TALK ON SOMALIA - Trevor Rayne - 4 Feb 2012

The following is an extended version of a talk given by Trevor Rayne at the Kentish Town Community Centre on 4 February 2012.

First, some word images from a person who has recently been to Somalia [these are re-worked from the London Review of Books 3 November 2011]: After three years of drought thousands of colourful tents have sprung up in Mogadishu, amidst the destroyed buildings. Thousands of starving Somalis left the countryside for the city. They appear in the streets in tattered clothes with bundles on their heads, jerry cans in their hands and babies on their backs. These are the younger people; the older ones and the sick are left in the villages.

Even in the drought what water there was in parts of the country was diverted to banana plantations – a cash crop, sold mainly to the Middle East.

Refuge camps: overcrowded, where the guards rape the women and steal the food aid. Warlords allow refugees to settle on land they control in return for a share of the aid. Their guards rape the women and steal the food. Babies and children dying of diarrhoeic diseases for want of a water purification unit.

But now some good news from The Independent and The Guardian today: the rains came, the drought has officially ended and a good harvest is in.

Here are two articles on Somalia taken recently from the BBC website. From 17 January 2012, ‘On Somalia oil exploration: Drilling begins in Puntland. Oil exploration has begun in the arid north-east of Somalia, which has been wracked by civil war for two decades. The Canadian firm Africa Oil behind the project said its two wells are the first to be drilled there in 21 years. The semi-autonomous Puntland region where the drilling is taking place says it is an opportunity for peace... there is an assumption that “there will be about 3 billion to 4 billion barrels of oil”’. [Nigeria has about 37 billion barrels of oil reserves and Libya about 46 billion]. ‘According to Africa Oil, whose firm Horn Petroleum Corporation is operating the project, the drilling of each well will take about three months.’1 A World Bank and UN survey of Northeast Africa ranked Somalia second only to Sudan as a prospective oil producer.

Then there is this from 2 February 2012, it, of course, has nothing to do with oil or gas, ‘William Hague visits Somalia's Mogadishu: William Hague has called for renewed pressure against Islamist militants during the first visit to Somalia by a British foreign secretary for 20 years. His arrival in the capital, Mogadishu, signals the start of a major diplomatic push to restore stability in Somalia. The British government is holding a conference in London on 23 February to try to find a political solution, and tackle piracy and extremism. The first UK envoy for two decades has also been appointed [that is an ambassador, although for the moment he remains in Kenya]...Security was tight for the visit of the foreign secretary, who travelled in a fleet of armoured vehicles to meet Somalia's President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed. After the meeting at the presidential palace in Mogadishu, Mr Hague described Somalia as "the world's most failed state". He praised African Union troops for forcing Al Shabaab militants out of the city. But he warned that much of the south remained in the hands of the militants, saying: "We need to step this up."

‘The country has been torn apart by two decades of war, beset by drought and famine, and is home to a piracy industry that threatens shipping across the Indian Ocean. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited in August, and UN chief Ban Ki-Moon in December, the first visit by a UN Secretary General in 18 years. UK International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell visited Puntland, northern Somalia, over the weekend - after an August visit to Mogadishu. Correspondents say Britain now appears to be driving a new international push to tackle the roots causes of Somalia's insecurity and conflict. Representatives from more than 40 nations have been invited to the London conference on Somalia later this month. "The conference will seek to generate a more effective and concerted international approach outside Somalia that addresses the root causes of the conflict; and a new political process inside Somalia that meets the needs of all Somalis," Mr Hague said in a statement. In 2010, MI5 director-general Jonathan Evans warned that it was "only a matter of time" before militants trained in Somali camps inspired acts of violence on the streets of the UK.’

If we put this 23 February 2012 Conference in context it looks menacing indeed. We counted the NATO attack on Libya on 19 March 2011 to be the British armed forces’ 46th separate military intervention in the Middle East and North Africa since the Second World War. Britain and the US have been permanently at war since 1991, the year of the Soviet Union’s collapse, as the US seeks to achieve and maintain global hegemony – domination – with Britain as its partner. 1991 will be a year familiar to Somali people and it is not an accident that it was the year that former President Siad Barre also fell.2

Looking at 2011 we see the US with British forces engaged in wars from Libya, to Somalia, to Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan to Pakistan; an arc from North Africa through the Middle East to Central Asia. In each one of these countries the US is using Unmanned Aerial Vehicles – drone warfare. To these conflicts we could now add covert wars against Iran and Syria. The US now has military deployments, sometimes only token ones, in 29 African countries.

US Foreign Policy magazine and the Washington-based Fund for Peace rank Somalia the number one failed state in the world. The US currently flies drones over Somalia from bases in Djibouti, Ethiopia, the United Arab Emirates and the Seychelles. Former US President George W Bush might have had Somalia in mind when he said, ‘There is no telling how many wars it will take to secure freedom in the homeland.’

What we are seeing today in Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia resembles a replay of the colonial scramble for territories and resources played out by the major imperialist powers a century and more ago – only now it is conducted with far more lethal weaponry. The global crisis of capitalism is producing a battle for zones of influence and a repartitioning of the world.

There are key resources – oil and gas are critical – required by the imperialist states to exert regional and global power; to control the resource and its distribution. It is because of this that key areas grow in their geo-strategic significance. These include, and especially so, the Strait of Hormuz (between the Arabian Peninsula and Iran), the Caspian Basin, the East and South China Sea, the Gulf of Guinea (West Africa) and the Gulf of Aden (between Somalia, Djibouti and the Arabian Peninsula).3

I said that we are witnessing a replay of the colonial scramble of a century and more ago. The Portuguese destroyed towns and ports along what was to become the Somali coast from 1541 onwards. However, it was the completion of the Suez Canal in 1869 that changed the territory’s fortunes and brought forth the colonial appetites. France bought the town of Obock for 50,000 Francs in 1862 and then took nearby Djibouti in 1888. Imagine that: buying a town in someone else’s land.

At the 1884 Berlin Conference Britain established a Protectorate in Somaliland. The intention was to prevent foreign encroachment on the route from the Mediterranean to India and to use the region to feed the British garrison in Aden. In 1906, to compensate Italy for its defeat in Ethiopia, it obtained Somalia’s southern coast. This had been leased to an Italian company, Benadir, for 160,000 rupees a year by the British Protectorate of Zanzibar since 1892, but was then transferred to the Italian government in 1906; bartering, buying and selling other people’s lands – the Europeans buying and selling Africa.

Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdullah Hassan, who the British called ‘the Mad Mullah’, was a brilliant military strategist and a poet, led the Dervish resistance to colonial occupation and on four occasions defeated the British between 1900 and 1904.3 The resistance resumed from 1908 to 1920. In 1912 the British Colonial Office established a Camel Constabulary to reoccupy the interior. It was a military body armed with rifles and sub-machine guns and overseen and staffed by British officers. It operated without recourse to courts, that is, it applied arbitrary justice. Diaries of British officers liken the experience to sport and hunting. Early in the morning of 21 January 1920 British soldiers, Royal Navy ships and 12 Royal Air Force airplanes attacked Dervish positions. They shelled and bombed them. The resistance was defeated. Sheikh Bin Abdullah Hassan died on 21 December 1920 in the Ogaden region of Ethiopia.

Of particular note from the period was the 1915 Treaty of London. In order to get Italy on their side in the First World War against Germany, Britain and France promised Italy compensation if they should appropriate German colonies in Africa (Tanganyika, Namibia, Cameroun, Togo, Rwanda, Burundi and so on). That compensation took the form of Libya and Somalia, or part of it, given to Italy in 1924.

In the Second World War Italian troops, with Somali colonial units in tow, invaded British Somaliland. This was recaptured the following year by the British with South African and East African soldiers fighting alongside the British.


On 1 July 1960 the British and Italian controlled regions were made independent and merged to form the Republic of Somalia. In 1969 General Siad Barre led a coup and proclaimed a socialist government. The Soviet fleet was given access to Somali ports in 1974. British intelligence services demanded that the media portray Somalia and Barre as ‘Soviet puppets’. In 1977 all Soviet advisers were expelled during the war with Ethiopia. The Front for the Liberation of Western Somalia launched a military offensive in the Ogaden (which straddles Ethiopia and Somalia) in 1976. It was supported by Somali government forces. The invasion was repelled by Ethiopia, with the help of primarily Cuban, plus some Yemeni, forces – they were supported by the majority of African Union countries.4

Somalia broke off relations with the Soviet Union and from 1980 onwards the US supplied the Barre government with weapons, military training and economic aid in exchange for unrestricted access to Somalia’s strategic Indian Ocean and Gulf of Aden ports for US vessels. Before his overthrow in 1991, Barre signed over nearly two-thirds of Somalia’s territory to four US companies: Conoco, Amoco, Chevron and Phillips, and no doubt they want to get back into Somalia.

The United Somali Congress ousted Barre in 1991, but it then broke into clan-based factions who fought each other. Since then there has been no functioning central government in Somalia; the country is divided, much of it between warlords and heavily armed gangs. Within five years of 1991 300,000 Somali children had died and 1.5 million people, out of a total population of about 10 million, had left the country.

US forces arrived in Somalia in December 1992 with United Nations’ approval. The UN sent 28,000 troops, including Italian soldiers. The US would not accept what it saw as Islamic militants in Somalia and used a humanitarian relief exercise as cover for its intervention. In 1993 US Operation Restore Hope to capture or kill the warlord or clan leader Farrah Aidid resulted in the killing and dismemberment of 19 US soldiers. It is portrayed in the film Black Hawk Down. The US killed some 1,000 Somali people in revenge. By 1994, 10,000 Somalis had been killed. Photographs showed the torture, rape and murder of Somali civilians, including children, by Italian soldiers.

In March 1994 the UN withdrew 10,000 European troops, leaving mostly African, Indian and Pakistani soldiers. They also soon left having been attacked. After the US and UN departure foreign vessels entered Somali waters, engaged in illegal fishing, the result was escalating [what is termed] ‘piracy’. The Republic of Somaliland, formerly British Somaliland, declared independence in 1992, it contained 30% of Somalia’s territory, but it is not internationally recognised.

The recent period

The US and British-backed Somali Transitional Federal Government (TFG) was formed in Kenya, in 2004. It comprised mainly of warlords and was organised by the US CIA as the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-terrorism. In 2000 11 Islamic Sharia Courts formed the Union of Islamic Courts [the courts offered a system of justice in a land where any institutional framework for legal procedures had collapsed]. By 2006 the Courts controlled much of Mogadishu and southern Somalia, forcing the TFG into retreat. Al Shabaab, or The Youth, was a wing of the Courts.5

In recent years Somalia has been subject to occupation by Ethiopian, Kenyan, Ugandan, Burundian and troops from other African states, operating under different UN or African Union mandates. In 2002, former Somali military officers admitted they were trained and armed by Ethiopia to ‘terrorise the entire city of Mogadishu’. After 11 September 2001 (9/11) Ethiopian forces trained with the US in Djibouti and Ethiopia allowed US forces to station military advisers at its Camp Hurso. In December 2006, Ethiopian soldiers, accompanied by US Special Forces, invaded Somalia to back the TFG. The US also provided air and naval support; their intention was to remove the Courts. Ethiopian troops left Somalia in January 2009, but have since resumed operations in Somalia against Al Shabaab. The African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM) was established by the African Union in January 2007 when it authorised its deployment in Somalia. The UN Security Council approved the Mission’s mandate. The AMISON and TFG troops captured most of Mogadishu in August 2011. Al Shabaab was still present on the outskirts of the city.

What have been the results of these interventions? According to the UN a further 600,000 people became refugees in 2007 and 800,000 in 2008. The Ethiopian army has killed thousands of people and left tens of thousands injured. Estimates run to around half a million people killed directly in conflict since 1991. In 2008 Amnesty International said that Somalia had suffered a humanitarian catastrophe during Ethiopia’s occupation, where terror was inflicted with summary executions, rape, torture and arbitrary detention.

Agriculture employs 65% of the workforce and livestock accounts for 40% of Gross Domestic Product and 50% of export earnings. But note this: Somalia’s exports total about $270 million a year while remittances from abroad exceed $1.6 billion! This is an absolute indictment of the colonial history, capitalism and imperialist meddling – meddling is the wrong word – mutilation of Somalia. Somalia lives, if it lives at all, on the generosity and handouts to Somali relatives and friends from the diaspora.

The mortality rate for children under five years of age is 200/1,000 babies and children. There is one nurse or mid-wife and 0.5 of a doctor for every 10,000 people in Somalia. One in four children is acutely, that is life threateningly, malnourished.

With this 23 February 2012 conference approaching we need to note not just what has been done to Somalia and by whom for over a century, but how imperialism smothers dissent in its homelands. At the end of 2010 the US FBI lured and entrapped a US-Somali citizen, Mohamed Osman Mohammud, accusing him of planning to bomb a Christmas celebration in Portland, Oregon. May be the young man was foolish, ill-informed or easily led, but we must be aware that the imperialists attack abroad is matched by racist and oppressive moves at home. There is increasing racist repression of Somali refugees in Kenya and we can expect more racist repression and demonisation of Somali migrants in Britain.

I talked about 2011. 2012 has started and danger is at hand.


1 Africa Oil’s two largest shareholders are Lorito Holdings and Zebra Holdings, both founded by Swedish millionaire Adolf H Ludin. Ludin made his fortune from the North Gas Field offshore off Qatar. Lorito Holdings and Zebra Holdings also fund gem diamond mining in Botswana and Lesotho and are tied to the Tenke Mining Corporation which operates in the DR of Congo.

2 1991 was also the year when Mengistu Haile Mariam fled Ethiopia and the US-advised Revolutionary Democratic Front of the People of Ethiopia took control of the capital city Addis-Ababa.

3 The Strait of Bad el-Mandab is described as a ‘chokepoint’ between the Horn of Africa and the Middle East and between the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean. The Strait is 18 miles wide at its narrowest point. Closure of the Strait would prevent oil tankers from the Persian Gulf passing through the Strait to Europe, the US and Asia.

4 British soldiers were joined by Ethiopians in attacks on the Dervish forces.

5 The Ethiopian government signed a peace treaty with Somalia in April 1988 and the last Cuban soldiers departed from Ethiopia in September 1989. China supported Somalia and Barre in what is called the ‘Ogaden war’.

6 Al Shabaab is designated a terrorist organisation by Britain and the USA, among others. It has reportedly received weapons from Eritrea and has ties with Al Qaeda. Somalia is frequently labelled ‘the front line in the global war on terrorism’ and such like.