If I were a Somali I would thank Allah for the pirates. For more than 20 years the world has stood by while successive civil wars destroyed the country, killing hundreds of thousands of people by bullets, disease and starvation and reducing what was once a prosperous land to a war zone. But the seizure of more than 200 ships by kids with guns in small craft has changed all that. Britain, for whom shipping and trade around the Red Sea and the Gulf are vital national interests, has decided to take action. Pirates, the government has realised, cannot be stopped as long as their land bases are not ruled by a government. But on land the government is under attack from Islamic fundamentalists who are recruiting and training terrorists. So a political solution must now be found for Somalia. So declared William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, clad in flack jacket and helmet, in Mogadishu last Thursday. The search will begin at a conference in London on February 23rd. At last.
And what a conference it will be. Some 40 heads of government have been invited to Lancaster House. This was where traditionally former British territories negotiated their independence, but in a curious irony of history, this conference will instead discuss the take-over of Somalia. At least that is what the Italians, the former rulers of southern Somalia, want.
Somalia has been at war since the late 1980s when rebel movements fought the government of Siad Barre. He fled, but then they fell out with each other and the country broke up. The North West, the old British-ruled Somaliland, re-established that state and declared independence. The rest of the north, Puntland, is also relatively peaceful and rules itself but awaits the re-establishment of a Somali state. So does some of the centre. But in the south and the capital, Mogadishu, there have been only two periods of peace. One followed the American invasion in 1992 after the first famine. But after losing 18 members of special forces – the Blackhawk Down incident – President Bill Clinton pulled out the US force and stopped supporting UN peacekeeping there. Somalia was left to stew.
The second peace period was a few months in 2006 when a united mass uprising threw out the warlords and their rapacious armies. Governance was taken over by local Islamic courts which gradually formed themselves into the Islamic Courts Union. For a few months people were able to walk the streets safely. Peace reigned and trade and investment began to flow. But with US support, the Ethiopians, who have no interest in a strong united Somalia, invaded, broke up the courts and installed a warlord as president. The wars resumed.
The cost of neglect has been immense. According to a recent report from the Center for American Progress, a Washington think tank, the death toll from the wars is between 450,000 and 1.5 million and some 2 million displaced. The accumulative cost of Somalia’s collapse has been more than $55 billion, including $22 billion from piracy. $13 billion has been spent on humanitarian aid which is almost matched by
the estimated amount Somalis outside the country send back in remittances.
After the Ethiopians were forced to withdraw, the world handed Somalia over to Africa. Never has the phrase “African solutions to African problems” been used so cynically. Ugandan and Burundian troops under an African Union flag, died protecting a few square kilometres of Mogadishu in the pretence there was a government there to protect. There wasn’t. The so-called government lives in luxury hotels and apartments in Nairobi. According to a recent audit of the Somali government in 2009 – 10, 96% – yes Ninety Six per cent! – of direct bilateral assistance disappeared, presumably stolen by corrupt politicians and officials. An official report by the UN Monitoring Group said: “The endemic corruption of the leadership of the Transitional Federal institutions… is the greatest impediment to the emergence of a cohesive transitional authority and effective state institutions.” But it is these people who will be coming to Lancaster House on February 23rd. At the same time we know that in much of Somalia there are very strong civil society organisations led by highly respected men and women. They however will not be invited.
So perhaps the first thing this great conference should do is apologise to the people of Somalia for ignoring their plight for so long. The second is to usher Somalia’s professional politicians into the garden or off to smart hotels and bring in some Somalis who really represent the interests of the country and its long-suffering people.
Richard Dowden is Director of the Royal African Society.
A version of this article was previously published in The Times newspaper