Somalia and the Failures of Foreign Policy Idealism - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
Somalia and the Failures of Foreign Policy Idealism

Before the advent of Islam, Somalia was a land of demons and giants. There were no mosques back then, no minarets, no Sufi shrines, just scattered limestone cairns, called taallos, and mysterious caves filled with otherworldly depictions of giraffes and aurochs. There were no caravanserais back then, no coastal entrepôts, no cities, no refugee camps, just unspoiled mangrove forests stretching along the shoreline, rugged valleys teeming with frankincense and myrrh trees, and a vast expanse of xeric shrubland marked only by the occasional watering hole. And there were no sheiks back then, no sultans, no spice traders, no warlords, no aid-workers, just scattered bands of nomadic pastoralists who spent their long days herding sheep, goats, and dromedary camels across the parched landscape, and their uncertain nights huddling in beehive-shaped huts surrounded by dense hedge-walls of thorny spurge.

Such defenses were necessary, for beyond the enclosures lurked woraba, spotted hyenas, those ferocious, sloping, slavering beasts who filled the hours from dusk to dawn with their hideous howling, and would, as Nega Mizlekia later observed, “cut you up into pieces quicker than the gods put you together.” Also skulking beyond the barricades were qori ismaris, shape-shifting were-hyenas with a penchant for grave-robbing, as well as cannibalistic demons like Dhegdheer, who preferred the flesh of the living. Flying skeletons, or hetho, coursed wildly across the endless desert sky, driving hapless onlookers mad with fright, but, luckily for the nomads below, those bleached-white phantoms were joined in the firmament by radiant ayaanle, benevolent spirits who mediated relations between the sky god Waaq and his loyal worshipers. No angelic intercession, however, could prevent the inevitable visit from Huur, that bird-shaped messenger of death kept ever busy by drought, disease, dust-storms, wildfires, starvation, misadventure, vendetta, and sometimes even old age.

It was once upon a time, deep in this distant, obscure, pre-Islamic past, that the nomadic pastoralists of the Horn of Africa found themselves divided into two camps: those who flourished under the enlightened dominion of Biriir ina-Barqo and those who languished under the maladministration of Xabaad ina-Kamas. Both Biriir and Xabaad were uurku-baalle, giants among men, but the former was good-natured, desiring nothing more than to luxuriate in the broad shade of his favorite tree, while the latter would plug up water-wells with massive boulders and demand tribute from his subjects in the form of fattened bull camels. Dying of hunger and thirst, and unwilling to submit to Xabaad any longer, the desperate pastoralists sought assistance from Biriir, who readily expressed his willingness to intervene against the villainous Xabaad. Soon the two colossi were locked in together in combat, as “the earth swayed and rocked about and violent winds swept the four corners of the land, caused by the sheer weight and the force of the blows the giants delivered onto each other.” Eventually Biriir strangled the life out of his rival, removed the boulder-stones stopping up the water-wells, and became the “guardian of all the land, and he was respected and loved by all the people.” Sheltering under the aegis of this kindly behemoth, the nomads of prehistoric Somalia lived, we are reliably informed, “happily ever after.”

It is upon this fundamentally disordered Somali state — disordered largely by design — that outside forces have routinely tried, and invariably failed, to impose a semblance of order.

At least so the story goes. One suspects that this idyllic state of affairs could not have lasted long, given that no one before Biriir ina-Barqo, mythological or otherwise, had previously united the land now known as Somalia, and no sultan, warlord, colonial administrator, socialist dictator, or elected official has managed that trick ever since. Perhaps the nomads had learned from the war of the uurku-baalle that for every Biriir there is a Xabaad, for every benevolent ruler a tyrannical despot, and that the upside of the former does not outweigh the potential downside of the latter. Mobile and fractious by nature, nomads are intrigued by the concept of centralized power, but wary of it. Thus one of the best-known Somali folk tales remains “The Lion’s Share,” which tells of how all the assorted beasts of prey attempted the delicate task of divvying up a she-camel. The hyena generously offered the lion half the flesh, with the rest to be allocated equally among the rest of the cheetahs, hyenas, jackals, civets, and servals. The imperious lion rejected the offer, unwilling as he was to share the camel’s toothsome meat and silky white hump-fat with his fellow predators. Instead, he smote the hyena with such force that the poor victim’s eyeball popped out and was left dangling from a bloody, cavernous socket. Understandably reluctant to risk any further lèse-majesté, the jackal stepped in and offered the lion half of the remaining portion, then half of what remained after that, and so on, until nothing remained but the lion’s share of the fable’s title. The king of the beasts then embraced the jackal and asked how it had learned to divide the catch so intelligently, to which the wild dog responded that the dangling eye of the hyena had provided a salutary lesson indeed.

The 19th-century Somali chieftain and poet Raage Ugaas, in “The Respect Due to Power,” put it another way:

A forest with lions and a place where the buttocks and manes of beasts of prey are seen,

Can only be crossed by stilling all sound; leave them unaroused.

If you catch your thumb in the thorny thickness of the fold-fence

You withdraw your arm carefully without shaking your whole arm.

He who stands above you on that day, and pays tribute to no one,

Must be answered softly and not with harsh words.

Power of this sort is addictive, and those who possess it are disinclined to cede it. Indeed “power,” as Bertrand de Jouvenel defined it, “is authority, and makes for more authority. It is force and makes for more force. Or, if a less metaphorical terminology is preferred, ambitious wills, drawn by the lure of Power, expend unceasingly their energies in its behalf that they may bind society in an ever tighter grip and extract from it more of its resources.” For nomads, pastoralists, and semi-pastoralists, life in such a stiflingly coercive society is intolerable. Nomads and pastoralists cannot, after all, be bound in a tight societal grip, for that would deprive them of their mobility, their livelihoods, their very identity. Their resources are literally on the hoof, not tied to the soil like those of agrarian societies. For these reasons they have become virtuosos of what James C. Scott has called the “art of not being governed.” Scott’s forebear, the anthropologist Ernest Gellner, demonstrated in his magisterial Saints of the Atlas (1969) how nomadic societies like the Berbers of Morocco’s central High Atlas Mountains eschew central authority, preferring a state of siba, translated sometimes as “institutionalized dissidence,” sometimes as “ordered anarchy.” Siba, or its Somali equivalent, produces a community that is “both turbulent and in a left-handed sense stable,” oscillating “between on the one hand democratic or oligarchic tribal republics ruled by assemblies or hierarchies of assemblies, and on the other hand ephemeral tribal tyrannies.”

In the Somali context, Michael van Notten, a Dutch jurist and anthropologist who married into the Samaron clan, found during his time in the Horn of Africa that numerous kinship groups have from time immemorial passed down stories of how, “once upon a time, the elders gave their dignitaries legislative and executive powers, but how those powers were abused and shortly thereafter abolished.” The following is one such version:

Once upon a time, the clan convened an assembly and decided to appoint a king. The king’s first royal decree was to inform the clan that for breakfast, lunch, and supper he wanted only to eat the marrow of the bones of young goats. For each meal, he decreed that ten goats should be slaughtered for him. He believed this would secure his eternal youth and felt sure the clan would recognise that to be in its best interest. After feeding their king in this way for several days, the clansmen began to worry. It was not that they feared their king would suffer indigestion. No — they feared because their herds were rapidly dwindling in size. So they convened another assembly and decided to collectively murder their king. And so they did, with the resolve never to appoint another.

Tyrants who, like the infamous Xabaad ina-Kamas, abuse their power will quickly wear out their welcome, triggering what is called a gaashaanbuur, or “shield-pile,” with the weak joining forces to dethrone the powerful. Traditional Somali political life is thus predicated on armed stalemates, segmented opposition, and unstable kritarchies, and is entirely capable of functioning without a formal legal system, owing to the existence of the xeer, or customary law, which dates back to pre-Islamic times.

Somalia thereby offers proof of a sort of political second law of thermodynamics, wherein an isolated system will naturally tend to degenerate into an anarchical, ungovernably disordered state of institutionalized dissidence, a process that can only be arrested through immense, and in this case frankly unrealistic, expenditures of energy. Where else could one find an individual quite like the Mogadishu-based olive oil exporter Omar Hussein Ahmed, renowned for having, together with a group of fellow traders, “purchased missiles to shoot at government soldiers,” justifying his measures on the grounds that “taxes are annoying”? You will have to search long and hard through all the annals of libertarianism, anarchism, objectivism, and laissez-faire capitalism to find a better example of rational egoism than that provided by Omar Hussein Ahmed and his battery of missile launchers.

It is upon this fundamentally disordered Somali state — disordered largely by design — that outside forces have routinely tried, and invariably failed, to impose a semblance of order. During the Italian colonial era, Prince Luigi Amedeo of Savoy and Governor Cesare Maria de Vecchi de Val Cismon struggled mightily to establish a plantation system in the Shabeelle Valley, but the Somali cotton, banana, sugar cane, sesame, and sorghum industries never prospered. (The British, in their zone of influence, were rather more realistic, seeking only, as Ioan Lewis noted, “to ensure a steady supply of mutton for the hungry Aden garrison,” something well within the means of the indigenous pastoralists.) After the post-colonial 1969 coup d’état, the dictator Siad Barre attempted to reconstruct Somalia as a laboratory of scientific socialism, even going so far as to declare a “Somali National Clanism Funeral Day,” in which effigies of the country’s many clans were ceremonially cremated in the Stadium Banaadir in Old Town Mogadishu. Yet Barre was unable to abolish clanism, and he even encouraged it when it benefited his regime. As Mohamed Haji Ingiriis has noted, “throughout Siad Barre’s rule, there was no single cabinet, committee or council that the Daarood [clan] in general — and the Mareehaan [subclan] in particular — did not obtain a lion’s share.” If Barre took the lion’s share, it was the Isaaq clan that was obliged to play the role of the hyena, with as many as 200,000 Isaaq systematically slaughtered by Barre’s gangs of Dabar Goynta Isaaqa, or “Isaaq Exterminators,” between 1987 and 1989, alongside members of the Umar Mahmud sub-lineage of the Majeerteen clan.

It was only with the subsequent uprisings of the Somali Salvation Democratic Front, the Somali National Movement, the United Somali Congress, and other clan-based movements that no longer wished to play the role of the jackals in the aforementioned fable that the predations of the Barre regime were ended, though the resulting power vacuum immediately gave rise to the uncontrolled internecine conflicts, foreign interventions, and routine collapses of state capacity with which we have become sadly familiar in recent decades. War, famine, and drought have taken and continue to take a brutal toll, with the pastoralist and semi-pastoralist communities being hit the hardest. Fatima Jibrell, who was born into a pastoralist family that plied a route between the Laas Qoray coast of the Red Sea and the Gebi valley, has lamented how pastoralism is “dying a slow death” as a result of “recurring drought, environmental degradation and livestock depletion,” as well as the harmful effects of the charcoal trade, the disruptive influxes of internally displaced populations, the attraction of pastoral youth to urban centers, and the unwelcome arrival of “urban habits not at all conducive to the pastoral way of life … [by which] the pastoral culture got poisoned by the urban cousin.” It is a tale as old as civilization, though no less tragic for being so wearily predictable.

Somalia has been reduced to a veritable shambles. A map of the country, color-coded by territorial control, looks rather like an abstract expressionist painting. The random, overlapping blotches of pigment on that map, which must be updated constantly, represent areas under the shifting jurisdiction of the Somali Federal Government, the relatively competent and stable separatist regime in Somaliland, various other squabbling unionist and separatist factions, as well as vast swathes of land held by the jihadist Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen, plus other districts under purely local control. It is not, we must admit, an altogether pretty picture, and the vaguely pathetic efforts of the weak but self-important central government, undertaken with constant infusions of foreign aid, have done less than nothing to unify a country that simply cannot be unified. As Peter Leeson wrote in his prescient 2007 study “Better off Stateless: Somalia Before and After Government Collapse,”

The factional disagreements that led to civil war in the few years after government’s collapse remain strong. Any ruler to come to power from one of these groups would likely turn the state’s power against its rivals rather than to the good of the country, much as Barre’s regime did before it ended. The TFG [Transitional Federal Government] has sparse domestic support precisely because of this and because faction leaders recognize the strong possibility that any one faction gaining too much power could mean the virtual annihilation of others. Indeed, thus far in the stateless period, the three greatest disruptions of relative stability and renewed social conflict have occurred precisely in the three times that a formal government was most forcefully attempted.

Learning nothing from history, recent or ancient, Somalia’s current president, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, dit Farmaajo — formerly Commissioner for Equal Employment for the New York State Department of Transportation in Buffalo, New York, curiously enough — has held himself forward as a “facilitator and initiator of peace,” while promising to “migrate from the infamous clan-based model to universal suffrage.” It is an improbable program that predictably “collapsed in 2020 despite massive investments by the international community and local actors.”

Unable to implement his purportedly reformist agenda, Farmaajo scandalously delayed elections by more than a year, prompting a constitutional crisis described by Prime Minister Mohamed Hussein Roble as a “coup,” albeit relatively bloodless. The blood is instead flowing elsewhere. In late October 2021, government troops launched a vicious attack on their former allies, the Ahlu Sunnah Wal Jama’a (ASWJ), in the town of Gurieel in Galmudug state, in the process displacing some 100,000 people, cutting off water and power to the region, and damaging Istarlin hospital. The Federal Government and ASWJ, a Sufi organization, had previously collaborated in the struggle against al-Shabaab, but they now differ “on government slots in local administrations,” which was evidently enough to trigger a violent federal incursion into Galmudug that positively reeked of a campaign of ethnic cleansing.

Government crackdowns continue apace. In early February 2022, heavily armed policemen raided Sooyaal TV and Radio, an independent media station in Abudwak town, “beating and detaining its director Mahad Bashir Osman for interviewing a group of police officers who went on strike on Sunday due to unpaid salaries.” Yet while the Farmaajo regime is ready and able to project force against its erstwhile allies and critics in the media, it has proven wholly incapable of combatting the al-Shabaab Islamists, who now control large pockets of the country and operate with an impunity only dreamt of by their jihadist predecessors, the Islamic Courts Union. According to Omar Mahmood and Abdihakim Ainte, al-Shabaab’s “sophisticated shadow governance structures provide a modicum of justice and revenue-generating streams” that exceed those of the internationally recognized government. “Mogadishu is full of stories of even government officials traveling outside the city to visit al-Shabaab courts to process a land dispute or similar matter. This owes to the group’s track record of less corruption, more consistency, and greater implementation of its edicts than the government itself.” Astoundingly enough, a brutal al-Qaeda affiliate currently orchestrating a wave of deadly bombings throughout Somalia and Kenya still provides more reliable local governance than the blundering federal government still being propped up by the United States, European Union, African Union, and United Nations.

As the authorities in Mogadishu descend into petty tyranny and venal rent-seeking, the regime’s backers abroad have their own priorities. Back in December 2021, “the U.S. and British ambassadors to Somalia, Colleen Crenwelge and Kate Foster … expressed disappointment over the failure to ensure the 30% quota for women in the recent elections of the Upper House of the Federal Parliament of Somalia,” with Crenwelge hoping “that this quota will be ultimately met.” One cannot help but be reminded of our valiant efforts to bring gender studies and an aesthetic appreciation of Marcel Duchamp’s urinal artwork to the people of Afghanistan, while attempting to establish a chain of soy-based “Strong Naan” franchises in Mazar-e-Sharif and elsewhere, all at a time when the Taliban was patiently working to oust the wretched Ashraf Ghani puppet government. Eventually we realized, as President Biden admitted several decades late in the game, that “no amount of military force would ever deliver a stable and secure Afghanistan.” The same is doubtless true of Somalia, but we have learned nothing from our recent debacles, and we will go on funding the Farmaajo regime in Mogadishu and carrying out the occasional drone-strike against al-Shabaab cells and clan elders, even as Somalis themselves insist that xeer-based conflict resolution techniques stand a better chance of forging a lasting compromise between warring clans and warring ideologies than those alien political and human rights discourses naively transplanted from abroad. (READ MORE from Matthew Omolesky: Dubious Progress: Human Rights and Hypocrisy)

Luminaries like Eric Voegelin, Christopher Lasch, and Curtis Yarvin, among others, have proposed that the original intellectual sin of modernity is that of “gnosticism,” which can loosely be defined as “acting in the real world, while thinking in an imaginary world of dreams.” Our dream — for whatever reason — seems to be a world in which Afghans can study pretentious conceptual art and eat soy-flour naan bread, a world in which Somali women are proportionately represented in a Western-style bicameral Golaha Shacabka Soomaaliya. This is, for the foreseeable future, purely a fantasy, sometimes merely absurd, and sometimes quite dangerous. The real world, not the imaginary world of our neoliberal dreams, is a world increasingly dominated by what Edward Luttwak has termed “geonomics” — a “hybrid paradigm” premised on “structural game-changers like rising economic multipolarity, the weaponization of complex interdependence, the quest to control scarce raw materials, the recurrence of systemic financial crises that unleash disruptive consequences, the ongoing struggle to master advanced technologies, the growing role of the state in economic affairs, the proliferation of all manner of illicit flows, and the conformation of regional blocs to pursue shared interests through combined strength.” Rightly contemptuous of foreign policy idealists, Luttwak envisions the globe as a dense, thorny thicket full of greedy predators and crafty prey, haunted by demons and giants, marked by shifting loyalties and ancient enmities, a world of institutionalized dissidence and ordered anarchy. A world, one might even say, rather like Somali organized anarchy writ large.

It was Sayid Maxamed Cabdulle Xasan, the early 20th-century Somali leader who led his dervishes into battle with the British, Italians, and Abyssinians with such ferocity that his nemeses dubbed him the “Mad Mullah,” who put it best in his poem “The Terrifying Journey”:

No matter what plans a man may make

The outcome will be decided not by him

But by the constraining forces of the time.

Gone is the boundless optimism of the post-Cold War consensus, with its airy talk of the “end of history” and the “universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” In its place we have a world of constraints, geopolitical and economic, marked by limited raw materials and the eroding consent of the governed. Yet foreign policy idealism persists, the hallmark of a decadent gnosticism that has survived our collective disillusionment. Our leaders cling to escapist fables of progress, which justify any number of quixotic initiatives at home and abroad. If I am to believe in fables, I will stick with those of the Somali classical poets, the fables concerning the hetho and the ayaanle, the uurku-baalle, the lion and the hyena, fables which provide insight into eternal aspects of the human condition as it really is on the ground, rather than the laughable flights of fancy somehow still being spun by an increasingly feckless foreign policy establishment.

Matthew Omolesky
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Matthew Omolesky is a human rights lawyer and a researcher in the fields of cultural heritage preservation and law and anthropology. A Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute, he has been contributing to The American Spectator since 2006, as well as to publications including Quadrant, Lehrhaus, Europe2020, the European Journal of Archaeology, and Democratiya.
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