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Can Britain Handle the Rapes, Killings, and Clans in Somalia?

There's a big meeting in London tomorrow to talk about all of Somalia's problems. Officials from the UN, the African Union, the IMF, and 50 countries will be there to impart their wisdom/spout platitudes in a bid to help Somalia rebuild itself after...

Photos by Abdurrahman Warsameh and Rolf Helmrich

Tomorrow, the good, the bad, and the hard to pin down will meet for the Somalia Conference in London. Officials from the UN, the African Union, the IMF, and 50 countries will be there to impart their wisdom/spout platitudes in a bid to help Somalia rebuild itself after two decades of conflict. One area that won't be represented, however, is Somaliland—the largely autonomous region of Somalia that's seeking its independence—making it the largest of a number of pretty sizable elephants in the room.


The London conference, inaugurated last year, is very much David Cameron’s baby. Although it's held in the foreign office, last year it was Cameron directing the press conference from the podium, while Foreign Minister William Hague had to suffer the indignity of slinking in beforehand to sit at the front, looking up at Principal Cameron like a naughty schoolboy.

Concerned by piracy off the coast of Somalia and by the thought that Somalian Islamist militia Al Shabaab could have mounted an attack on London during the Olympics, the British government has, in the last couple of years, become much more interested in the troubled East African country. For Cameron, though, Somalia is also a chance for him to flex his statesman muscles.

On August 20, 2012, a few months after the first conference in London, Somalia’s first permanent government was established since the ousting of dictator Siad Barre in 1991. Led by President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, a former NGO worker and university professor, the new Somali government is internationally recognized and carries on its shoulders not just the hopes of a nation, but also the hopes of the international community.

As Mary Harper, author of the book Getting Somalia Wrong? told me, "The British have so much interest in Somalia's new government doing well that, if they fail, it will almost be as though David Cameron himself has failed." Problematic, then, that after months of denial, the Somali government has had to acknowledge that its security forces have been raping and robbing civilians. This news came off the back of the imprisonment of the journalist Abdiaziz Abdinur Ibrahim, who was arrested after he interviewed Lul Ali Osman—a woman who told him that, while living in an internally displaced peoples camp in Mogadishu, she had been raped by security officers working for the government. Abdiaziz was eventually released from prison. When I got in touch with him, he told me he just wanted to “forget the painful memories of the last few months”.


Journalists in Somalia.

The killing of journalists, who are an easy target for Al Shabaab (who were widely thought to be defunct, but silenced any hopes of that with a suicide bomb attack in Mogadishu a couple of days ago), has been a particular problem of late. According to Somalia’s union for journalists, NUSOJ, 18 journalists were killed in Somalia last year. Mohamed Ibrahim Rageh, a reporter for the state-run Radio Mogadishu and Somali National Television was shot by unknown gunmen on April 21. He died outside his home, in front of his family. He had fled the city in 2009 to go and work in Kampala, Uganda’s capital city, but had recently returned home to Mogadishu.

There is widespread suspicion that the government is not helping to protect journalists as much as it should be. As one Somali journalist in Mogadishu told me (on the condition of anonymity), “In Mogadishu’s Madina district, where most of the killings took place, the government is in charge and government officials live there without being attacked, but journalists are routinely killed. The perpetrators escape—in some cases in the eye line of government troops, which is an indication that militants are largely clueless about some killings."

There is no concrete proof that the government has been involved in the killing of journalists, but, as Tom Rhodes of the Committee to Protect Journalists told me, “Some journalists are accused of being pro-Western, and we are increasingly seeing an animosity between the government and the media." The real problem, though, seems to be that the government isn't really in control of the police or the security forces.


Somalia is a clan-orientated society, one in which the old proverb “Somalia against the world, my clan against Somalia, my family against my clan, my brother and me against my family, me against my brother” still holds relevance. The police and security forces are still largely run as clan militias, which means that policemen and security officers often owe their allegiance not to the new government, but to the clan leaders or businessmen who pay them. This makes life difficult for the government. As Tom Rhodes says, “It seems as though the government doesn’t have much control over the security services or the police."

Moreover, the government has prioritized human rights, but, as Laetitia Bader of Human Rights Watch told me, if the government is trying to integrate clan militias into the army, “This priority may be lost.” The government is in an impossible situation and is too weak to try to do anything about it. The international community—particularly the UK and the US—are engaging with it, but would rather not bring up awkward subjects like rape, the killing of journalists, or the enduring strength of Al Shabaab—terrorism’s answer to the cockroach. The group, in Mary Harper’s words, “is not on the way out. It is not sleeping, just waiting”.

Perhaps what the British and Americans are hoping is that, under their wayward guidance and with the help of myriad other international players (Kenya, Ethiopia, Turkey, the African Union, etc., etc.), they can make Somalia stable enough to move in and cut some lucrative business deals. Somalia, after all, could be a new frontier in brazen, all-out capitalism. Oil, infrastructure, shipping, you name it: everything could end up being up for grabs in Somalia and the world’s newfound interest in the country is surely down to more than just humanitarian ideals and security concerns.


The Turks—fellow Muslims who are good at building rapport on the ground with local people—are already benefitting from Somalia’s economic potential. The consul for Somalia in Istanbul is a Turkish businessman, and he has cargo deals with Somalia's two biggest airlines. A big mall (Somalis love malls) is about to be built in Mogadishu by a Turk, and other international companies have seen this and want a piece of the action. And although reports of vast oil reserves off the Somali coast are as yet unfounded, that hasn’t stopped deals being signed or big companies like BP and Total SA exploring their options.

Establishing a safe enough environment in Somalia leads us back to Britain and America’s original reasons for being in Somalia: counterterrorism and counterpiracy. The presence of armed guards on boats has seriously reduced piracy, but the much-trumpeted retreat of Al Shabaab is an exaggeration. Recently, the militant group re-took the town of Hudur, which had been held by Ethiopian troops. The Ethiopians had expected African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM, who work closely with the Somali government) troops to replace them, but they missed two deadlines.

The Ethiopians, who were paying for Somali troops in the area as well as their own, decided to teach AMISOM a lesson. They got out of town. Shabaab fighters, lurking in the surrounding countryside, duly moved back in. Like the Taliban, Al Shabaab has time on its side. They can afford to spend years waiting for their chance to impose themselves upon local populations. They are Somalis and can easily reintegrate into society. Britain and America may be interested in Somalia now, but how long will they really want to be there? How long will the Americans want to keep sending drones to bomb supposed Shabaab targets?


A couple of years ago, I interviewed the UN Security Officer Rolf Helmrich. Rolf spent 20 years working in Somalia and told me that one of the primary problems for the country was the overwhelming amount of outside interest in Somalia. Strategically placed next to the world’s largest shipping lane and now home to yet another one of al Qaeda’s offshoots, Somalia has to endure the constant meddling of neighbours and international powers alike. Cameron and, to a lesser extent, Obama love the idea of solving the problem of this “failed state,” but it appears that the problem might not be quite so easily solved as the British and Americans think.

Photos courtesy of Abdiaziz Abdinur Ibrahim and Rolf Helmrich.

Follow Oscar on Twitter @oscarrickettnow

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