The US and allied forces have repeatedly intervened in Somalia over the past three decades, with many deleterious consequences. These interventions ranged from overt military endeavors to equally vicious political-economic measures. My recent research outlines the disastrous travails of US interventionism in the region while also pointing towards new movements and grassroots organizations working against difficult odds to create a just and equitable Somalia.
Like many regions across the world system, the acquisition of natural resources is an important factor in the East African political-economy. Gaining access to oil was a driver of the US’ disastrous intervention into Somalia in the early 1990s, and the significance of this motive increased during the “Global War on Terrorism”—where large sectors of international capital jostle to secure access to natural resources across North and East Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, and South Asia. Shortly after 9/11/2001, the US Department of Treasury used fears of Al-Barakaat (a popular Somali-based money remittance system) serving as a potential financer of al-Qaeda as a pretext to shut down this cash transfer system. This occurred despite Al-Barakaat’s crucial role in injecting hundreds of millions into Somalia’s economy while also operating key banking, telecommunication, and water-purification systems. Several years later, and after Somalia’s political-economy continued declining, the US government quietly acknowledged there was no substantive link between Al-Barakaat and al-Qaeda’s finances. By this point the Somali government failed to cultivate a sense of political legitimacy in the eyes of its populace, and the al-Shabaab insurgency endeavored to fill this political vacuum by violently challenging the government and its international supporters.
Despite these circumstances and the ongoing “shadow wars” that the US and allied forces wage in Somalia, there are reasons to be optimistic. Numerous movements for economic, political, environmental, and gender based justice and equity have emerged to build a better Somalia.
The Federation of Somali Trade Unions (FESTU) and the Somali Congress of Trade Unions (SOCOTU) represent hundreds of thousands of Somali’s. They make concrete demands for a better world by directly linking economic (in)justice to broader goals of social justice beyond the workplace. Their webpages illustrate demands for an end to sexual and gender based violence, youth empowerment, political democracy, sustainable development, and more. These groups challenge all areas of elite power by aiming their demands at members of the Somali government and the emergent business class, all while facing dire threats from those sectors of society and al-Shabaab militants.
Translated from Arabic to English, al-Shabaab means “the youth.” While al-Shabaab has their own brand of violent (in)‘justice,’ there are more positive developments in the region where young Somali’s work to create a vibrant civil society. Not only has the Somali government acknowledged the important role that youth will play in rebuilding the polity, but the “City Flowers” project is a youth-driven initiative looking to cover war-torn Somalia with lush, flower-lined sidewalks. Other youth-driven initiatives also provide sporting venues for young girls to learn about gender based violence.
Somalia is prone to severe drought and famine, and issues of environmental stewardship are a matter of life or death. Women are often the main livestock herders and water retrievers in the region; on the frontlines of noticing environmental changes on the horizon. Additionally, decades of civil unrest created conditions where many women fear being sexually assaulted by members of al-Shabaab and state security forces alike. Women like Fatima Jibrell and Shukri Ismail Bandare have worked tirelessly across Somalia (including the semi-autonomous regions within greater Somalia) to address the intersecting issues of women’s empowerment, poverty eradication, and environmental restoration. Their initiatives make substantively positive impacts on Somalia and inspire countless women and youth to work towards environmental conservation while getting involved in the political process.
The details above offer a snapshot of ongoing social justice oriented initiatives across Somalia. As this case study highlights, there is widespread acknowledgement that an inclusive and equitable Somalia cannot be built by narrowly focusing on workplace struggles. Instead, a growing number of citizens are expanding the concept of ‘class struggle’ and ‘workers’ rights’ by forging a ‘chain of equivalence’ that links economic, political, gender, environmental, and other justice-based issues. These movements work at a distance from and within the state, which demands analysts conceptualize the state as more than a bundle of reified institutions to be seized in order to usurp their ‘powers.’ Instead, we must study it as an uneven and contested terrain that recurrently condenses political-economic power in a way that strategically favors some sectors of society over others, over particular spatio-temporal horizons. This all occurs within a stratified capitalist world economy that disproportionately disadvantages citizens in the global South.
In summation, there will be a long political struggle to build an equitable Somalia, it will be complicated and frustrating, and it will require cultivating new social imaginaries that link political, economic, and cultural domains of life in a way that challenges the present era of depressing capitalist realism. And, all of this must all be done against the backdrop of extreme poverty, civil unrest, and potential climate catastrophe. Furthermore, and despite the unfolding COVID-19 pandemic, the US military conducted a record-breaking number of air and ground strikes inside of Somalia between January and April 2020. As of May 5, 2020, there were 835 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Somalia. Just a few days earlier the Federation of Somali Trade Unions (FESTU) released their May Day statement heralding the “efforts by frontline workers to keep our national economy and entire country afloat and functional in the wake of this COVID-19 pandemic,” while affirming that there should be “no doubt in our minds of how integral they are to Somali society.”
As the COVID-19 pandemic ravages the world it is imperative that we work towards cultivating an ethic of global solidarity, laying the foundations for an equitable post-COVID world system. Rather than viewing Somalia as a hopelessly flawed ‘failed state’ from which we can only learn tales of misery, perhaps we can humbly learn from the acts of courage and camaraderie outlined above.
Jason C. Mueller recently completed his PhD in the Department of Sociology at the University of California, Irvine. His dissertation studied state strategy, population expulsion, indigenous rights, and the political economy of diamond mining in Botswana and Zimbabwe. His other research covers a variety of topics including world-systems analysis, discourse analysis, political-sociological state theory, and the drivers of political violence. You can find these publications in Critical Sociology, Progress in Development Studies, Terrorism and Political Violence, and other interdisciplinary outlets. You can contact Jason at: firstname.lastname@example.org
This blog post draws upon his recent publication: Jason C. Mueller. 2019. “Political, Economic, and Ideological Warfare in Somalia.” Peace Review 31(3): 372-380: https://doi.org/10.1080/10402659.2019.1735174.
Image: United Nations Photo via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)