Wednesday, July 29, 2015


Three definitions of anarchy. 1) a state of disorder due to absence or non-recognition of authority. 2) absence of government and absolute freedom of the individual, regarded as a political ideal. 3) Somalia.

This is a long and very painful story, so you will need to sit down with a cup of strong Colombian coffee (free trade preferably) and a healthy granola bar, and be prepared to concentrate.

After the era of European imperialism and colonialism, there was British Somaliland and there was Italian Somaliland and there was even French Somaliland, which joined together in 1960 to become Somalia. Nine years later a military coup brought a despotic government to power under the euphemism of Socialism and the leadership of Mohamed Siad Barre. Opposition was fully tolerated and encouraged, provided that it did so from inside jail, and that it still could, after being severely tortured. Barre also invaded the Ogaden region of Ethiopia, using arms supplied by the Soviets, with the intention of annexing it; he failed, because the Ethiopians were also using arms supplied by the Soviets (wars are good for business!), but with the added advantage of having Cuban troops to help them, and some completely unattached-to-anybody foreign "mercenaries" and "advisors" whose accents would not have been unfamiliar if you came from Nizhny-Novgorod.

Mohamed Siad Barre's regime collapsed in 1991, which led the northern tribes, the ones which had been British Somaliland, to declare independence, establish a constitution, and attempt to run a free and democratic Republic of Somalia, separate from Somalia itself; unfortunately, as "free and democratic" does not fit into the world's preferred image of Africa, it is now the only successful and truly acceptable state on the continent which has no recognition whatsoever, inside Africa, or beyond it; at most it is counted as an autonomous region within Somalia.

Another autonomous region declared itself as the State of Puntland in 1998; this state is unrecognised too, but this is incidental as it only seeks autonomy within Somalia, and not independence as a sovereign state (I'm not sure why they are called sovereign states if they don't have sovereigns, but there you go). Puntland sounds like a name from a fairy tale or a kiddie-book; in fact it's an ancient kingdom known from Egyptian sources as Pwenet, or Pwene, and sometimes as Ta Netjer, the land of the gods.

From 1993 onwards the famine in Somalia has been so bad that the UN actually gave it some attention without needing pop stars to stage concerts first; then wished it hadn’t because the various military and para-military groups did not quite get the notion that UN humanitarian workers are neutral and protected by the Red Cross that hangs like a mezuzah on their door (yes, if you didn't know, the Jewish Passover story is the source of the red cross image and idea). The UN withdrew in 1995. In 2002 there was a peace conference, hosted in Djibouti, as a result of which Somalia found itself with a government at last, albeit a transitional one, albeit with no idea what it was trying to transition to, and not a clue how to make it happen anyway. A second conference ended in 2004, with a second attempt at a transitional government (the TFG for short – Transitional Federal Government), but its President resigned after four years because he didn’t like the fact that the UN were talking to both it and opposition groups who wanted to establish an Alliance for the Re-Liberation of Somalia (ARS).

Refill your coffee, but two granola bars in succession are unhealthy; I recommend a piece of fruit now.

OK, if you are ready. We are now in January 2009, and Ethiopian forces are pouring across the border in the wrong direction; they had arrived in late December 2006 to help the TFG maintain a semblance of order. Why did they leave? Because the UN had succeeded in brokering a deal between the TFG and the ARS which doubled the size of the Parliament, theoretically bringing the Republic of Somalia back inside Somalia itself. The current government (still transitional) is the fourteenth attempt since 1991, but it is predominantly TFG, which suggests that the legacy of Italian Somaliland is stronger than that of British Somaliland, and that the tradition of despotism is stronger than that of freedom and democracy.

When news media speak of Somalia today, it is generally a report on the latest incident involving Somali and other ships in the Red Sea. This may modify my statement about the Italian legacy being stronger than the British. The British Empire was founded, in the time of Queen Elizabeth I, by men who liked to be known as “buccaneers” – Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh et al. They operated by sailing their boats into the wide open sea, waiting for other boats to come along – in their case Spanish boats bringing gold and silver and other precious commodities from the New World – and then seizing the boat, murdering the crew, and taking gifts back to Her Majesty. The name for the place where the liberated items was stored is still, to this day, known as the Treasury (a Treasury is a place where you keep treasure; treasure is what pirates steal – I just wanted to be sure we all understood the terminology). The proper name for what Drake and Raleigh did lives on today among the Somali sailing fleets of the Red Sea, and is known as piracy.

Drake's ship "The Golden Hinde", moored on the south bank of the Thames, just across from the Treasury, and presumably ready to defend that Treasury if Somali ships should venture beyond Greenwich

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