As Somalia celebrates its 56th Independence anniversary this month, it may take a moment of reflection to understand how the country has descended from the dream of creating a Greater Somalia that unites all the territories of all Somali people spread across four countries in the Horn of Africa, to picking up the pieces of the disintegrated rump state.
Born on July 1, 1960, from the unification between the British-protected north and the Italian-ruled south, Somalia adopted a parliamentary democracy and became the first African nation in which its first president handed over the reins of power peacefully to his successor after being defeated in a publicly broadcast parliamentary vote in 1967.
But soon after the creation of the Organisation of African Unity in 1963, the predecessor of the current African Union, Somalia found itself isolated due to its recalcitrant demand to unite the regions in Ethiopia, Kenya and Djibouti with the Somali Republic. Aware of the Somali people’s homogeneity and close-knit clanship, the neighbouring countries were alarmed at the disastrous political and security fallout that Somali nationalism could bring to the delicate structures of multi-ethnic, multi-lingual and multi-religious communities.
This led to Ethiopia and Kenya concluding a mutual defence pact in 1964 and lobbying for African support by portraying Somalia’s irredentist claims as dangerous to the stability of the continent, where many ethnic communities were divided by colonial drawn borders. The OAU accepted the argument and decided against redrawing the African colonial borders to avoid opening a pandora’s box.
In the 1970s, Somalia built one of the strongest armies in Africa and gained political influence by supporting liberation movements and by joining the Arab League in 1974. It was then in 1977, when riding a wave of nationalism, that Somalia invaded Ethiopia. Taking advantage of Ethiopia’s weakness due to its prolonged war with Eritrea and its fighting against armed rebels that sought to unseat the military regime that overthrew Emperor Haile Selassie, the well equipped and soviet-trained Somali army routed the Ethiopian forces and took over almost all Somali territory in Ethiopia.
The Somali victory, however, was short-lived as the Soviet Union switched sides and threw its weight behind the more populous Ethiopia, which had become a socialist state. The Ethiopian army, reinforced with fresh shipments of heavy military equipment and the deployment of thousands of mechanised Cuban forces, made a counterattack and repulsed the Somali invasion.
With the army returning home demoralised, the economy in shambles and tens of thousands of Somali refugees running from possible Ethiopian reprisal pouring into the country, Somalia started a sudden slide into an unknown future.
The government had become repressive and used force to quell any real or conceived rebellion. But it became more difficult by the day to hold the country together, as Ethiopian hosted, clan-based militia led by disgruntled former military commanders took up arms against the regime.
When the central government collapsed in 1991, after almost a decade of civil war, the invading rebel forces turned their guns on each other and the country eventually descended into a state of chaos with clan warlords delivering the final blow to its nationhood.
Millions of civilians crossed the border into Kenya to create the largest refugee camp in the world in Dadaab camp in northern Kenya, while other millions of internally displaced people became victims to marauding bandits, famine and disease, prompting the then US president George H.W. Bush to launch his ill-fated humanitarian intervention ‘Operation Restore Hope’ in December 1992. One year later, president Bill Clinton withdrew the American forces from Somalia following the horrendous battle, commonly known as ‘Black Hawk Down’.
Since then the country has changed hands between stooge governments formed in neighbouring capitals and terrorist groups using an internationalist religious agenda. Jittered by the threat of terrorism at its border, Ethiopia invaded Somalia in 2006 to help the weak Somali Transitional Federal Government against extremist groups. The invasion, however, had inflamed the nationalistic feelings of the Somali people and despite their initial victory, the Ethiopians were forced to pull out from Mogadishu in early 2009, leaving the African Union Mission to Somalia (Amisom) peace keeping forces to deal with the deteriorating security.
The situation was further complicated by Kenya’s unilateral military intervention in the Jubba Valley region with the declared objective of nullifying Al Shabab’s threat to its homeland. But Kenya’s agenda of using the occupation as a bargaining chip for future territorial and political gains was never lost on the Somali people.
Despite its strategic geographical location, the Somali plight largely remained under the international radar until Somali pirates choked international maritime trade routes and terrorised the shipping industry with devastating humanitarian and financial losses.
It was in 2012 that the world acted quickly with a lot of cash in hand and a resolve to resuscitate the Somali state. Hassan Shaikh Mahmoud was elected President by a handpicked parliament and with the blessing of the international community. Over the last four years, the country made tremendous achievements including liberating large swathes of land from terror group Al Shabab, drafting a new constitution, laying foundations for government institutions, striving to stop the disintegration of the country through excruciating negotiations with provincial clan elders, and preparing the country for the August 2016 parliamentary and presidential elections.
In recognition of such progress, many countries have appointed ambassadors to Somalia with a number of them opening their embassies in Mogadishu, while the Somali diaspora returned in droves to contribute to the rebuilding of their country. Somalis have also built lucrative businesses in East Africa, South Africa and other places over the last 25 years, while Somali-owned airlines, money transfer and telecommunications companies have become some of the most successful businesses in the region.
Today, Somalia is on the path to recovery. Although terrorism is still a threat to the fragile peace and Al Shabab frequently launches desperate suicide attacks with heavy loss of innocent life, it can no longer hold the country hostage as it once did. A burgeoning movement of educated and politically conscious Somali youth, an aggressive and fearless local press and social media keep the pressure on the country’s mostly inept and clan-beholden politicians to be accountable to the people. Holding the country’s presidential and parliamentary elections next month without any delay will be another step in the right direction.
Meanwhile, one hopes that by now, Ethiopian and Kenyan leaders would change their myopic thinking of settling historical scores and taking advantage of the Somali people’s misfortune and realise that a peaceful, stable and entrepreneurial Somalia would be more beneficial to their countries’ future prosperity and regional cooperation.
Bashir Goth is an African commentator on political, social, and cultural issues.