Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Somali Warlords, Islamic Courts and the West by Daniel Sekulich

People misuse the term when they call places 'lawless' or 'ungovernable'. It's not true. Places like Somalia are not lawless or ungovernable; they're just not governed by a democratic state, if it there is such a thing. They're governed by the warlord or drug baron or the insurgent leader. These are the ones who fill whatever void that has been created by political instability and who then thrive. Warlords today have the same power as a baron in 1300s Europe. Gangs, such as pirate gangs, have the ability to bend politicians and governments through coercion, intimidation and bribery.

After years of brutalizing their fellow Somalis, harassing passing vessels, interrupting the delivery of aid shipments, and extorting vast sums from foreign shippers and fishing enterprises, you might think there would be little left for the warlords' pirate gangs to capitalize upon. But of course, you'd be wrong.

For Somalis gangs, the Indian Ocean is both a source of bounty and a vast expanse of emptiness. Or rather, that emptiness is another potential region to be marketed to foreigners, exploited as an appealing garbage dump for Western waste. The United Nations Environmental Programme and several nongovernmental groups have known that the seas off Somalia have become a dumping ground for waste as far back as the early 1990s, after the country slipped into anarchy. Reports filtered in that European companies were paying for the "right" to discard garbage in the seas, but there was little definitive proof since the evidence lay beneath fathoms of water.

But shortly after the December 2004 tsunami that ravaged the Indian Ocean, an unsettling result of illegally dumped waste washed up on the beaches of eastern Somalia. Hazardous-waste containers came ashore as a result of the tidal forces of the tsunami, spilling a toxic mess that no one expected. As the waves receded, they left behind steel drums and concrete containers filled with heavy metals and radioactive waste. Uranium, lead, cadmium, mercury, garbage from hospitals, it all splayed across the shoreline and soon began affecting people. As UNEP discovered, hundreds of people became sick in the aftermath, with symptoms such as skin infections, mouth and abdominal bleeding, and other problems caused by the various wastes.

For years, rumors have placed the source of much of this garbage as being Western Europe. In the early 1990s, Italian journalist Ilaria Alpi investigated what was going on in Somalia, trying to see if there was any basis to the whispers that Mafia-run firms were sending industrial waste to the Indian Ocean to be disposed of. Tragically, she was killed, along with her cameraman, while seeking the truth in Somalia, and so the questions remain ominously unanswered.

According to Andrew Mwangura ( head of the African Seafarers Assistance Programme), the warlords charge as little as $2.50 per ton for the "right" to dump waste off the Somali coast, while it costs about $250 to properly dispose of the same ton in Europe. At this bargain basement rate, it's not likely the dumping will cease anytime soon, and the prospects that anyone will step forward and offer to clean up the mess are currently nil.

Yes, Mr. Mwanagura understands that it is the Somalis themselves who have torn their country apart through greed and violence. But they have had a lot of help from the outside word. The weapons the pirates brandish are not manufactured in Somalia. Nor are the speedboats and engines and radios. The money to purchase weapons and supplies can come from foreign fishing fleets willing to pay off the warlords, transferring the funds through international banking systems. And the decision to toss hazardous waste into those same waters is only partially made by the Somali warlords.

Warlords have run things in Somalia since the early 90s- with one notably brief exception. In 2006 there was a dramatic decrease in pirate incidents along the coast that was directly related to the rise of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU, also known as the Union of Islamic Courts and the Council of Islamic Courts). Fed up with the country's endemic corruption and infighting, this loose coalition of clerics, Islamic militias and other concerned Somalis managed to toss the warlords out of Mogadishu in June 2006 and forced the internationally recognized TFG to flee south. The ICU expanded its control over almost half the country, seeking to reimpose a sense of order in the areas they controlled (which included the imposition of Sharia law). They banned the use and sale of khat, the popular drug, and sought to crack down on corruption.

One of the ICU's goals was to stamp out piracy along the Somali coastline, and they made it quite clear that anyone engaging in the practice would face severe repercussions. With their warlord bosses on the run and facing the prospect of certain death at the hands of the ICU, Somalis pirates gave up their marauding ways. The clerics had managed to do what no one else had and address a serious criminal endeavor, rather like the way the Taliban tackled opium production in Afghanistan.

In the post-911 environment, the prospect of a conservative Islamic government in Somalia did not sit well with many in the West. Though the ICU managed to bring some stability to parts of the country, the shadow of Afghanistan under the Taliban loomed within the minds of "strategic thinkers" in foreign cities. There were fears that some factions with the ICU had ties to Al Qaeda and many did not want to see Somalia become an Islamic state. So, in December of 2006, TFG forces, aided by the Ethiopian military (and with the tacit approval of most Western countries), managed to overpower the ICU and return Somalia to...a lawlessness and chaos [whose toll in terms of misery, destruction and death far far exceeds anything ever perpetrated by Al Qaeda].

1 comment:

  1. 'Terror on the Seas; True Tales of Modern-Day Prates" by Daniel Sekulich; St. Martin's Press; 2009

    Toronto-based journalist and documentary film-maker