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Some Historical Perspective on Somalia and the Horn

By       Message Dr Edo McGowan     Permalink
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Some time ago now---actually several years back, one of my fellow students in medical school asked a question of this old man during a class discussion. I did this medical thing as a second career. I had just returned from USAID's regional office in East Africa for the last time prior to beginning my studies. I thought, rightly so, that a patient would not ask me, ------"so Doctor McGowan--------- what are the political ramifications of this diagnosis on my medical condition? I don't like the results you are presenting and by the way, the Mission Director wants you to change the following------."

My fellow student's question was, "if one wanted to do some volunteer work in the developing world, how would one chose not only a geographical area but a NGO or PVO?" That was a very complex question and one the entire class ultimately took up. My answer to them was based on my experience with PVOs, NGOs and the multi and bilateral donors that I had been familiar with. The short of that answer was BEWARE for what you often read in the advertisements and the media is not reality.

Much of what is available on the missions of these various groups will be based on the normative agenda. Getting the underlying pragmatic agenda may be exceedingly difficult. Sometimes, the object is to keep the host country unstable. However this posture may not be transparent. The NGOs and PVOs are not generally privy to that information, hence their volunteers are also innocents. Additionally few leaders in the world's currently troubled areas seem capable of running a modern nation state and are thus heavily dependent on outside help. Many of these leaders are actually placed in these positions by foreign intervention. Many are also amongst the wealthiest men in the world despite their peoples being amongst the poorest. One must also consider that outside help is not there without strings and that may not actually be a string but barbed wire. Perhaps the one exception to this---close at home---is Castro and Cuba. Here is a man that has outlasted decades of efforts by the U.S. to unhorse him, managed to operate without U.S. assistance, and seems to be a man of modest living (comparatively speaking) for a country's leader.

To correct these defects in our foreign policy, at least two factors are needed. Transparency in foreign policy and an informed world. Attainment of these needs is not likely under Bush, his Administration, and those pulling the Beltway strings. In short it is a complex web. The devastation of the environment, the reheating cold war, the control by the military-industrial complex, Western foreign policy, multinational donor agencies, large corporations, and the ignorance of the American people and world have in a way conspired to create what we see in Somalia----yet again

The Santa Barbara News Press, recently carried a main-line story on Somalia. I'd like to take a different tact here on this problem as compared to the one reported in the current main-line press. My take is more along the lines of the recent paper presented on this web page by Nicola Nasser.

The U.S. driven foreign policy is largely responsible for these end results. I was part of the U.S. staff that opened up the USAID diplomatic mission in Somalia when the Russians withdrew in the 1970s. Just prior to that, we were in Ethiopia where I was one of the very last Americans to leave. I was assigned the task by both the World Bank and USAID of reviewing various Ethiopian programs from an environmental and health perspective. The Americans were asked to leave by the new socialist government. What happened there was because of shifting foreign policy. It was played out like a musical chairs exercise. We got up from our listening post in Ethiopia, Russia got up off its in Somalia, the music then stopped for a moment and we switched listening posts.

During these events, the American press carried accounts and speculations of dire events. Actually, the switch was very gentlemanly, rapid, and orderly. The weeping and stress was mostly from nannies that were saying good-by to children that they raised and had come to love. All the while the American press had things to worry about for its readers. SAC bombers were presumed by the American press to be sitting with running engines on airstrips elsewhere---it was a great show stateside. In Ethiopia, however, it was a quiet and relaxed wait for the hop out of the country. Many of us sat in the Ghion Hotel's lobby sipping excellent Ethiopian coffee or the local beer.

When I later arrived in Mogadishu, the city, as remarked by the older African hands, was the most orderly, clean, and well mannered that they had seen in all of Africa---East Africa or West Africa. One could wander about the narrow, uneven, crooked, winding streets of this ancient Arab Islamic city at 2:00 a.m. and in complete safety. The Somali shilling was 5 to the U.S. dollar. Used bottles and cans were prized finds for carrying scarce water and rapidly disappeared from our trashcans. The donkeys pulling carts had diapers to collect that precious commodity. Street traffic was not congested or frenetic like Nairobi. Order was the rule of the day, I would suspect from long generations of cooperation and waiting for one's turn with a herd at some distant well.

All that had changed within a decade of our arrival. The people soon came to realize that while the normative agenda was "to help the poor country" the pragmatic agenda was a valuable listening-post during the throws of a cold war; valuable real estate but disposable people. The politicians of the nation, like politicians anywhere, were quick to pick up on the underlying agenda and thus capitalized on the money that accompanied our presence. The average Somali was just incidental collateral and disregarded. There was little trickle down effect.

The "monetary police" of the IMF wanted good statistics on available tradesmen for expansion of the industrial sector. Thus there was an effort to train electricians, plumbers, carpenters, mechanics. Mogadishu was then a relative small town from the expat standpoint. We would often visit each other and discuss shop. One instructor that was in on a tradesman training contract lamented that he was given essentially no equipment and that the training was mainly didactic text and blackboard presentations. Few wires to bend, few hammers and nails, few pipes to cut, etc. Nonetheless based on the extreme pressure from the donors, the stats of those "trained" needed to look good and high passage rates were demanded by the contract specifications. Thus a fiction developed on how well industry could function. The state had its labor laws and in the lingering socialist tradition left over from Russian-times, one could not fire an employee that was not working out. Thus if you were running a factory and your mechanic or electrician was incompetent, you could not show him the door. Rather you were required to replace him----but what to do with the former employee as now you had both? And how well was the replacement actually trained, especially given the sham training programs?

Soon industry that was promised, and upon which much hope was placed, began to crumble. This is what happened early on. The expansion of a fisheries industry was pushed as an employment opportunity but culturally Somali eschew fish. Take any national diet and impose very large outside changes and you will find major resistance to adoption of new foods. How to develop an industry with poor marketing potential for its product? In the hot sun, how long will a landed fish that has been lying unrefrigerated in an open dingy for hours and now is packed into a hot market retain that mouth watering appeal to a people who don't eat fish anyway? But much foreign exchange passed through the minister of finances office, many consultants ate in the better restaurants of the core city, and many of the local elite with extra houses found willing renters at interestingly high prices. For the average Somali, he might be hired as house staff or a yard guard, perhaps a driver. The city had no port so there was employment in the maritime through dock work and in the unloading of cargo from ships at anchor.

The wars in the Horn, the Sudan, and Ethiopia as well as the droughts had vastly limited the normal Somali trekking of animals former grass areas. Formerly the nomads trekked from Somalia around the base of the Ethiopian highlands into the Sudan. Ethiopians, who owned the Ogaden, vast grasslands on the Somali side of Ethiopia, did not want their neighbors there. This had been traditional grazing land for centuries. Thus with the wars in many of the former grazing areas, the impending war in the Ogaden, the droughts, the massive herds were crowded into what was left of the historical Somali range. This pressure on the resource soon saw it start to collapse. Animals did not die of thirst during the drought so much as they just starved to death by the hundreds of thousands. You can walk out only so far from a well until you reach the point of no return. If there is no forage within that radius, you are dead. The range was so devastated that it still has not recovered to this day.

Somalia's eastern border, if one looks at an accurate map, is a dotted line. That stems from the contention of the actual boarder with Ethiopia. That border as with most African borders is the result of how the spoils were divided amongst the victors (not the Africans) of the previous world wars, League of Nations, etc. Ethiopia had an articulate leader in Haile Selassie who could converse and thus present his nation's problems before these bodies. Somalia on the other hand has only recently developed a written language. We had team members that in the out-back of Somalia ran into villages that had never seen a white man. Thus Somalia was, as any nomadic peoples, poorly represented politically and lived within unchanged traditions that had existed for centuries if not millennia

Accordingly, because of the drought's displacement and devastation, we had war-related-environmental-destruction and thus its refugees. These wars were mainly proxy wars. Thus, we also helped settle many nomadic groups into sedentary life styles. Part of the family stayed in the wilderness with the herd, part was resettled in newly developed towns. The normative agenda and major movers were humanitarian. But by there is serendipity here. The settling of nomads also solves another problem. It is really difficult to impress a nomad into the military service when all he and his family need to do is move the herd to another area in the middle of the night. But if you can settle him, well that's another matter.

When I did arrive back a decade later the order, cleanliness, and safety had all evaporated within the heat and cauldron of the cold war. On my first tour there, I had originally flown aerial reconnaissance across the countryside to map vegetation for purposes of writing the Country-wide Environmental Profile (CEP) for Somalia. A CEP is a large EIR like document to ascertain the environmental impacts of all combined existing and proposed foreign and domestic development projects and programs. In the desert of Somalia, there is a curious sinuosity and pattern to the vegetation as seen from the air. That pattern is driven by the density differences of sand as it moves and sifts within the crescent shaped sand dunes. This selecting out of nutrient minerals by density singles out bands of different plant species. These pristine areas far into the desert were now, a scant decade later, littered with blue and white plastic carryout shopping bags that had been blown inland by prevailing winds and that now clung to the bush. Since the bush is growing in these same arcs as the dunes, the view from the air is one reminiscent of crashing blue surf, but now dozens of miles inland. In the city, the streets were now covered with trash; the now devalued cans and other containers that were once highly prized finds for carrying water littering the streets. Rows of refugee huts lined the outlying areas and not a tree stood---all used for fuel. Dust abounded from the denuded earth, sickness was apparent, yet at the same time the traffic on the dusty streets was still highly ordered.

The Somali shilling, once 5 to the dollar had been drastically devalued. On my return we were now required to purchase $50 of Somali Shillings on arrival at the airport. That $50 got you a large sized paper shopping bag full of shillings; a bag the size of Trader Joe's largest paper bag was stuffed full of worthless money. It was not even worth the time to count it. The new U.S. embassy was still under construction far out on the perimeter road with a huge inviting wall surrounding it. It had previously been on the main street down town parallel the waterfront. Our office had also moved to more lavish surroundings. Prior to this we occupied the old Sinclair Oil Company offices near the beach. For the Somali government employee and ordinary citizen, the value of a salary would now only support a family for perhaps at most a week. The entire civil structure was in decline.

The geology under Somalia is an old peneplain that ran at a low elevation from Egypt to Somalia and Northern Arabia. Then a few million years ago, not much time really when considering geologic times, the Red Sea and Rift Valley opened and the crack in the continental structure caused the rising of the Ethiopian highlands that now divide the Sudan from Somalia. When I was attached to the USAID mission in the Sudan, one of the issues was oil exploration. China wants that oil.

China is the next big economic competitor of the U.S. and it wants and needs oil. It is difficult, however, to get stable drilling operations into any kind of construction when civil wars are going on. So where are the civil wars and are such wars related to oil? I think the answer is yes. Civil wars once started are usually self-perpetuating, especially if there can be injected into them tribal or religious differences that can be politically fanned into a frenzy; especially if those factions can variously be supplied with U.S. ideas and manufactured material. Proxy wars are good business and cheap insurance to assure that civil unrest can be used as a geopolitical tool.

Who cares about these dry dusty far away nations with backward people populated by the unwashed? Well for one, U.S. agriculture might take a major hit in the world market if the vast lands of the Sudan were ever put to the plough. But that takes water and taking water for irrigation in the Sudan would also adversely impact our ally Egypt. But irrigation of the vast and fertile areas of the Sudan would require major irrigation works to be built. Such construction would require a stable country. Thus maintaining a good civil war in the Sudan has at least two advantages. A third that is seldom discussed is that the Government of the Sudan might sell its potentially vast produce in the world market for euros and not dollars. Same for its oil. That would threaten the fragile stability of the dollar as the world's monetary symbol.

Since Somalia is geologically similar, there is also the chance it may have oil. Would a potential Islamic government, the one that had, six months ago defeated the U.S. backed alliance of Somali warlords and the one now being driven out by combined Ethiopian/Somali troops be likely to sell its production for dollars or euros, and then to whom---perhaps China?

The entire thing (our foreign policy) is driven by the fiction that the world monetary system is based on a strong dollar---the dollar is not strong. It has not been on any kind of real foundation for a very long time. That myth of strength, must, however be perpetuated, at what ever cost and whom ever is collaterally damaged so I can continue enjoy driving my SUV.

The U.S. Empire theorists may have something to say after all.


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Environmental and public policy analyst, sr environmental scientist, medical geo-hydrologist working with environmental contaminants

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Some Historical Perspective on Somalia and the Horn