Remember the February 2017 elections in Somalia, when nine out of 24 presidential candidates were American passport holders. There was no public voting and elections were held in an airport hangar at Aden Adde International Airport, in Mogadishu, under a heavy guard, as no other than the parliamentarians and officials were allowed in.
The winning candidate, Mohamed Farmaajo, who had been based in the United States since 1988, was flown into Mogadishu from New York on the morning of the election, into the heavily guarded airplane hangar. And now after enjoying a four-year lottery ticket to the presidency, he will probably go back to live happily ever after in the US, if not re-elected with the help of his maneuverings.
A short history of Somalia is that, in colonial times the land of the ethnic Somalis was torn into French Somaliland, Italian Somaliland, British Somaliland, Ethiopian Somaliland and the Kenyan North Frontier District. At independence parts of this land were thrown into Ethiopia, Kenya and Djibouti — thus the seeds of provincial clan-based politics and of never-ending cross-border grievances were sown.
After independence in 1960, Somalia and Ethiopia, because of their conflicts, became an active theater of the Cold War, Somalia being aided by the Soviets and Ethiopia by the US. Later in the early 1990s, when president Said Barre fled from the country, Somalia was thrown into the US camp. As it happened, while the Soviets had been supplying arms and funds to Barre’s government only — the US made the policy of letting their arms reach to the clan-heads — thus converting cities, harbours and airports into self-proclaimed autonomous regions, with practically no central authority.
Since then, Somalia has been a divided country, whose strings are constantly being pulled by outside powers and international organisations like the United Nations Assistance Mission in Somalia (UNSOM) and the African Union (AU). Al Shabab originated in Somalia in 2003, about the same time when Al Qaeda affiliates were sprouting all over the Muslim World. At about the same time, in 2001 the US established its Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA) in neighboring Djibouti.
This picture tells us a bit about how complicated the politics of Somalia, that has practically been divided into warring autonomous regions, like that of Puntland, Somaliland, Galmudug and others, each of which potentially has ties with foreign benefactors. And these benefactors are not necessarily far away ones, but may lie within the Horn of Africa. Kenya and Ethiopia, that have Somali populations striving for separatism, have often joined forces to counter these forces and their friends inside Somalia.
Last year Somalia accused Kenya of interference in its elections in Jubaland, where Kenya allegedly tried to help President Ahmed Madobe retain his power in the semi-state.
In neighbouring Ethiopia, where the Tigray province has rebelled against the center in November, Abiy Ahmed is accused of outsourcing his counterinsurgency against the Tigray to Eritrean soldiers and also of using the same in his border conflict with Sudan. It has also surfaced that President Farmaajo has used Ethiopian troops against local opponents in Somalia and has allowed Somali soldiers to fight in Ethiopia.
It seems that in the Horn of Africa boundaries of states don’t matter much and that leaders are playing across border as inter-family feuds are played. Clan leaders, insurgency groups, and militias hold as much sway as government forces may be having, and in fact the government are fighting their wars with the help of the tribals and militias. But what has magnified the complexity of the Horn to a point of hopelessness, is the amassing of foreign militaries in the Horn, especially in Eritrea and Djibouti. Eritrea’s President Isaias Afwerki has built an entire economy centered on seeking economic rents from mercenaries and military bases that he allows to be formed in his country — so much so that it has become the only industry that employs Eritrean youth — as the youth are bound to undertake compulsory national service in the military. The same is the case in Djibouti, that is home to military bases of France, US, China, Italy, Japan, while UAE and Saudi Arabia are in the process of making their bases here too. The mere stationing of opposing forces, so close, in the Horn of Africa, makes it vulnerable to conflict and war, and the mere presence of such forces allow them to interfere in or affect the politics of the region and its states. And their mere presence also opens the way for smuggling of illegal small arms into the areas, which in turn strengthens the militias and emboldens them to commit heinous crimes such as systemic ethnic cleansing, rape, starvation, and massacres — crimes that have reportedly sharply risen in this year.
Certainly, as much as Africa is a resource-curse continent, it is also a media-blackout one. So, most of us remain unmoved by facts like; in the last six months alone, the Tigray conflict has displaced more than two million people in Ethiopia; or that infighting in Mogadishu, since mid-April when Farmaajo announced extension of his term, 100,000 people have been displaced from the city.
So, what policies of Western favourites Farmaajo, Abiy and Afwerki have done, are to destabilise the Horn further. The Tigray War has put the existence of Ethiopia as one nation into question; Farmooja has only deepened the divide between self-ruling regions of the state by playing one against the other; and Afwerki has played his part in feeding and fueling militias and mercenaries.
Nor have international platforms like the African Union’s Peace and Security Council, the UNSOM, or the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) been able to bring the region any closer to peace and stability — reason being, that covert forces and political interest prey upon the larger interests of the common people — and because for some, a destabilised Horn of Africa, at the brink of breaking down is more lucrative than a stable, sovereign, self-supporting and peaceful set of states at the opening of the Red Sea.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 28th, 2021.