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Socialism Today 160 - July/August 2012

The pirates of Somalia

Somalia: The New Barbary?

By Martin N Murphy

Published by Columbia University Press (2011)

Reviewed by Iain Dalton

SOMALIA IS a relatively recent construction, formed from the merger of British and Italian territories in the Horn of Africa. It became independent in 1960. In 1969, after the assassination of president Abdirashid Sharmarke, a coup led by General Mohamed Siad Barre took power. Like several other regimes in the region, he declared that ‘Marxism’ (ie Stalinism) would be the country’s ideology. Murphy notes: "His commitment to socialism was, however, always questionable; like many post-colonial rulers he was prepared to take aid from whoever was prepared to offer it".

Aid was not channelled into the development of the country, but into foreign wars, particularly with Ethiopia over the Ogaden region, which has a large ethnic Somali population. It was in the aftermath of a failed assault on this region that Barre began to play off different clans.

Somalia is split between six major clans: the Hawiye, Darood, Isaaq, Dir, Rahanweyn and Digil. They contain sub-clans, and other ties exist between them, too. The clans are lineal, but are also partially geographically based, with different regions forming the homeland of each major and minor clan. Murphy writes: "The clan tends to be the institution that people turn to in times of violence and danger… [they] are entities that are only mobilised as actual groups in situations of conflict".

Each clan and sub-clan has shifting allegiances on a national and local basis as events take place, decided by councils of elders which involve every adult male present. As a result, in the words of a researcher, "one does not have a permanent enemy or permanent friend – only a permanent context".

The inter-clan conflicts led Barre’s national army to collapse into its component clan parts. Barre fled office in January 1991, creating a vacuum that warlords have tried to fill ever since, with the interference of outside powers, especially Ethiopia and the US. Different warlords have controlled the country’s capital, Mogadishu, over the past 20 years, forming various transitional governments that have not lasted long. This was cut across, temporarily, by the hold of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) from 2006-08.

A reflection of the tensions has been the breakup of Somalia, not only with the reconstitution of Somaliland (roughly the area of pre-1960 British Somaliland), but also the breakup of the old Italian Somaliland. The northern region of that, around the Horn of Africa, has become a semi-independent area called Puntland after rebels freed it from central control in the 1990s.

This social and economic collapse is closely associated with the rise of piracy. Although pirates operate from most of Somalia’s ports, the majority are based in Puntland with its ease of access to the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean. Murphy quotes a local official: "Piracy-related business has become the most profitable economic activity in our area and as locals we depend upon their output… The district gets a percentage of every ransom from ships that have been released, and that goes on public infrastructure, including our hospital and public schools".

It is a commercial business, with profits invested into new technology and equipment to launch bigger and more daring operations. In December 2009, it was reported that a stock exchange had been established in Haradheere to allow people to invest in piracy.

Murphy makes it clear it is unlikely to be stopped by the ships sent by the world powers, costing over $1 billion a year to maintain, or other means of outside intervention: "Piracy has never been defeated unless its sponsors on land have been arrested, defeated, bribed or agreed a political settlement based on a combination of these elements". By not questioning the role of imperialism in the region, however, Murphy is left merely proposing to refine the naval patrols and other failed methods in the hope that keeps a lid on piracy.

In such a short review it is impossible to capture the detail that Murphy elaborates about the contradictions within Somalia. The book is meticulously referenced, with a useful map and guide to abbreviations to help readers find their way through it. The layout into oddly-sized chapters, whose chronology jumps backwards and forwards, can make it difficult to follow at times. Nonetheless, for anyone attempting to grapple with the chaotic nature of Somalia today, The New Barbary? is a valuable source of information.


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