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The US government’s counterterrorism activities and ‘humanitarian’ assistance in Somalia and the Horn of Africa go a long way towards explaining the region’s entrenched problems, writes Horace Campbell.

In Somalia, half of the population is at risk of famine. This famine endangers the lives of over 11 million people in the Horn of Africa. The scale of this crisis makes one raise questions. What is famine today? How is it possible to have famine today in the midst of plenty? How is it possible that nearly 20 years since Operation Restore Hope, the ‘development secretary’ of the United Kingdom Andrew Mitchell is warning that ‘humanity is in a race against time’ in Somalia? The famine is one wake-up call for us to realise that some of our priorities are wrong.

Andrew Adasi, an eleven-year-old boy in Ghana, showed the passion and care of real people when he went and mobilised money from among the people of Ghana for the children in Somalia. This mobilisation by this young man should inspire all of us to be concerned about the children who are now threatened all over the Horn of Africa. The African Union has appointed another Ghanaian, former president Jerry Rawlings, as its representative for Somalia. Only four countries in Africa have made donations, and up to this point, the response inside of Africa has not matched the scale of this human tragedy. Two days ago the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) pledged US$350m to help famine victims in Somalia.

Yet in the midst of this crisis we must look beyond the hype of fundraising and go deeper. Famine and drought makes good business for NGOs and international organisations that have ulterior motives for their ‘humanitarianism’. I must reassert the view that only a confederation of democratic societies in the Horn can protect the people from the devastation of further disasters such as this famine. It is also in the context of African unity with democratic leadership where it will be possible to lay the foundations for the conditions to prevent future famines and the militarism that has spread behind droughts and dislocation of citizens. Some entrepreneurs have travelled to the region to sell to the people the technology to make rain. This is a travesty. International cooperation to end famine and starvation should not be an exercise for people to make money. I want to use my personal journey with the struggles for peace in Somalia to raise my voice to support the Somali and East African people in this hour of need.


Somalia is the most homogenous country in Africa. But this homogeneity has been shattered by the imperialist partition of Africa that divided the Somali people in five different places – Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya and the different parts of Somalia (one dominated by British colonialism and the other by Italian colonialism). These forms of colonial divisions and partitioning were compounded by the internal colonialism of the Somali Bantu by other Somalis. Somali independence became compromised during the Cold War. After independence in 1960, the military coup of Siad Barre in 1969 brought a populist regime that proclaimed itself socialist and aligned with the Soviet Union. This same leader became an avowed supporter of the West after the Ethiopian revolution in 1974. Siad Barre invaded the Ogaden region of Ethiopia in 1977 and the US and the Soviet Union immediately switched sides. The US, which had been the main supporter of Ethiopia, supported Siad Barre. Before the Ethiopian revolution, the Soviet Union had supported Siad Barre. The only principled leader and society that did not join this opportunism was Fidel Castro of Cuba. This was the time when the decomposition of the politics of Somalia set in as the link to Saudi Arabia brought in resources for political leaders who were supported by the United States and Saudi Arabia. Islamic influence increased through Saudi financial and ideological support for the political leadership in Mogadishu.

The decomposition of the political class in Somalia accelerated after it was affected by the intrigues of US militarism of the Horn and the Indian Ocean. From that period to today, the influence of the USA and Saudi Arabia in this region has been to support anti-democratic forces – whether in Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya or Yemen. Siad Barre, the last dictator, bequeathed a legacy of regional and ethnic manipulation. This manipulation of clan loyalties was also compounded by intellectual opportunism by sections of the Somali intelligentsia and this opportunism continued even after his overthrow in 1991. From that time, the militarisation of the society ensured that the country’s resources were directed to factional leaders who were campaigning to oust him. When he was ousted, none of these leaders could consolidate their leadership over the entire society. Militarism and drought then led to a massive famine in 1991–92. This factionalism persists up to the present and is most manifest in the composition of US-backed Transitional Federal Government (TFG).


I remember vividly in 1992 in December when President George Herbert Bush decided to launch Operation Restore Hope to aid the famine ‘victims’ in Somalia. The Pan-African movement at that moment opposed Operation Restore Hope because it was our view that humanitarian intervention should not be militarised. In December 1992 at Syracuse University, we called a meeting to discuss and clarify the meaning of this Operation Restore Hope. At that meeting I communicated to the students the idea that a humanitarian intervention in Somalia would necessitate mobilising doctors, teachers, farmers, engineers and nurses – and not soldiers. Ali Khalif Galaydh was at that time an assistant professor in public administration at the Maxwell School of Syracuse University. He praised the efforts of the US government and suggested strongly that Operation Restore Hope would bring peace and an end to famine in Somalia. It was clear that Ali Galaydh was seeking to curry favor with US policymakers for he later went on to become the prime minister of Somalia for a short time. But even with US sponsorship he could not survive the intensity of Somali politics.

Prior to the launch of Operation Restore Hope, the US government, through its Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Herman Cohen, had been proclaiming the importance of human rights and democracy. Smith Hempstone, the US ambassador to Kenya, took this posturing of the State Department seriously and worked closely with one section of the pro-democracy forces in Kenya who were against Daniel arap Moi. Moi had used dictatorial tactics to remain in power and up to 1990, varying liberation forces in Kenya waged prolonged battles to remove him. The United States had been concerned about the political and moral appeal of Mwakenya and the support of the legal activists was part of a plan to isolate the left in the Kenyan opposition. When Smith Hempstone intensified his activism, Kenyan human rights activists were so taken in that they began to plan for a post-Moi government. However, once Operation Restore Hope was launched, the US government changed its position on Kenya and backed Moi in the 1992 election. This sudden change in position was based on the calculation that having a known dictator such as Daniel arap Moi in power in Kenya would be preferable to the untested forces who were fighting for democracy. Under Moi, the US security planners were sure that Kenya would provide a secure rear base for US military activities in Somalia. From that time up to today, Kenya has been integrated in the US military operations in eastern and central Africa. Moi was able to steal the elections and Kenya remained a beach head for US military operations in Somalia. When the US government made this political summersault in Kenya, it became clearer that Operation Restore Hope in Somalia was not about humanitarianism but another part of the forward planning of the United States to maintain a military foothold in the Indian Ocean.


Once the US troops of Operation Restore Hope were in Somalia, this operation provided further fodder for the journalists and writers who wrote volumes on ‘failed states’ in Africa. From West Africa another militarist was wrecking havoc after escaping from jail in Massachusetts. This was the saga of Charles Taylor and the destabilisation of West Africa. Robert Kaplan wrote his famous article, ‘The Coming Anarchy in Africa’, using the experiences of Somalia, Sierra Leone and Liberia as a template. I must state here that it was the patient and protracted diplomatic and peacekeeping work of ECOWAS (Economic Community Of West African States) and the Nigerians that brought the situation of instability in Liberia to an end. One can compare the experience of Nigeria and ECOWAS in peacekeeping in Liberia and Sierra Leone and that of the US and Kenya in Somalia.

Many of the competing political factions in Somalia tried to curry favor with the US, while the US used the United Nations cover to dominate the political space. The resulting chaos of clan leaders with guns led to the creation of armed political factions who were called ‘warlords.’ The political activities of these forces led to the association of Somalia with the word ‘chaos’. Some of the same agencies that had aligned with the armed political factions started the long claim that Somalia is a ‘failed state’. I have not found the formulation useful as a tool of analysis. Although the term is used by journalists and scholars, it is used in a way so that it is devoid of meaning. Noam Chomsky has written a book on the US as a failed state. The title of the book is ‘Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy’. Chomsky called the US the foremost failed state in the world. I could not agree with Chomsky because although he argued that the US government wallows in lawless military aggression, the concept of failure is demobilising and detracts from the struggles to stop this lawlessness.

One cannot call Somalia a failed state because a state cannot fail. Somalia’s condition reflected a failure of government, and a failure of the political class. The people of Somalia have sought to rise above internal and external manipulation. In the Somali society, people were still able to buy food, go to school, import and export goods and operate a semblance of a postal service. In my school of thought the formulation of ‘failed state’ is another a tool of psychological warfare designed to create the impression that the people are crippled and are a failure, thus needing some sort of military or militarised humanitarian intervention.

Despite the stamp of failure, the Somali people resisted US military occupation, and this resistance was clear after the US placed the stamp of warlordism on the political leader Mohamed Farah Aidid. This new information barrage on ‘warlords’ was supposed to send sympathy and acceptance for US troops. In less than six months, Operation Restore Hope had morphed from a humanitarian exercise to feed people in famine to a war against those the US deemed to be ‘warlords’. The US military could never win the support of the people as its crude behavior inspired anti-imperialist sentiments among ordinary Somalis. The young men on the back of pick-up trucks tied down the mighty US Army in Mogadishu. One of the most stirring defeats of the US military in Africa was when they shot down a Black Hawk helicopter in October 1993. This experience shocked US citizens and within days President Clinton ordered the withdrawal of US military personnel. This clearly demonstrated the fact that the military intervention had nothing to do with humanitarianism. Chester Crocker, the dean of US policies of destabilisation in Africa, quickly chimed in with a long article in Foreign Affairs, ‘The lessons of Somalia: Not everything went wrong’.

Because the present actors and actresses in the present famine and drought are some of the same that militarised the disaster of 1991–92, it is important that we go beyond soundbites to grasp the continuities in the US military strategies in Somalia. There is a wonderful book by Michael Maren called ‘The Road to Hell: The Ravaging Effects of Foreign Aid and International Charity’. In this book, Maren narrated his personal experience of how the bulk of the so-called humanitarian organisations working in Somalia have compounded the situation there by perpetuating a war economy that only serves the interests of foreign aid agencies and the militarists. Maren revealed to us how many of these NGOs are contractors for USAID and how the USAID was subordinated to the interests of the Pentagon. The NGOs were the ones calling in the US military and private military contractors for protection. Today, we now know, from the recent testimony of Don Yamamoto (of the State Department) on Capitol Hill, that USAID is integrated into US AFRICOM. AFRICOM presents itself as an agent for development, diplomacy and security. This is a new twist in the wake of the failure of the US ‘war on terror’ and the threat inflation that has ensured that Somalia remains an unstable space in Africa. Samir Amin correctly summed up the role of the USA in Somalia 19 years after Operation Restore Hope when he wrote in Pambazuka that:

‘The results of all these attempts to “stabilise” Somalia thus came to nothing. But the persistence of chaos scarcely bothers the United States. Perhaps to the contrary, it is very useful, because it allows Washington to justify its pursuit of its “war against terrorism” elsewhere, and for other purposes! Somali chaos does not bother other countries of the region. Perhaps instead it helps create acceptance of the authority of Addis Ababa and Nairobi in the Somali Ogaden and on the Kenyan border. They may prefer this power to the chaos that accompanies warlords, clans and Islamic movements.’

Those who want to support the people in Somalia need to distinguish themselves from those NGOs that are integrated into the Pentagon planning, AFRICOM and USAID. It is important to retrace the role of humanitarian agencies in Somalia since that period so that new international efforts to support those suffering from famine will not be compromised.


The experience of Black Hawk Down frightened the US to the extent that when the genocide erupted in Rwanda in 1994, the US government actively intervened to prevent humanitarian support for those who were being slaughtered. Here was a moment when true humanitarian assistance was needed, but the Pentagon was so scared that they prevented the UN from acting. It was after the bombings of the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salam in 1998 that the US started to raise new alarm about what was called ‘terrorism’ in East Africa. For three years the people of Kenya attempted to gain support for those who were injured or lost their lives in the 1998 bombing, but the US did not treat the bombings in Kenya and Tanzania as serious threats until after the massive attacks on the World Trade Center, September 2001. At that time, the problem for the US was that for many people in Kenya, they could not distinguish between the bombings of the embassies and the lived reality of the terror of the US-supported Moi dictatorship in Kenya. In the same year as the embassy bombings, hundreds were killed in the Rift Valley in state-instigated violence unleashed to destabilise the Kenyan people.

The environment and template for terrorism was intensified by the US re-engagement with Somalia under the administration of George W. Bush after 11 September 2001. Somalia’s situation became more complicated when Bush integrated this divided society into his administration’s framework on global war on terror, turning the country into one dot in the arc of the global war on terror. This was a strategy to extend the global reach for the so-called global war on terror into Africa through what was called the ‘banana theory of terrorism’. Both Kenya and Somalia were caught in this slippery geography of terror spreading from Afghanistan through Iraq and East Africa to the Maghreb. Kenya became a space for rendition and other forms of illegal practices that were being carried out by the Bush administration in Africa.

Attempts at a political settlement inside of Somalia became confused by this regional and international destabilisation. Local political factions sought arms so that political competition in Mogadishu became completely militarised. The US considered the Somali situation a breeding ground for the organisation that was called al Qaeda. The threat of al Qaeda was overblown to ensure that the US maintained a military foothold in East Africa. It was true that some of the political leaders who were armed posed a threat, but this was a threat to the local Somali people. The internal threat was inflated by the Bush administration. Contrary to the claims of many American security analysts, who tied local Somali fighters to al Qaeda and asserted that the conflict in Somalia was a threat to American national security, the contradiction embedded in the internal conflicts was in reality a dynamic that was meant to be resolved by the people themselves along with the people of East Africa. This regional dynamic was caught in a larger international power struggle when the US claimed that al Qaeda terrorists were migrating from Pakistan and Iraq to seek safe havens in Yemen and Somalia.

In 2006 war broke out in Somalia, following a US-orchestrated plan to create and arm a coalition of militia leaders, Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism (ARPCT), to help hunt down suspected al Qaeda operatives. The defeat of the ARPCT by local fighters gave rise to the emergence of Islamic Courts Union (ICU), which was a coalition of political groups that gave themselves the political cover of calling themselves Islamists. The ICU government established security, law and order in most parts of Somalia for the first time in 16 years. The ICU was widely embraced by many Somalis, even those who were opposed to Islamic rule. The contradictions embedded in the provision of some acceptable level of governance by the ICU and the opposition of sections of the population to Islamic rule (especially as driven by Islamic hardliners within the ICU) were local and regional dynamics meant to be resolved by the Somali people and their neighbors. However, in order to fight the political forces that called themselves the Islamic Courts Union, the US backed some of the most despicable militarists in Mogadishu. Abdi Samatar wrote extensively on the dangerous outcome of this opportunism of the US military and called for engagement with the ICU so that the lull in violence could be extended in Somalia. But the Islamophobic neo-conservative elements and warriors within the Bush administration who were bent on threat inflation and the fabrication of terrorism to fit into the template of global war on terror and counterterrorism remained gung ho about fighting a long war in Somalia.

After a brief meddling in the power-sharing negotiations among the Somali leaders, the US backed the Ethiopian military for an invasion of Somalia in December 2006. Here was a discredited Ethiopian regime that had used threats, intimidation and killings to stay in power spearheading a US-inspired military operation in Somalia. This invasion of Somalia destabilised the harmony that had been restored by the ICU and hardened the stance of militia groups, strengthening those factions that were to be later called Al-Shabaab. This group (Al-Shabaab) had been given prominence because they proclaimed themselves to be defending Somalia against the invasion by Ethiopia. Al-Shabaab used anti-imperialist rhetoric to dominate and intimidate the people and gained international notoriety after 2006. For maximum publicity, the Western elements employed a public relations firm, Bell Pottinger, to heighten the hype about terrorism in Somalia. Interested readers can now follow the relationship between Bell Pottinger, News Corp., the hacking scandal and the corrupt media.

With the propaganda of Bell Pottinger, for many ordinary citizens there was difficulty distinguishing between the militarism of the Al-Shabaab, the US-backed elements and the Ugandan troops which were deployed to defend the Transitional Federal Government (TFG ) of Somalia. The TFG had relocated to Mogadishu after years of corrupt intrigue in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi. After the use of ‘warlordism’ by the US for the destruction of the most successful attempt in 16 years to restore sanity to Somalia in 2006, Somalia continued to fall into an abyss of humanitarian crises, warlordism, and terrorism against ordinary citizens. Both US backed warlords and Islamist groups such as Al-Shabaab have carried out terror against the Somali people.

The US militarist’s preoccupation with the counterterrorism cover for the destabilisation of Somalia is now well known. One American think tank wrote in 2008 that:

‘US counterterrorism support is not, therefore, supporting a state-building agenda: It is actually undermining it by providing what some observers claim is robust financial and logistic support to armed paramilitaries resisting the command and control of the TFG, even though they technically wear a TFG hat… US counterterrorism partnerships have also undermined peace-building efforts by emboldening spoilers in the government camp.

‘US counterterrorism policies have not only compromised other international agendas in Somalia; they have generated a high level of anti-Americanism and are contributing to radicalization of population.’

The kind of anti-imperialist resistance and what American analysts refer to as anti-Americanism and radicalisation that arise from US destabilisation efforts is no doubt intended to be used as justifications for the continued prosecution of the war on terror in Africa and for the establishment of such initiatives as the US Africa Command. Kenya was caught in this complex of militaristic intrigue and the democratic process in Kenya was compromised by the US war in Somalia. This became evident in the 2007 election campaign. I ventured into the constituency of Kamkunji and witnessed the enthusiasm of the constituents for democratic change. This is the constituency in Nairobi with a large number of ethnic Somalis. When the people participated in that election to register the need for change, this election was rendered null and void and up to this day three years after that election, Kamkunji is without a representative. I sat in the Kenyatta Conference Center during the election count and was amazed at the blatant theft of the elections when the results were being announced that did not correspond to the votes from the constituencies. When the incumbent, Mwai Kibaki, was announced as the winner, there were spontaneous acts of opposition to the government in all parts of the country.

Sections of the Kenyan political leadership mobilised ethnic teams to spread terror as the then US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Jendayi Frazier flew in to support a power-sharing deal between the winners and the losers. Condi Rice, the secretary of state, followed soon after to ensure that the counterterrorism infrastructure of the US remained in place in Kenya.

Today, the US Africa Command in its research contest is inquiring about the root causes of the 2007–08 violence in Kenya without an examination of the fear of real democracy and democratisation in Kenya. The question of peace and democracy in Kenya and Somalia were inextricably linked.

Indeed, it is the Somali people that have borne the brunt of US and local armed politicians who have terrorised the people in Somalia. It is this terror that has complicated the humanitarian situation and handicapped the people’s ability to deal with ongoing drought that have now caused severe food crisis in the region. But the corrupt leaders in Kenya have always profited from drought and famine and this is another golden opportunity for business interests in Nairobi and Mogadishu.

At this point, it has become clearer that drought is only the immediate cause of the present famine in Somalia. The remote and primary cause is the destabilisation of the country by a US policy that has used the pretext of humanitarian aid to further its own militaristic interests in the name of war on terror in the region. And this same war on terror has negatively affected the people of the region so that there is drought in Djibouti where the US has a military base. In Djibouti a compromised and spaced-out government is more intent on serving the US than serving the interests of the people. There is drought and famine conditions in Ethiopia where millions are at risk, but the Ethiopian military has been a proxy for the US military in Somalia. As we wrote about earlier, this Ethiopian military invaded Somalia to fight the IUC. This US military policy also negatively affected the people of Kenya where the government fears genuine democratic participation because the Kenyan people will oppose the use of Kenya as a base for extraordinary rendition and the support for the US operations in Somalia. This US military in East Africa has also negatively affected Uganda where Ugandans have sent troops into Mogadishu as part of the African Union peacekeeping force. The African Union certainly needs peacekeepers in Somalia but Yoweri Museveni in Uganda has kept himself in power by adopting the same policies of the US, that is, to maintain militarism in northern Uganda instead of seeking political solutions that would isolate the Lord’s Resistance Army.

Ultimately, the famine points a finger at the priorities of the US in the Horn of Africa. After 19 years of engagement with East Africa through Operation Restore Hope, the famine is a grim reminder that militarisation moves people who cannot farm and feed their families. It reduces the capacity for regional mobilisation among neighbours to deal with such crisis as the ongoing famine.

The impact of militarisation has been so severe that even pro-imperialist organisations such as Human Rights Watch have now joined in condemning the tactics of the USA in Somalia. Human Rights Watch could not but bring out the reality that the US military activities had exacerbated the situation and in seeking to be even-handed sought to blame everyone for the famine. In a 58-page report, ‘'You Don't Know Who to Blame': War Crimes in Somalia,’ Human Rights Watch documented numerous abuses during renewed fighting in the past year by the different parties. The Islamist group Al-Shabaab, the Somali Transitional Federal Government (TFG), the African Union peacekeeping forces (Amisom), and Kenya- and Ethiopia-backed Somali militias are all cited in the report. This report also cited abuses by the Kenyan police and crimes committed against Somali refugees by anti-social elements in Kenya. Even the vaunted British Broadcasting Corporation has now weighed in with a condemnation of the US in Somalia, with its correspondent Andrew Harding stating that the US policy on piracy, oil and fighting terrorism has been the number one root cause of the failure to deal with the drought that led to famine (

Human Rights Watch could not do otherwise because less than a month previously Jeremy Scahill had exposed that the CIA has participated in the running of secret detention and interrogation centers in Somalia. He also implicated the Kenyan authorities in sending Kenyans to the secret prison in Mogadishu ( Famine and dictatorship are two of the outcomes of the US counterterrorism strategies in Africa.

Recently, the US Africa Command carried out stress test on a number of African countries to test for simmering conditions that could lead to the kind of revolutionary uprisings that took place in Egypt and Tunisia. The intellectual basis of the stress test was as sound as the stress test that the US did on some of its major banks that are now still insolvent. The drought, famine and humanitarian crises are a reason to call for the dismantling of the US African Command. This is because many humanitarian organisations will not cooperate with US agencies because of the affiliation of the USAID with AFRICOM. The United Nations and African Union Mission to Somalia’s (AMISOM) must cancel the contract of Bell Pottinger if decent humans are to seriously consider making positive contributions to resolving the real tragedy in East Africa.

In recent Congressional testimony, the US Department of Defense, the US Department of State and USAID represented AFRICOM as a development agency and said that AFRICOM has the resources to carry out humanitarian assistance in Africa. It is this very claim that AFRICOM is a development agency that gives further propaganda advantage to the Al-Shabaab forces who are refusing humanitarian assistance for those displaced by the drought and famine. From press reports Al-Shabaab has removed from Mogadishu. But we agree with the view of Abdi Samatar that Al-Shabaab, the TFG, the AU forces and the US militarists have compounded the conditions for the majority of the people of Somalia.

The AU and democratic, progressive forces in Africa must be more engaged with the struggles for democracy in Kenya, Somalia, Djibouti and Ethiopia. Dictatorial and corrupt governments have more interest in remaining in power than in solving famine crisis or providing other needs of the people. The progressive forces were able to oppose the war on terror so that the US government now uses the term overseas contingency operations instead of the war on terror. In the same vein, progressive forces must work with those who want to give genuine humanitarian support to the peoples of East Africa. The progressive forces must ensure that in this crisis we are not carried on another road to hell.


* Horace Campbell is professor of African-American studies and political science at Syracuse University. He is the author of ‘Barack Obama and 21st Century Politics: A Revolutionary Moment in the USA’. See
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