Somalia — 20 years on the brink of chaos

The story of Somalia’s troubles can be read in the decay of its capital, Mogadishu. As the country i

The story of Somalia’s troubles can be read in the decay of its capital, Mogadishu. As the country is once more gripped by drought, Xan Rice charts its downfall.

I was new to Somalia and Mohamed Abbi, a tombstone-toothed, guitar-plucking security guard, was telling me some important truths.

The first was that if he crossed the invisible line that divided Galkayo, the scruffy town that I was visiting, he would be killed.

This was nothing personal, Abbi explained. Most of the town's residents were either Darod or Hawiye, two of Somalia's main clans. The people looked the same, spoke the same language, and were all Muslims. Yet the Darods, including Abbi, were confined to north Galkayo, the Hawiyes to the south.

“If I had to go to the south now, surely I would be shot," he said earnestly. "A southerner coming here to the north, he would be shot, too."

Abbi was not exaggerating. So entrenched was the clan divide that the international ­medical charity that was hosting me in 2005 operated separate hospitals on either side of town. Even a dying man could not cross the "Green Line". And in Galkayo the frequent clashes between the rival clans meant there were plenty of ­dying men. Which led Abbi to reveal his second truth: that virtually every man had a gun, from the teenagers who rode around town on the back of pick-up trucks mounted with machine-guns to the middle-aged shopkeepers selling tea and cigarettes. (Ab­bi's weapon of choice, like most men's, was an AK-47, which he wore slung over his shoulder so its barrel pointed past his green fedora.)

As we sat outside the aid agency's fortified compound in the early evening, he moved on to lamenting the ineffectiveness of the current government. It was the 14th attempt at instal­ling a national authority in 14 years and, in its desperation to find a solution to Somalia's ills, the international community had endorsed a warlord as president, the 70-year-old former colonel Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed. But Yusuf, like most of his government, preferred to live in the comparative comfort of Nairobi, Kenya, rather than the Somali capital, Mogadishu, where other warlords held sway. Anarchy might have been too strong a word for the situation there, and indeed across much of the country, for the bullet did ensure a certain type of order - but it was not too far off.

“If we don't get a national government, it will always be like this," was Abbi's final truth. Having grown up in Mogadishu in the 1950s, he was old enough to remember a different time, long before the mention of Somalia immediately brought to mind the words "failed state". Those were the peaceful, dying days of the "Italian empire" that had been established in the Horn of Africa by Mussolini.

Back then, the Somali capital was a handsome, orderly city, beautifully appointed on the shores of the Indian Ocean, Abbi told me. Independence followed in 1960, but the promising start did not last long. Clan loyalties were already threatening the stability of the government by the time Mohamed Siad Barre seized power in a bloodless coup in 1969, promptly suspending the constitution and banning political parties.

Barre viewed "clanism" as a deadly disease, but his efforts to create a national identity that trumped it failed, not least because he soon turned into a dictator. He was overthrown in January 1991 by the warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid and his clan militia. Abbi, who was working as a policeman by then, fled the capital for Galkayo. The age of chaos had set in.

Fifteen years on, people were still fleeing the city, as I found a few months later when I visited Bosaso, a sweltering, somewhat seedy town on the northern coast of Somalia that faces on to the Gulf of Aden. So dire were the prospects at home that thousands of young ­Somalis from Mogadishu - as well as some Ethiopians and Eritreans - were willing to risk their lives to cross the sea in overcrowded smugglers' fishing boats in order to reach Yemen. The risks were huge. Of the 20,000 people who had made the crossing in the previous six or so months, nearly a thousand were believed to have died. Yet the young men whom I spoke to as they sat watching the turquoise sea from the hills near Bosaso were happy leaving it to fate. Better to die trying to escape at sea than die sitting at home, they reasoned.

I was beginning to wonder if I would ever get to see Mogadishu, which was still considered too dangerous for outsiders. Then somethingextraordinary happened: the warlords were defeated. It was June 2006.

“Liberation"

The victor was the Union of Islamic Courts, a coalition of sharia courts that had slowly begun to bring to order to pockets of the city in the preceding years, gaining tremendous goodwill from the population. I flew in on a commercial flight a few weeks after the city's "liberation" and was met at the airport by my fixer and my security detail - a pick-up full of men with AK-47s. As we drove around Mogadishu, I was astonished at the level of destruction.

“Battle-scarred" was the description I had always read, but it did not seem to do this justice. Building after building bore the acne of bul­lets or heavier weapons. Along the seafront, once-beautiful houses, offices, ministry build­ings and embassies lay in ruins. Years of rubbish had accumulated alongside the rutted streets. The city was utterly destroyed.

But its people were not. For the first time since the early 1990s, residents could move freely in their own city because the warlord checkpoints were gone. Men and women actually dared to walk around at night, or share a dinner with friends. The nightly soundtrack of gunfire had disappeared, as had the fear of kidnapping, robbery and extortion. The head of a local radio station told me that what had happened was a "miracle".

The euphoria all around gave me a false sense of security, and I thought it would be safe enough for a foreigner to cover a political rally in support of the Islamic Courts. One of the two other foreign journalists who made the same calculation was Martin Adler, a brilliant freelance televisionjournalist with a wife and two young daughters at home in Sweden. As he filmed the crowd, he was shot dead at close range. I flew back home the next day in the plane that carried his body. Nobody claimed ­responsibility for the killing.

The Islamic Courts leadership included a few radicals with alleged links to al-Qaeda, but numerous moderates, too. Indeed, many people in Mogadishu believed that the Islamist authority was the best hope in years for the country to move forward. But neighbouring Ethiopia and the United States viewed the courts as a terror threat that needed to be eliminated. Ethiopian troops swept into Mogadishu six months later.

Within weeks an insurgency had begun. Out of the spiderholes into which the courts had disappeared crawled the al-Shabaab rebels, a radical militant group with very real links to al-Qaeda and a seemingly limitless capacity for brutality. As I covered Somalia from the safety of Kenya over the next few years, the insurgents' catalogue of cruelty thickened: from suicide bombs at home and in Uganda, to the public stoning of a teenage girl accused of ­adultery. Last year, one of my Somali friends introduced me to a 17-year-old boy whom he had helped escape from Mogadishu. Accused by al-Shabaab of theft, the boy had his right hand and left foot sawn off in front of a large crowd that included his mother.

I've still not been back to Mogadishu, which remains only partly controlled by the government. Yet, despite the dangers in the city, people are now arriving in the thousands from the al-Shabaab-controlled countryside where famine has been declared. Others are heading to Galkayo. The town remains split in two.

Xan Rice is a contributing writer for the New Statesman

Xan Rice is Features Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 01 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The rise of the far right

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No peace after progress

How the death of the industrial way of life gave us choice – and stoked resentment and fear.

Now that the making of useful and necessary things in Britain is only a shadow of what it once was, we can see more clearly the effects of the Manufacturing Age. The cost was high to the producers of prodigious wealth; a ten-year difference in life expectancy remains between people living in the richest areas and those in Glasgow. The (fleeting, it now seems) visitation of industrialism has made life more comfortable and its dismantling has liberated millions from choiceless occupations. The legacy is one of spectacular improvement, unequally shared.

Perhaps the most dramatic experience of the 20th century was the suddenness with which profligate plenty replaced a skinflint subsistence. Was it the speed of this that distracted us from wondering why, instead of the secure sustenance that generations of needy people had asked of an unyielding economic system, we were offered a promiscuous spillage of goods, promoted with quasi-religious zeal by the converts of a capitalism that had previously delivered to most of its captive workers a life of penury? Such a rapid reversal might have alerted us to changes beneath the surface that elided losses incurred.

The greatest of these was certainly not the extinction of the industrial way of life itself, release from which has been an unqualified blessing. But the transition from relentlessly work-driven lives (in the 1950s, two-thirds of Britain’s workers were still manual labourers) was marked by perfunctory obituaries for the disintegration of industrial communities, with no acknowledgement that, for a century and a half, they had represented the inescapable destiny of the people they sheltered.

Even less recognition was given to the fortitude with which they had borne a long, coercive labour. A way of life, buried without ceremony in the unmarked grave of progress, could not be mourned; and this has generated some social pathologies of our time: resentment over an arbitrary obliteration of industry, disengagement from a party of labour by those it called, like feudal lords, its “own people”, loss of memory of the economic migrants we also were, passing from the goad of industry into the pastures of consumption, and thence into the liberating servitude of technology.

Grief makes no judgement on the intrinsic value of what is lost. Absence of the known and familiar is the object of melancholy in its own right, even if replaced by something immeasurably better. Objectively, there was little to mourn in the vanished industrial way of life: insufficiency and humiliation, malice of overseer and manager, officiousness of poor-law administrator and means-test man. Male industrial workers exhausted in body and spirit, instead of protecting those for whom the power of their hands was the only shelter against destitution, visited similar punishment on their wives and children. There is nothing to be lamented in an end to the penitential life of women, scrubbing not only the red tiles of the kitchen floor, but even an arc of pavement outside the front door; their interception of men on payday before wages were wasted on beer and oblivion; the clenching against joyless invasion of their bodies in the boozy aftermath. But it was the only life they knew, and they adhered to it with grim stoicism and even pride.

There is much to be said for their resistance. The fragile lattice formed by women’s arms was often the only safety net against destitution. Trade unions and friendly and burial societies that shielded folk from economic violence foreshadowed the welfare state and the National Health Service.

The life of labouring people in Britain was strikingly homogeneous, despite diversity of occupation, dialect and local sensibility. There was the same collective experience: terraced house with parlour reserved for celebration or mourning; the three-piece suite, plaster figure on a stand behind the window, chenille curtain against the draught, engraving of The Stag at Bay on the wall; the deal table and Windsor chairs in the living room, the mantelpiece a domestic shrine with clock, candlesticks and pictures of soldiers smiling before they died; the music of cinders falling through the bars in the grate; cheerless bedrooms where husband and wife slept in high connubial state, more bier than bed, where sexual enjoyment was ritually sacrificed as flowers of frost formed on the inside of the window.

And everywhere photographs: wraithlike children with ringlets or in sailor suits, fated never to grow up; weddings in the back garden, a bouquet of lilies and a grandmother in boots and astrakhan hat; the smudged features of a kinsman no one can now identify. Identical memories, too: the shotgun wedding in the dingy finery of a Co-op hall; the funeral tableau around the grave, amid ominous inscriptions of “Sleeping where no shadows fall”; queues outside the ocean-going Savoy or Tivoli to watch Gone With the Wind; the pub where “Vilia” or “The Last Rose of Summer” was hammered out on a discordant piano.

The opening up of such sombre lives might have been expected to call forth cries of gratitude. Instead, a synthetic joy has emanated largely from the same sources that, until recently, offered people grudging survival only, the change of tune outsourced to producers of manufactured delight, purveyors of contrived euphoria to the people – a different order of industrial artefact from the shoes, utensils and textiles of another era.

***

A more authentic popular res­ponse exists beneath the official psalmody, a persistent murmur of discontent and powerlessness. Anger and aggression swirl around like dust and waste paper in the streets of our affluent, unequal society. As long-term recipients of the contempt of our betters, we know how to despise the vulnerable – people incapable of work, the poor, the timid and the fearful, those addicted to drugs and alcohol. Sullen resentment tarnishes the wealth of the world, a conviction that somebody else is getting the advantages that ought to be “ours” by right and by merit.

Rancour appears among those “left behind” in neighbourhoods besieged by unknown tongues and foreign accents: people who never voted for unchosen change, as all political options are locked up in a consensus of elites. “Give us back our country!”
they cry; even though that country is not in the custody of those from whom they would reclaim it. There was no space for the working class to grieve over its own dissolution. If, as E P Thompson said, that class was present at its own making, it was certainly not complicit in its own undoing.

Grief denied in individuals leads to damaging psychological disorders. There is no reason to believe that this differs for those bereaved of a known way of living. The working class has been colonised, as was the peasantry in the early industrial era. When the values, beliefs and myths of indigenous peoples are laid waste, these lose meaning, and people go to grieve in city slums and die from alcohol, drugs and other forms of self-inflicted violence. Though the dominant culture’s erasure of the manufacturing way of life in Britain was less intense than the colonial ruin of ancient societies, this subculture was equally unceremoniously broken. It is a question of degree. The ravages of drugs and alcohol and self-harm in silent former pit villages and derelict factory towns show convergence with other ruined cultures elsewhere in the world.

Depression is a symptom of repressed grief: here is the connection between unfinished mourning and popular resentment at having been cheated out of our fair share, our due, our place in the world. If we are unable to discern our own possible fate in suffering people now, this is perhaps a result of estrangement from unresolved wrongs in our own past. Nothing was ever explained. Globalisation occurred under a kind of social laissez-faire: no political education made the world more comprehensible to the disaffected and disregarded, people of small account to those who take decisions on their behalf and in their name.

Anyone who protested against our passage into this changed world was criminalised, called “wrecker” and “extremist”. The miners’ strike of 1984 was the symbol of this: their doomed fight to preserve a dignity achieved in pain and violence was presented by the merchants of deliverance not only as retrograde, but also as an act of outlawry. Resistance to compulsory change was derided as a response of nostalgics protecting the indefensible, when the whole world was on the brink of a new life. Early in her tenure of Downing Street, Margaret Thatcher, that sybil and prophet who knew about these things, warned that Britain would become “a less cosy, more abrasive” place: a vision confirmed by the Battle of Orgreave – redolent of civil war – and the anguish of Hillsborough.

It is too late to grieve now. Scar tissue has healed over the untreated wound. Though no one expects the ruling classes to understand the distress of perpetual “modernisation”, the leaders of labour might have been able to recognise capitalism’s realm of freedom and a gaudy consumerism that concealed hardening competitiveness and the growth of a crueller, more bitter society.

The ills of this best of all worlds, its excessive wealth and extreme inequality, are on show in hushed thoroughfares of London, shuttered sites of “inward investment”, where the only sound is the faint melody of assets appreciating; while elsewhere, people wait for charitable tins of denutrified substances to feed their family, or sit under a grubby duvet, a Styrofoam cup beseeching the pence of passers-by.

Unresolved feelings about industrialism, enforced with great harshness and abolished with equal contempt for those who served it, are certainly related to the stylish savagery of contemporary life. The alibi that present-day evils are an expression of “human nature” is a poor apology for what is clearly the nature – restless and opportunistic – of a social and economic system that has, so far at least, outwitted its opponents at every turn.

Jeremy Seabrook’s book “The Song of the Shirt” (C Hurst & Co) won the Bread and Roses Award for Radical Publishing 2016

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain