Friday, June 09, 2006

World is blind to this Dark Continent--Somalia

Unscrambling Somalia
During World War II, the Italians briefly took British Somaliland, only to see the British return to retake "their" Somaliland, plus Italian Somaliland and Ogaden, too. In 1949, the Italians returned to administer Italian Somaliland as a UN trust territory, but not before many Somalis had begun longing for their own independent, pan-Somali state.
In 1960, the British and Italians left, and British Somaliland and Italian Somaliland joined to form the United Republic of Somalia. Almost immediately, the new nation became embroiled in border conflicts over Somali-inhabited lands in northern Kenya and eastern Ethiopia. A military buildup followed, even as internal tensions mounted between the former British and Italian regions.
In 1969, a bodyguard from a rival clan assassinated Somalia's president, and the military assumed power. The commander of the army, Mohamed Siad Barre, became president--and, before long, dictator. The coup was restyled a "revolution," as "Comrade Siad" announced his pursuit of an Islam-friendly version of "scientific socialism." Yet socialism never really took root in Somalia, and rival clans and Islamic leaders soon resented the Comrade's rule.

Somalia Rescrambled
In 1974, Ethiopia's Emperor Haile Selassie fell. Three years later, Siad Barre retook the Somali-inhabited Ogaden region. At first, the Soviets tried to mediate the dispute. Then they shifted their support to Ethiopia (which has 75 million people to Somalia's 9 million). Somalia's Soviet arms shipments stopped, while Ethiopia got military advisors and Cuban troops. The United States shifted its support from Ethiopia to Somalia, but not before Ogaden was back in Ethiopian hands.
After the defeat in Ogaden, officers from a rival clan tried to topple Siad Barre. They failed, but the threat they posed prompted the dictator to start making government appointments based on perceived clan loyalty. The government and military became less competent, clan rivalries increased, and guerrilla attacks began. As the 1980s wore on, opposition groups became more powerful, and Siad Barre responded with increasingly repressive measures.
By the end of the 1980s, militias from several clans had seized much of the country. A series of last-ditch efforts at political reform failed to appease them, and in January 1991, a united opposition front captured the capital, Mogadishu. Siad Barre fled, his regime collapsed, and the militias turned on each other. In the next two years, 50,000 people died in factional fighting, and some 300,000 Somalis starved. Meanwhile, the former British Somaliland effectively seceded, calling itself, simply, "Somaliland." Somalia hasn't had a functional central government since.

Surveying Somalia
Somalia hasn't had a functional central government since 1991, when a group of warlords representing a variety of the country's traditional clans and sub-clans overthrew dictator Mohamed Siad Barre. The warlords promptly turned on each other, and the situation in much of Somalia has been chaotic--and frequently deadly--ever since.
In the early 1990s, a United Nations task force, led by the United States, tried to restore order and provide humanitarian assistance. The effort saved many Somalis from starving, but ended in failure after militiamen downed two U.S. Black Hawk helicopters in Mogadishu. The ensuing firefight killed 18 U.S. soldiers and more than a thousand Somalis.
Since then, 13 internal attempts to fashion a national government have failed. A 14th attempt, backed by the European Union, got underway in 2004, when warlords and politicians agreed to create a new parliament and made a former warlord, Abdullahi Yusuf, president.
The transitional parliament met on Somali soil for the first time in February 2006, in the town of Baidoa, 155 miles (250 km) northwest of Mogadishu. Neither of the factions in the recent fight for Mogadishu answers to it. In fact, Yusuf and Company have stayed away from Mogadishu, which is more war-torn fief than capital city. What's a capital, after all, in a country without a government?

Separate Somalilands?
Understandably, large parts of the country have begun governing themselves. In the northwest, the part of Somalia that was once a British colony seceded 15 years ago, right after the warlords toppled Siad Barre. Enjoying relative peace, prosperity, and representative government, it longs for legal recognition as an independent nation, "Somaliland."
In the northeast, another large region--called "Puntland"--functions autonomously, too, though its leaders like to see it as the start of a federal system in Somalia. Puntland has ancient roots. Egypt's pharaohs once sought frankincense and myrrh from the "land of Punt."
Finally, in 2002, a group of warlords in the southwest followed suit, establishing "Southwestern Somalia." Its status is now unclear, as several of its leaders have taken posts in Somalia's transitional government.

Long-Suffering Somalis
Amid the political chaos, many ordinary Somalis suffer. One in four Somali children dies before turning five, cyclical famines kill thousands (and threaten millions), and pirates patrol the nation's coastline, stealing everything from black market goods to humanitarian food shipments. According to the United Nations, a drought in the south has left a sixth of Somalia's 8.8 million people in need of food aid.
Much of the aid that actually reaches Somalis comes in the form of money sent by relatives living abroad. According to some estimates, such remittances account for more than 20 percent of household income, though they've come under pressure from campaigns to curtail terrorist financing.
Despite it all, some sectors of Somalia's economy have actually thrived. Most major towns have wireless phone services, and many now have internet cafes. The airline business has boomed, too. "Corruption is not a problem," says one airline executive, "because there is no government."

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