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Somalia 101: what even freshmen know about famine.

My freshman World Hunger class has been researching Somalia's famine, revealing that none of the media-fostered convictions stands up to close scrutiny.

We began our project because, as in Biafra, Bangladesh and Ethiopia in the past, Somalia seemed to qualify as the "hungry country of the year." Beyond that, we had no preconceived ideas about Somalia.

My class' study began naively, with the assumptions that TV news repeats constantly: Somalians are starving by the hundreds of thousands; presumably the hunger is caused by food scarcity, drought, overpopulation and ignorance; uncivilized warlords committed to tribalism are preventing emergency food shipments from the West from reaching Somalia's starving; Western leaders are dismayed by this inexplicable situation; sending in U.S. troops will restore order and save lives.

The realities

But freshman research revealed that the true causes of Somalia's crisis include:

The country's strategic location: On the map of Africa, we found Somalia in the continent's horn, directly across the narrow Gulf of Aden separating East Africa from Yemen and Saudi Arabia. Proximity to that crucial region, we found, always has interested Western powers like Great Britain, Italy, the Soviet Union and the United States. The U.S. even developed a deep-water port on Somalia's coast to accommodate its oil tankers and warships.

Oil: Arguably, then, concern for Somalia and restoration of "order" was not humanitarian merely. The developed world has reasons for being highly self-interested. Ultimately, the interest is in oil. All this sounded suspiciously familiar to us.

Fear of socialism: Western strategic and oil interests were threatened in the Horn of Africa, when, after 1969, both Ethiopia and Somalia turned away from capitalism toward socialism. In doing so, they eventually became pawns in a proxy war between the United States and the Soviet Union.

The Cold War: U.S. strategy in the proxy conflict was divide and conquer. It took advantage of a dispute between Somalia and Ethiopia. While the Soviets supported Ethiopia, the U.S. wooed Somalia away from the communists with the promise of aid. The resulting war, not drought, food shortage or overpopulation, eventually produced famine in Ethiopia and afterwards in Somalia. Ignoring this unintended effect, the Reagan administration poured arms into the region. The Soviets responded in kind.

Dictatorship: In the process, the United States supported Siad Barre, a former socialist and dictator generally denounced by human-rights organizations like Amnesty International. The Congressional Record is full of debate about the wisdom of continued support for Siad Barre in the light of his despicable abuse of power.

To justify continued support, members of Congress persuaded Barre to release some political prisoners. They then interpreted this as demonstrating the reformative power of U.S. policy. Meanwhile, Barre's human-rights abuses continued unabated. Somalia, in other words, represents yet another crisis of genocidal proportion brought on and fostered by U.S. subordination of human rights to its own strategic and economic interests.

Civil War: In the end, one of Barre's henchmen, General Mohamed Farrah Aidid, opposed his former boss and deposed Siad Barre. Meanwhile, rather than accept Aidid's rule, Western powers appointed a more malleable "president," Ali Mahdi Mohamed, a businessman and hotelier. When Aidid refused to recognize what he considered a neocolonial puppet, Mahdi too fielded an army, presumably with support from his patrons. In short order, Mahdi too earned the censure of Amnesty International for human-rights abuses. Three mains armies, then, were fighting for control of Somalia. In its own way, each was the product of Western policy in the Horn of Africa.

Eurocentricism and fear of Islam: In all this, Somalia's real power base, its clan chieftains, have been ignored. Clan organization is too diffuse; there is no single head of state to negotiate with. Moreover, clan chieftains have never accepted Western values nor the fundamnetally Western concept of nation-states. Instead, tribal heads are motivated by a religious worldview and commitment, preventing simpleminded cooperation with capitalism. As in the case of Iran, capitalists "can't do business" with "Muslim fanatics." Somalia is 99 percent Islamic.

Militarism: The subtleties of history, the guilt for famine and ethnocide, are too time-consuming, messy and embarrassing. A military solution is easier. It would control a "chaotic" situation. It would then be a short step to identification of cooperative "leaders" and to a well-publicized election among the chosen few. Such a carefully managed "democracy" would establish the type of government the West can do business with, neither socialist nor tribal nor Muslim. It would be neocolonial rather than Somalian.

Media Obfuscation: The media have failed to help us understand a complex Third World situation ferreted out by freshmen. The media's ahistorical, shallow approach to Somalia makes them share our leaders' responsibility for that country's crisis. With a thinly disguised racism, our newspapers, magazines and TV pundits speak of "warlords," "tribalism" and "chaos."

Such characterization ignores the fact that the main "warlords" are creations of the West. It enables all parties concerned to ignore Somalia's real leadership. At the same time, media-fostered ignorance revives convictions about the "uncivilized" nature of African populations and of their need (as "the white man's burden") for continued Western tutelage.

Toward solutions

Our freshmen research suggests:

1. Our leaders should accept their share of responsibility for Somalia's crisis.

2. We should get the facts straight before we commit troops to another Third World fiasco.

3. Learn from the past. Anyone thinking seriously about Somalia can hardly miss the parallels with classic Western sins.

a. The Somalia issue re-embodies the spirit of the Crusades: the imposition of Western ways on Muslims whose world vision and forms of government the West has refused to understand or respect. That same refusal surfaces continually in Israel's poliy toward Palestinians, in U.S. relations with Iraq and in the war of the Christian Serbs against Muslims in Bosnia.

b. Since their governments do not fit the political categories of the "modern" West, Somalian tribes, like their counterparts in the Americas, are declared "primitive," and their peoples are moved around without consultation.

c. U.S. policy in Somalia contradicts ideals recently and uncompromisingly defended in Iraq. In seeking to "reclaim" the Ogaden, U.S. client Siad Barre was acting similarly to Saddam Hussein, who in 1990 invaded Kuwait, claiming it was really part of Iraq. In the case of Hussein, the U.S. demanded respect for the colonially imposed boundary lines, which Hussein said the region's tribal peoples never really endorsed. In contrast, by supporting Siad Barre's designs on Ethiopia's Ogaden region, the U.S. has refused respect for European-imposed frontiers it ostensibly holds sacrosanct. The cold War justified the double standard.

4. Consult Somalians before sending in troops. International relief organizations such as Save the Children are among those opposing the use of U.S. or U.N. troops to solve Somalia's problems. A spokesperson for Africa Watch criticized the United Nations for failing to understand the complexities.

5. Make troop deployments in Somalia a truly last resort. The warlords should be called to the conference table, using the considerable persuasions and pressures available.

6. Along with these warlords of Western creation, clan chiefs should be included in any peace conference.

7. Once emergency food supplies have relieved Somalia's present crisis, all countries in the Horn of Africa must be allowed to implement their own "food first" policies to feed their own people before growing crops for export. Opposition to food-first lies at the heart of conflicts between the developed and underdeveloped worlds. Such policy must be permitted even if it interferes with free market principles, introduces elements of socialism or closes ports to Western military and commercial use.


The story of Somalia is an old one, with all the old elements that constantly resurface in crises throughout the Third World: Western colonialism, Third World experimentation with socialism and the rush to solutions favorable to the West by force of arms. Before this last horseman rides, we should recognize him for who he is.

Michael Rivage-Seul is associate professor of religion and general studies at Berea College, Berea, Ky. In early 1990 he and his students investigated the Iraq affair, with similar surprising insights.
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Author:Rivage-Seul, D. Michael
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Dec 11, 1992
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