Somalia: Not for the faint hearted!

Dear Folks,

Well, during times of difficulty and stress,  sometimes the oddest things can provide moments of relief. For me, it was watching YouTube clips of the former-model-turned-writer Paulina Porizkova. She is a regular contributor to the Huffington Post, and worked as a judge for a time on America’s Next Top Model. She has a vivacious personality that is enjoyable and down to earth. She really helped to put a smile back on my face. Thank you Paulina!

So today, brace yourselves, I shall be discussing one of the world’s hottest hot spots. It is certainly not a place for the kiddies or for amorous honeymooners, but somewhere that requires a Kevlar jacket and a SAS commando.  Yes! You have probably guessed it: it is Somalia or rather Jumhūriyyat as-Sūmāl.  Now, contrary to the images depicted in Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down, Somalia, or rather Mogadishu, was once an important Indian Ocean entrepôt.  Somalis were nomads and marine traders who embraced Sunni Islam with infusions of Sufism. They learnt to speak Arabic. The famous Arab adventurer Ibn Batuta visited the region in 1331, and was impressed that the Sultan of Mogadishu could speak Arabic as effortlessly as his own mother tongue.

Somalia was never formally colonised. Somalia as we know it today is one-half Italian colony and one-half British protectorate. It was granted independence in 1960. During the seventies when Soviet aid seemed de rigueur across Africa, President Mohammed Siad Barre attempted to take the Ethiopian region of Ogaden using weapons granted to him by the Soviets. Unfortunately  for him, he was badly defeated by the Ethiopians, who also had the support of the USSR.

Siad Barre also pushed for closer ties with the Arab world: in 1974, Somalia joined the Arab League. However, Siad Barre’s leadership deteriorated during the 1980s, and by the beginning of the 90s, the country was awash with factions eager to see an end to the regime. On the eve of Siad Barre’s downfall, Somalis faced numerous deprivations such as oil shortages and galloping price hikes for pasta and the popular narcotic qat. Electricity was cut since the government decided to sell off generators.

In 1991, backed by the support of Ethiopia, a force of northern and southern clans managed to sweep Siad Barre from power.  A civil war broke out which soon lead to the deaths of 300,000 people due to famine. Countless UN peacekeeping missions tried in vain to maintain a semblance of stability in order to facilitate the delivery of humanitarian aid. Now immortalized in the film: Black Hawk Down, it shows the efforts of American troops who were sent to the country in order to support the mission of the United Nations. Eighteen soldiers were killed whilst trying to capture the warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid who was vying for the presidency. He was responsible for attacks against Pakistani troops and UN food distribution centres.

During the interim years, before the country’s main warlords agreed in 2004 to create a new parliament, thousands of Somalis left the country. Yet the economy has managed to get by in a sclerotic fashion by relying on remittances and informal industries. In 2006, Somalia was shaken as Islamists or the Islamic Courts Union based in the south attempted to overthrow the Transitional Federal Government.  Ethiopians and other peacekeeping forces managed to outmaneuver the ICU, who later splintered to form the menacing insurgency movement : al-Shabaab. Today, they control most of the country including the capital. Ethiopian troops attempted to subdue them, but to no avail, and in January 2009, they pulled out of the country. The leader of the Transitional Government now relies on the protection of Ugandan and Burundian troops who are supported by the African Union, Europe and the US. Government-controlled Mogadishu is shrinking on a monthly basis.  The only parts still under the control of the AU include: the airport, the port, the presidential palace and the road leading from the palace to the airport. It is the lack of control that has allowed piracy to flourish along the horn of Africa, and given the al-Shabaab the momentum to stage countless attacks against the fragile government of Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmad.

Recently one incident, which shocked the world, was the attack by the al-Shabaab against a hotel in the capital. Thirty people were shot dead including six deputies from the parliament. The gunmen then blew themselves up. This was followed days later by another suicide attack against Mogadishu’s airport in which a number of AU peacekeepers were killed. The madness looks set to continue this way for the moment.

Somalia has rarely known peace. In 2008, Foreign Policy magazine cited the country as the state most at risk of total collapse, and in January 2010, Forbes Magazine gave another gloomy assessment of the country, judging it to be the world’s most dangerous country after Iraq and Afghanistan. But we should not forget that Somalia has produced some formidable individuals such as supermodels Iman and Waris Dirie; broadcast journalist Rageh Omaar and the politician/activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Hopefully people of their calibre will soon emerge to put Somalia back on a stable path for the future. It is what everybody desires. 

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