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“Historical Amnesia”: Reporting
The Conflict In Somalia

By Stephen Roblin

30 May, 2009

Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, and the surrounding area is the site of an intense, violent conflict between the country’s two Islamic sects: the moderate Sufi and the radical Shabab. According to a recent New York Times article, “a new axis of conflict has opened up in Somalia, an essentially governmentless nation ripped apart by rival clans since 1991.” The article goes on say,

If Mogadishu falls, Somalia will be dragged deeper into the violent morass that the United Nations, the United States [my emphasis] and other Western countries have tried hard to stanch, and the country will fragment even further into warring factions, with radical Islamists [the Shabab] probably on top.

Present in these comments are two common assumptions about the conflict: (1) that there has been virtually no break in the conflict in Somalia since 1991; and (2) that the U.S. has made efforts to end conflict in the country. These assumptions are widely taken for granted in the reporting on Somalia by the U.S. mainstream media. The historical record, however, does not support these assumptions.

The first assumption, that there has been no break in the conflict since 1991, ignores a critical period in Somalia’s recent history where Somalis enjoyed six months of peace and security.

This critical moment in Somalia’s recent history began in June 2006 when a broad-based coalition of Islamist courts and militias, commonly referred to as the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), took control of Mogadishu after defeating a coalition of warlords. The warlords’ defeat marked “he first time Mogadishu had fallen under a unified administration in 16 years.” According to the International Crisis Group, during its six month tenure, the ICU brought “a degree of peace and security unknown to the south for more than fifteen years.” By reuniting Mogadishu and removing weapons from the streets, the ICU’s “success at restoring peace, security and administration won admiration…from a broad cross section of Somalis.” The report adds that “Communities seemed prepared to tolerate a strict interpretation of Sharia law in return for peace and security.” ICU-rule, however, only lasted from June to December 2006.

Examining what led to the collapse of the ICU raises serious doubts about the second assumption present in the New York Times article, that the US has made efforts to end conflict in the country.

ICU-rule came to an end with a U.S.-backed Ethiopian invasion of Somalia. The aim of the invasion was to bolster the Transitional Federal Government (TFG)—the intended “government of national unity” put in place in October 2004 by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD, a regional body of seven East African countries. Addis Abba made the decision to overthrow the ICU (with full blessing from Washington) in spite of the views of Somali citizens, who saw the TFG as illegitimate – due to its corruption and inability to provide basic services to the public – and irrelevant – due to its territorial control of only the south-west city of Baidoa and one other town in southern Somalia.

Immediately after the ICU took over Mogadishu, Ethiopian troops moved across the Somali border. For its part, the U.S. helped lay the foundation for the invasion by by sponsoring the December. 6 U.N. Security Council resolution, which allowed Ethiopia to maintain its increasing military presence (an estimated 8,000 troops) on Somali soil. The U.S. also took an active role in the Ethiopian invasion through training Ethiopian troops and providing the Ethiopian military with U.S. military advisors and intelligence on the military positions of ICU fighters. Not surprisingly, when the invasion was initiated in late December 2006 the ICU proved ill-equipped to defend itself against the regional power backed by the world’s sole superpower.

Washington justified U.S. support and participation for the invasion on the grounds that the ICU was “controlled by al Qaeda cell individuals,” as put by U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Jendayi Frazer. Experts of Somalia, however, revealed that such claims were absolutely false. In fact, studies have found that “post-9/11 fears of al-Qaeda bases in Somalia were unfounded.” According to one expert, Kenneth Menkhaus, the only “legitimate” debate concerning ICU’s connection to Al-Qaeda was “whether a small number of leaders in the Islamic Courts…[had] linkages with a small number of leaders from Al-Qaeda.”

The invasion and subsequent occupation devastated Somalia. Since January 2007, “Thousands of civilians have died in the violence that has engulfed the country,” and “over one million have been displaced and up to 3.2 million need humanitarian assistance.” These outcomes are logical consequences of the criminal nature of the Ethiopian occupation, made possible by its status as the largest recipient of U.S. financial and military assistance in Africa. According to Human Rights Watch, the crimes committed by Ethiopian forces included firing “rockets, mortars, and artillery in a manner that did not discriminate between civilian and military objectives….[and] deliberate attacks on civilians, particularly attacks on hospitals.” The U.S. response has been to refuse to “confront or even publicly acknowledge the extent of Ethiopian military and TFG abuses in the country.”

Any claim that the U.S. has tried to “stanch” the “violent morass” is difficult to make considering the U.S. role in driving Somalia back into a familiar state of violence, terror, and humanitarian crisis.

As for the assumptions present in the New York Times article, which in my view is representative of the general coverage in the mainstream media, one can not even begin to discus, much less report, the conflict in Somalia without mentioning the period of peace and security ushered in by the ICU and the U.S.-backed Ethiopian invasion which caused its collapse. That is, if we are interested in understanding the causes of the “violent morass” and arriving at its solutions. As put recently by Noam Chomsky, “Historical amnesia is a dangerous phenomenon, not only because it undermines moral and intellectual integrity, but also because it lays the groundwork for crimes that lie ahead.”

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