The Lower Jubba Valley was an area of contest between the state, internationally financed and commercial agriculture.
Siad Barre was a common enemy of different clans in Somalia, and once he relinquished power, the unifying factor was no more, and the country saw another wave of infighting. The Somali state completely collapsed after Barre’s departure in 1992. An interim government was created but it was seen by the people as yet another government made up of dishonest politicians and clan-interests. The interim government wasn’t able to change the balance of power among clans either. Old patterns of hatred re-surfaced, along with new ones. After Barre’s flight many killings took place in the country, motivated by hatred against all those who benefited and collaborated with his regime. Mogadishu was ethnically cleansed of its indigenous clans. The new pattern of hatred that emerged was one between rural and urban areas. Fighters from a rural background took their chance to take revenge from city dwellers who had become rich and lived a glamorous life thanks their influence and connections within the government.
Civil conflict and vicious cycles of violence continue in Somalia till today. Militias represent the main source of employment for young males and they have very little option but to join warring tribes and plunder land and resources in return for enough money to survive. If villagers are found to have links with rival clans, then their farms are razed and livestock killed. The country’s environment faces threats from charcoal production and off-coast fishing by foreign trawlers, in violation of international law. Lack of governance means that internally displaced people have not been rehabilitated, nor are the refugees living in surrounding countries. Agriculture of Somalia cannot be revived in such conditions.
Continuous foreign meddling and strife
In recent years, the United States has turned its attention to the Horn of Africa again. In 2006, the US backed the Ethiopian invasion of Somalia, which shattered an already beleaguered country, killing around 15,000 people and displacing 1 million. Somalia also features in the “war on terror”. In 2005, the US created the “Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism”, which was composed of different Somali warlords, just like Afghanistan after 2001. However, the despised alliance was brought to end by the Union of Islamic Courts, which won power from the warlords and brought some order to the country. The American backing of the Ethiopian invasion was a consequence of UIC’s decision. The order brought to the country by the Islamic Courts was very short lived, however. East Africa’s Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), which was involved in Somali after the war in 2006, created the Transitional Federal Government (TFG). TFG had elements that were more acceptable to the West. Unfortunately for the people the Western propped TFG was a corrupt and incompetent body, and was unable and unwilling to work for their benefit. The country slid into yet another civil war, this time between the central government and Al-Shabaab. For its part, Al-Shabaab has also ignored the suffering of the people, especially during the latest famine. The West doesn’t want to deal with the Al-Qaeda affiliated group and the regions under its control are neglected further.
Last but not the least, the current famine in Somalia is also a result of high food prices that are at the mercy of Wall Street speculators. Moreover, the Western development plans for the country are energy-intensive and expensive, thus out of reach for poor peasant. Furthermore, these so-called development programs don’t engage local communities. If traditional methods of farming and coping-methods are not encouraged and developed, then Somalis will never be able to recover from this terrible condition. Foreign programs are out of touch with local needs and ignorant of effective and suitable farming methods for the region. What is also missing from the analyses is the role that Europe has played in destroying the coastline of Somalia, thus destroying the livelihood of fishermen. Europe has been dumping toxic waste near the Somali coast, which means that the local fishing industry has been severely damaged. The result? Somali pirates.
This year’s famine in Somalia is a man-made event, just as the famine in 1992, which killed around 300,000 people. Turbulence in the Horn of Africa is a re-occurring process and is a result of continuous and consistent hazards. It dates from the arrival of Italian colonizers and the system which they forced onto the society. Then, the post-colonial state, which is much more of a brutal system than the colonial state, continued the destruction of Somalia. Siad Barre’s dictatorship saw not only murder and brutality, but also land reforms that were very harmful to agriculture and lives of local farmers. Barre’s political maneuvering in the Cold War climate meant that an independent and self-reliant state couldn’t be created. Once super power backing of Barre ended, the state collapsed. After Barre, the state could not re-emerge either. The US-backed Ethiopian invasion, along with the “war on terror” and international economic system have had consequences on Somalia that have played a large part in what we are witnessing today. Climate change is also a factor that can’t be ignored. What Somalia shows are the results of colonization, European style nation-states that are unfit for a society like Somalia’s, contours of international power, the global capitalist system and the apathy of the world in allowing these systems to build up and affecting poor countries the way they do.
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Jahanzeb Hussain is the editor of Collateral Damage Magazine. He is a 22-year old student based in Vancouver, where he goes to Simon Fraser University. He also represents the Vancouver chapter of Afghans For Peace. His blog can be viewed here.