The people of Somalia are enduring yet another
round of suffering as Ethiopian forces wreak havoc in the capital, Mogadishu.
Apparently in response to an attack on one of its units and the dragging of
a soldier's mutilated body through the city's streets, an Ethiopian mortar reportedly
exploded in Mogadishu's Bakara market on Nov. 9, killing eight civilians. A
number of Somalis were also found dead the following day, with some believed
to have been rounded up by Ethiopian forces the night before.
Nearly 50 civilians have reportedly been killed and 100 wounded in the fighting
spree between fighters loyal to the Union of Islamic Courts and government forces
and their Ethiopian allies. A report, issued by Human Rights Watch, chastised
both Ethiopian troops and "insurgents" for the bloodletting. Peter
Takirambudde, the watchdog's Africa director, was quoted as saying, "The international
community should condemn these attacks and hold combatants accountable for violations
of humanitarian law – including mutilating captured combatants and executing
Of course, one cannot realistically expect the international community to take
on constructive involvement in the conflict. Various members of this "community"
have already played a most destructive role in Somalia's 16-year-old civil war,
which fragmented a nation that had long struggled to achieve a sense of sovereignty
and national cohesion.
To dismiss the war in Somalia as yet another protracted conflict between warlords
and insurgents would indeed be unjust, because the country's history has consistently
been marred by colonial greed and unwarranted foreign interventions. These gave
rise to various proxy governments, militias, and local middlemen, working in
the interests of those obsessed with the geopolitical importance of the Horn
Colonial powers came to appreciate the strategic location of Somalia after
the Berlin Conference, which initiated the "Scramble for Africa."
The arrival of Britain, France, and Italy into Somali lands began in the late
19th century, and the area quickly disintegrated into British Somaliland and
Italian Somaliland. Both countries sought to expand their control, enlisting
locals to fight the very wars aimed at their own subjugation.
World War II brought immense devastation to the Somali people, who, out of
desperation, coercion, or promises of postwar independence, fought on behalf
of the warring European powers. Somalia was mandated by the UN as an Italian
protectorate in 1949 and achieved independence a decade later in 1960. However,
the colonial powers never fully conceded their interests in the country, and
the Cold War actually invited new players to the scene, including the United
States, the Soviet Union, and Cuba.
One residue of the colonial legacy involved the Ogaden province of Somalia,
which the British empire had granted to the Ethiopian government. The region
became the stage of two major wars between Ethiopia and Somalia between 1964
and 1977. Many Somalis still regard Ethiopia as an occupying power and view
the policies of Addis Ababa as a continuation of the country's history of foreign
The civil war of 1991, largely a result of foreign intervention, clan and tribal
loyalties, and a lack of internal cohesion, further disfigured Somalia. As stranded
civilians became deprived of aid, Somalia was hit by a devastating famine that
yielded a humanitarian disaster. The famine served as a pretext for foreign
intervention, this time as part of international "humanitarian" missions,
starting in December 1992, which also included U.S. troops. The endeavor came
to a tragic end in October 1993, when more than 1,000 Somalis and 18 U.S. troops
were killed in Mogadishu. Following a hurried U.S. withdrawal, the mainstream
media rationalized that the West could not help those who refused to help themselves,
another twisting of the fact that the interests of the Somali people were hardly
ever a concern for these colonial philanthropists. Since then, the Somalia was
deemed by the international news media as just another mindless conflict, with
no rational context and no end in sight. The truth, however, is that colonial
interest in the Horn of Africa has never waned.
The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, provided an impetus for U.S. involvement
in the strategic region; only one month after the attacks, Paul Wolfowitz met
with various power players in Ethiopia and Somalia, alleging that al-Qaeda terrorists
might be using Ras Kamboni and other Somali territories as escape routes. A
year later, the U.S. established the Combined Joint Task Force – Horn of Africa
(CJTF-HOA) to "monitor" developments and to train local militaries
The U.S. contingent was hardly neutral in the ongoing conflict. Reportedly,
U.S. troops were involved in aiding Ethiopian forces that entered Somalia in
December 2006, citing efforts to track down al-Qaeda suspects. The Ethiopian
occupation was justified as a response to a call by Somalia's Transitional Federal
Government (TFG), whose legitimacy is questioned. The TGF, seen largely as a
pro-Ethiopian entity, had been rapidly losing its control over parts of Somalia
to the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), which came to prominence in January 2006,
taking over the capital and eventually bringing long-sought stability to much
of the country. Their attempts engage the U.S. and other Western powers in dialogue
failed, however, as a U.S.-backed Ethiopia moved into Somalia in December 2006.
On Jan. 7, 2007, the U.S. directly entered the conflict, launching air strikes
using AC-130 gunship. Civilian causalities were reported, but the U.S. refused
to accept responsibility for them.
The last intervention devastated the country's chances of unity. It now stands
divided between the transitional government and Ethiopia (both backed by the
UN, the U.S., and the African Union) and the Islamic courts (allegedly backed
by Eritrea and some Arab Gulf governments). Recently, the UN ruled out any chances
for an international peacekeeping force, and the few African countries who promised
troops have yet to deliver (with the exception of Uganda).
This situation leaves Somalia once more under the mercy of foreign powers and
self-serving internal forces, foreshadowing yet more bloodshed. Our informed
support is essential now because the Somali people have suffered enough. Their
plight is urgent, and it deserves a much deeper understanding.