Following the successful rescue of Maersk Shipping Line captain, Richard Phillips, the Washington Post’s triumphal headline read: "3 Rounds, 3 Dead Bodies." Although I think Black Agenda Radio’s ( www.BlackAgenda.com), Glen Ford, had a much more descriptive headline for his daily show: "US Has Won a Great Victory: US Aircraft and Elite Navy Seals Defeat Three Somalis in a Lifeboat."
The killing of three teenaged Somali pirates was heralded in the American press as a great victory for the Obama administration, and for the west in general, over the recent rise of "piracy" off the African coast. Although there was much handwringing and pious lamenting about the failed-state status of Somalia, there was virtually nothing said about how Somalia came to be in such a condition. Nor was there much said about the environmental raping and contamination of the coastal waters off Somalia that’s been taking place over the last 15 years or so.
According to an Al Jazeera report yesterday (4/15/09), UN envoy for Somalia, Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, claims to have reliable information that European and Asian companies have been dumping toxic waste off the Somali coastline since the mid-90s. UN Environment Programme (UNEP) spokesman, Nick Nutthall, told Al Jazeera the 2004 Indonesian tsunami that rolled across the Indian Ocean washed up rusting barrels of toxic waste unto the Somali coast, exposing a "frightening activity" that had been going on for decades. "Somalia has been used as a dumping ground for hazardous waste starting in the early 1990s," said Mr. Nutthall. The UNEP spokesman said the wastes are of various kinds: " . . .uranium radioactive waste . . . lead, and heavy metals like cadmium and mercury." Since the tsunami, Mr. Nutthall said, "hundreds of Somali residents have fallen ill, suffering from mouth and abdominal bleeding, skin infections and other ailments."
On top of this, many commercial fishing fleets have been pillaging Somali waters since the start of the civil war and the collapse of the central government in the mid-90s – depleting vital fishing stocks that once supplied many Somali communities. All of this might explain why a survey by Somali news agency, Wardheer News (http://wardheernews.com/Articles_09/April/13_armada_not_solution_muuse.html), showed that 70% of Somalis "strongly supported piracy as a form of national defense of the country’s territorial waters."
One hardly needs to be a lover of pirates to understand such sentiments from a nation of destitute people, living in violent squalor inside one of the worst failed-state scenarios on the African continent. But the real question here is not "what to do about pirates," what we should be asking is how did Somalia become such a basketcase and how can we – meaning the international community – prevent more of this from happening and how can we save Somalia and prevent other lesser developed countries (LDC) from falling into the same failed condition?
Well, I’m no expert on national-development methods and I’m not sure there are many people on this planet who are, but I do know something of how Somalia and many other LDC have found themselves in this condition. To understand this we’ll have to go back to the period from shortly after the end of WWII until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989. For Somalia, along with many other "third-world" countries, is suffering from the legacy of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union that lasted from 1947 until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990.
In the aftermath of WWII, anti-colonial, liberation movements swept across Africa like the hot winds stirring up the sand and dust storms in the Sahara. Starting in the early 1950s and lasting right up to the mid-80s most African nations tried to break free from their colonial chains and create their own forms of self-government. Many allied themselves with the Soviet Union and tried to develop one form or another of a socialist state, largely due to the fact that western capitalism, coming in the form of European domination, had left a bitter legacy among the African peoples. Some chose to align themselves with the United States and some decided to join what was then called the "non-aligned movement," i.e., nations that wanted to stay neutral in the grand struggle between the US and the communist world.
One of the outstanding characteristics of the Cold War period was its inclusiveness, that is, the desire of the two superpowers to garner as many "allies" among the LDC as possible. Each superpower provided significant incentives to join their side, usually taking the form of developmental aid and especially military aid. Both the US and the USSR provided very generous loans with few strings attached other than public declarations of loyalty to one side or the other. It mattered little to either superpower who was running what country – or how – so long as they remained in their respective camps. Corruption, repression, military coups, even mass killings meant little to Washington and Moscow; the guns and aid continued to flow as long as they remained loyal.
And then suddenly it all ended. With the collapse of the Soviet Union that bi-polar, inclusive world ceased to exist, leaving most LDC both deeply in debt and armed to the teeth – many in the grip of extremely repressive military governments. When the big-power money flow stopped many of these governments no longer had the resources to maintain control over their sovereign territories. Adding to their troubles, the new world order that was forming – global free market capitalism – was decidedly exclusive. No longer would small nations be paid to join the world system, on the contrary, in this new world it is the small nations who would do the paying – if your country had nothing of value to contribute to the global capitalists, or worse, you didn’t want to play by the new rules, you would be cut-off from the global system and be left to quietly die on your own. Or at least that’s what the leaders of this new world order thought they could count on. As it turned out, although many LDC did indeed die, they didn’t do it quietly nor did they do it all on their own.
To the apparent surprise of many global capitalists, many LDC collapsed into civil war, genocide, drugs and weapons smuggling, and breeding grounds for terrorism.
Somalia was one of them. Following liberation in the early 60s, a quasi-democratic government managed to limp along until 1969 when a group of armed militias overthrew the government and eventually the strongest of them, Mohammed Said Barre, became the military ruler for the next 20 years. Barre tried to build Somalia into a textbook version of the perfect socialist state – using military repression – until he was abandoned by his main supporter, the Soviet Union, in the mid-80s during his war with Ethiopia. For the next few years the US became his supplier of weapons and some development aid, until the Soviet Union fell apart and the US no longer needed him. Shortly thereafter he was overthrown by a coalition of warlords who then began fighting amongst themselves and the country quickly devolved into the failed state it is today.
During a short period in the late 90s the international community made a half-hearted effort to allay some of the Somalis’ suffering with shipments of food aid, most of which was stolen by the various warring factions. The US-led "humanitarian intervention" ultimately turned into an inept American police-action against the strongest of the warlords, ultimately failing and leading to most of the world community turning its back on Somalia. Which brings us back to the present.
What to do? What to do? Well, first we must all acknowledge that global capitalism has been an utter failure in its claimed desire to "raise the living standards for everybody," in fact, quite the contrary is true, globalization has brought a plague of destitution, poverty, failed states and terrorism for most of the world. We desperately need a new world system of governance, one based on shared commitments and shared benefits, a new inclusive world order that’s not dependent on military power.
It is absolutely imperative that we strive to create this new system for we are running out of time, space, resources, and a livable environment. The details as to how this can be done is for greater minds than myself but the first move has to be a philosophical one, we must turn our global efforts away from trying to make a tiny group obscenely richer, and turn toward efforts to bring us all together. Whether we like it or not, we are a global family and we finally have the communications technology to actually make it real. Let’s do it.