By Rasna Warah
In the first two decades of the 20th century, the Somali warrior-poet Seyyid Mohammed Abdulle Hassan (nicknamed the ‘Mad Mullah’ by the British) fought against European forces that were trying to assert their influence in Somalia. His attempts were ultimately unsuccessful, but Hassan remains a source of inspiration among Somalis even today.
Foreign intervention and occupation have always been violently resisted in Somalia, as demonstrated by the ‘Black Hawk Down’ incident that led to the evacuation of US forces from Somalia in the early 1990s, to the recent retreat of Ethiopian forces when they tried to assert their authority in Mogadishu after the fall of the Islamic Courts Union.
Some argue that the quagmire in Somalia is the result of too much – not too little – foreign interference, be it in the form of military invasions, humanitarian aid and even the extreme form of Islam (Salafism) imported from Saudi Arabia by Al Shabaab. Abubakar Arman, the Somali Special Envoy to the United States, calls these agents of foreign intervention ‘Ghost-lords’ – ‘a loose association of paradoxical powers of the Good, Bad and Ugly’ who control every aspect of Somali life, from politics to the economy to religion.
Even when the intervention appears to be for the good of Somalia – such as providing aid during a famine – failure by outsiders to understand the fiercely independent character of Somalis contributes to more conflict and misunderstanding, as pointed out by BBC journalist Mary Harper in her new book ‘Getting Somalia Wrong?’
That is why a conference set to take place in London next week is viewed with suspicion by so many Somalis. Hosted by the British government, the conference aims to ‘deliver a new international approach to Somalia’ by bringing together over 40 countries and multilateral organisations that will decide how Somalia is to be governed once the term of the Transitional Federal Government expires in August this year.
Amongst the proposals for the way forward are the establishment of a supreme authority and a Joint Financial Management Board (comprising mainly donor countries) that will manage and coordinate how donor and domestic funds and resources are to be used (essentially, doing the work of a finance ministry) and increased funding for African Union force, Amisom, and Somali security forces.
An even more absurd proposal has been submitted by the Government of Italy, which has suggested the establishment of a joint United Nations/African Union international administration comprising a core group of key ‘stakeholders’, such as the United States, the European Union and the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development, IGAD.
Many Somalis are understandably disgusted by these proposals because they view them as yet another attempt to ‘colonise’ Somalia. Abdirizak Mohamed, the editor of Hiraan Online, says that he was particularly dumbfounded by the Italian submission at it proposes an international administration to be named as caretaker for Somalia from August 2012 to December 2013. The Italian proposal is equivalent to the Paul Bremen-led authority imposed by the United States in Iraq after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.
Although the Somali Transitional Federal Government has been invited to the conference, it lacks the legitimacy and authority to make decisions on an equal footing with the other so-called ‘stakeholders’. While the conference purports to address security concerns, particularly piracy and terrorism, the ultimate intention of the conference, according to many Somali analysts, could be to undermine Somalia’s sovereignty and subject the Somali people to new form of colonialism – including by ‘proxy states’ such as Kenya and Ethiopia, which are sending high-level delegations to the conference.
The sense of humiliation that many Somalis feel about the conference is best described by Arman, who in an op-ed article in Eurasia Review writes: ‘At this dreadful moment in its history – when the obituary of a nation on life-support is being written – political correctness is a luxury that Somalis cannot afford.’ He proposes that Somalia adopt a new paradigm and engage with less intrusive partners (probably a reference to Turkey, which has been active in delivering humanitarian aid and reconstruction in Somalia). Many Somali academics and analysts have also called for home-grown solutions to the Somali crisis.
What the British government and its allies must realise is that their top-down, Eurocentric approach in Somalia may look good on paper, but will most likely face fierce resistance on the ground.
Rasna Warah is a columnist with the Daily Nation newspaper in Kenya.