In these turbulent political and economic times the recent release of Australian photojournalist Nigel Brennan and his Canadian counterpart Amanda Lindhout, after 462 days as hostages in Somalia, is a welcome story of hope and a dramatic cautionary tale that resonates with many intrepidly-wandering Australians. However, while media images of Brennan’s brilliant smile and his family’s relief mingle with questions about the Australian government’s effectiveness, Somalia itself is left unexamined as merely the stage for this human drama, its complex history and ongoing turmoil summarised neatly in the few words for popular consumption: “lawless since 1991”.
Though the recent activities of Somali pirates have edged Somalia into the consciousness of the news-savvy, for most Australians this conflict-ravaged country effectively remains generic African nation X: war, starvation, pirates, crime - nothing more need be said. It is my hope that, while a minor media frenzy remains around the story of Brennan’s incarceration, some within the Australian commentariat will find time and copy space to enlighten Australians with a few lines of analysis about one of the Indian Ocean region’s most intractable conflicts. The desire to publicise Somalia’s predicament took Nigel Brennan to Mogadishu in the first place, and he may still achieve that through the prism of his own personal saga.
Journalists daring to investigate this topic may first ask, why has Somalia been lawless since 1991?
In 1991 the long-standing Somalian regime of President Siad Barre collapsed under pressure from clan-based warlords, who have been involved in conflict ever since - a situation recently complicated by the rise of powerful Islamic forces. But beginning Somalia’s story in 1991 is the equivalent of only covering the recent Liberal Party crisis from the morning of Malcolm Turnbull’s ousting: lots of drama without any context. The consistent lack of background information in articles about Somalia perpetuates shallow and reductive understandings of current events in Somalia and Africa as a whole.
While the history of Somalia begins long before interaction with Europeans (they are known to have traded with Ancient Egypt), from the late 1800s the British, French and Italians undertook concerted efforts to carve out colonial states in the Horn of Africa, resisted by local leaders until the early 1920s. European control intensified with the rise of Fascism in Italy, and Benito Mussolini’s imperial designs led to both the forced unification of Somalia’s coastal Sultanates, and the invasion of Ethiopia in 1936 - a victory secured with the help of chemical weapons.
The British seized the territory from Italy during World War II, and in 1948 made the fateful politico-cartographic decision to grant sovereignty over the inland region called the Ogaden, with its 97 per cent Somali Muslim population, to Christian Ethiopia.
Following Somalian independence in 1960, competition for the Ogaden would thus remain a catalyst for conflict within the Horn - leading to wars, insurrections, and the politically-directed famine of the mid-1980s that helped make Bob Geldof the unceasing bore he is today and launched a thousand racist jokes about Ethiopians and food.
In the atmosphere of the Cold War, the strategically-located nations of the Horn were courted by the superpowers, with Ethiopia gaining American support and Somalia embracing Soviet influence. Crisis within Somalia’s nascent democracy in 1969 led to a military coup, and Mohamed Siad Barre centralised control as the President of a Supreme Revolutionary Council.
While Barre’s regime adopted a state-directed socialist program, when the “Marxist” Derg regime seized power in Ethiopia in 1975 Somalia was dropped unceremoniously as a Soviet ally and quickly fell into the United States’ orbit of influence. During the 1980s Barre’s authoritarian regime was provided with tens of millions of dollars in military aid from the United States to repress internal opposition and prevent invasion from now “Red” Ethiopia.
So what finally occurred in 1991 was that Somalia’s tyrannical regime, which had previously swapped superpower alliances without any change of character, was left strategically redundant with the Soviet Union’s collapse and thus abandoned to face the wrath of its internal discontents. In January 1991 rebels led by Mohamed Farrah Aidid brought down Barre's government and the nation was left without effective central control.
International humanitarian aid began to arrive, but it was not until almost two years later that UN Security Council Resolution 794 approved a coalition of United Nations peacekeepers to deploy and re-establish stability in Somalia.
The result can be viewed in the popular film Black Hawk Down (featuring our own Eric Bana) - in combination with Terry George’s Hotel Rwanda: chaos, in which the United States chose to play king-maker among opposing rebel groups; abandoned Somalia after losing around 30 soldiers (and leaving a thousand Somalian civilians dead); and then became so reluctant to intervene in the continent again that 800,000 Rwandan civilians were left to perish by genocide without effective international intervention.
The UN eventually withdrew from Somalia in 1995, having suffered significant casualties. While western intermediaries managed to negotiate a civilian Transitional Federal Government by 2004, in the intervening years Islamic authorities created some order within Somalian society, and rivalled the power and legitimacy of the internationally-supported government through an alliance called the Islamic Courts Union.
So when considering Nigel Brennan’s release, think not of Somalia as merely a desolate wasteland, populated by particularly well-armed Islamic camel-herders. Somalians have been affected by colonialism and its re-drawing of borders; an authoritarian regime supported in turn by both sides of the Cold War divide; that regime’s collapse and subsequent inter-warlord competition; and now the contest for power between an externally-installed Federal Government and domestic Islamist forces of various shades.
I don’t expect all this information to appear in a short newspaper article on Nigel Brennan, just a little bit more substance. At least: “Control of Somalia has been contested by warlords and Islamic jihadists since the collapse of President Siad Barre’s US-backed regime at the end of the Cold War. International attempts to create stability in the decades since have so far been unsuccessful”. Two sentences. Nigel Brennan travelled to Somalia to reveal its story; it is a story worth telling.