I grew up with TV images of the Lebanese civil war, but I never really had a clue what was going on. Unless wars involved Western militaries, the media seemed to be happy to present conflict both simplistically – “it’s just selfish nasty people and there’s nothing to understand” – and also as terribly intricate, wheeling out the odd academic to tell us “it’s all so complicated and confusing, only the experts can possibly understand it.”
Later on I did some reading and discovered it wasn’t particularly confusing; it was just journalists and academics being either lazy, or happy to paint foreign countries as mysterious and incomprehensible places, that stopped them telling the story clearly.
I’m finding Somalia is getting the same treatment. In a recent, fairly lengthy, news story (‘Somalia famine aid stolen, UN investigating’) we were told the World Food Programme regarded the country as a “dangerous, lawless, and conflict-ridden environment” and the history was covered by a couple of references to the US military intervention nearly 20 years ago, referred to by the name of the Hollywood movie loosely based on an event that occurred at the time. There’s a few mentions of ‘the government’, without pointing out that it controls only a fraction of the country, and no mention of the fact that much of the country isn’t “conflict-ridden” and substantial parts of it are under stable administrations – just not the one that Western countries insist constitutes “the government”.
References to the US intervention suggest it was a response to misappropriation of aid, but it’s hard to deny that Somalia’s turbulent history is in no small part a due to foreign intervention, which keeps blowing fresh oxygen on the dying embers of previous conflicts.
The UN intervention in the 1990s gave a nationalist justification to the power struggles of the warlords, which the population was getting very fed up with.
In 2006, the south of the country was briefly stabilised under the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), only to be subject to airstrikes by the US, fearful of Islamic fundamentalism, and an Ethiopian invasion in support of a ‘government’ – a group of politicians that had acquired UN and Western support. Corrupt and distracted by internal power struggles, this ‘Transitional Federal Government’ failed to attract much support until it pledged support for sharia law and appointed the former chairman of the ICU as its president, having previously overthrown his administration.
Kenya and Eritrea have also meddled in Somali politics, choosing and supplying their favourites. Left to themselves, Somalis in the north of the country have created functioning administrations, and while drought has brought shortages of food, there’s no famine in these areas.
Somalia isn’t simple, and it isn’t incomprehensible either (and we’ve got a ‘One-Pager’ introduction to the country on the front page of our website, just in case somebody wants to know what’s going on).