Saturday, July 31, 2010

Somalia: Inside the African Union's Mission to Crush the Al-Shabab. Rolling Thunder or More Blunders?

Draft Version: Part I
From Somali blogger and Ph.D. candidate to presidential advisor in Mogadishu

Back in the early days of the blogosphere (2003-2005) when the total number of blogs in the world numbered around 7 million, African blog authors were at the forefront of the blogging movement working hard to educate readers about what life in Africa is really like. Social networking platforms i.e. Facebook with its 500 million+ users today were not on the horizon and Biz Stone, the founder and CEO of Twitter, was busy together with his small team of developers at Pyra Labs perfecting the online publishing software (Blogger) that was later bought out by Google. A lot has happened in the Sphere since then.

The majority of African blog authors in those early years were from Kenya, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Ghana and handful of other countries spread around the vast continent. There were also a small number of blog authors who hailed from Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Somalia. Many of those early pioneering blog authors from Africa were members of the African Diaspora living, studying, and working abroad in Europe and North America where access to the latest computer technology, broadband Internet connections, and free software tools needed to publish online were readily available.

This short series of posts about Somalia that I am launching today is dedicated to two blog authors from those early days who did a great job in helping me and their many readers around the globe gain a better understanding of Somalia and the many issues and challenges the people face in that very troubled country.

The first author is Yvette Lopez, a Filipino humanitarian worker who spent a considerable amount of time in Hargeisa (Hargeysa), the capital of the generally peaceful, democratic, self-declared independent Republic of Somaliland, an incredible accomplishment when compared to the complete anarchy of central and southern Somalia since the breakup of the two regions in 1991. Yvette authored the very popular Inside Somaliland blog which was an outstanding work containing great stories and lots of photos about life in the region. Among her many accomplishments Yvette also helped pioneer the use and growth of blogs and social media among the youth of Somaliland.

To my knowledge there hasn’t been anything like Inside Somaliland published from within Somaliland since Yvette left to work on other projects in Africa (she was working in Sudan last I heard). Yvette Lopez was a favorite blog author for Ethan Zuckerman (Global Voices co-founder) and I am sure many other people around the globe. Her enthusiasm and strong belief in the chances for success driven by the ordinary people of northern Somalia (Somaliland) is sorely missed.

The second blog author, a man who wrote regularly about the politics and conflict(s) swirling around Somalia is Bill Ainashe, better known to his professional colleagues, friends, and family as ‘Mukhtar’ Ainashe. Bill, who fled the chaos and fighting in Somalia as a youth was educated in Europe (Norway) and the U.S.A. (he is/was a Ph.D. candidate at George Washington University in Washington DC). Bill also worked for the World Bank during his studies at GWU in Washington DC. He is married to a lovely Somali woman and they have two beautiful young daughters who are growing up in the Washington DC area.

NOTE: Now I know that this introduction is a bit long-winded and boring, but please bear with me a while longer ‘cause this is where the story gets interesting, especially in light of the recent bombings in Uganda by Somalia’s Al-Shabab militants and the recently concluded African Union Summit in Kampala.  Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni (the Great Liberator) together with other AU leaders have called for a (massive) troop surge in Somalia to counter the growing terrorist threat posed by Al-Shabab to the region and all African countries. The idea of a troop surge for AMISOM* is ‘whack!’ for many people who have earnestly been following news about Somalia and the decision defies logic and reasoning offered by numerous Somalia experts around the world. Yet, the whole deal has received approval and backing from the Obama administration,  the UK government and other members of the European Union, the United Nations, and other key governments and players inside and outside of the region. AMISOM* is the acronym for the African Union Mission to Somalia with the approval of the United Nations and various international bilateral partner countries to the AU.

Unfortunately, neither Yvette nor Mukhtar (Bill) have been writing and publishing to their personal blogs since 2006/2007 and their earlier work is no longer available online. The two have moved on to new challenges and opportunities but Mukhtar’s trajectory has been the most astonishing. You see, he went from a comfortable life in Washington DC living together with his wife and two kids to what many journalists have described as the Most Dangerous Place on Earth (Jeffrey Gettleman of the New York Times), Postcards from Hell (Elizabeth Dickinson at Foreign Policy magazine), and other demeaning labels however accurate they may be. Bill has gone from being an avid Africa blogger to being a close advisor to the (interim) President of Somalia Sheikh Sharif Sheik Ahmed , which if you ask me is a pretty big God---- big ass leap! Bill is in Mogadishu, living and working at the Villa Somalia, dodging bullets, RPG-launched grenades and mortar rounds in the Presidential Villa Mogadishu (or what’s left of it).

So that is where this story will begin, with news articles about Mukhtar ‘Bill’ Ainashe and other Somalis who were living relatively comfortable (and relatively safe) lives in America, Europe, Asia and the Middle East but have decided to return home to help save their country from the chaos and anarchy that has been branded with a red-hot iron into the world’s view of Somalia, Somalis, and failing states in Africa and elsewhere.

Spiegel Online International (Germany, English-language edition)
Inside the World's Worst Hellhole: Somalia, the Perfect Failed State by Clemens Höges – May 18, 2010

An excerpt from the Spiegel Online International feature article:

Somalia, which has been without a functioning government for almost two decades, serves as a warning for what could happen to other failed states. Rival Islamic militias battle for control of the capital, where the president, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, is in constant danger of his life. A visit to the worst place on the planet.

Dealers in the Somali capital Mogadishu are now selling cartridges for Kalashnikovs at 37 cents apiece. The price has dropped by almost half in recent weeks, probably because there is already a lot of ammunition in the city. Mukhtar Ainashe knows this. He steps on the gas and the large SUV he is driving shoots off.

Ainashe is an intellectual. He reads American philosophers like Thoreau and Emerson, he studied in Norway and, until recently, he made a good living working for the World Bank in Washington. He has a wife and two young children in the United States, and he has a passion for expensive watches. In fact, Ainashe is completely out of place in Africa's dirtiest war.

He drives the vehicle furiously across the unforgiving terrain, a former road now pockmarked with grenade craters. The SUV skids through the gravel and bounces along over rocks, its axles making cracking noises, past the ruins of bullet-riddled houses, which shimmer in the sun like the bleached bones of dead animals in the desert.

No Way to Stop

A "technical" -- a pickup truck typical of Somalia, with a machine gun mounted on the truck bed -- is visible in the rear-view mirror, also bouncing up and down on the rough road. It's manned by government fighters -- Ainashe's bodyguards. The driver of the technical can barely manage to keep up, driving as close to the rear bumper of the SUV as possible. Nevertheless, Ainashe cannot afford to slow down -- it would only make him a target for the Islamists' machine guns. Anyone who stops on this road dies.

The SUV circles "Kilometer 4," the notorious, often contested central roundabout where so many people have died. Then it passes the ruins of the parliament building, where the Islamists shoot at anything that moves. Finally, Ainashe reaches a driveway at the base of a hill.

Machine gun nests between battered walls protect the entrance. Ainashe maneuvers the SUV through a narrow alleyway, through checkpoints, around tank barricades, passing guards along the way. When he finally reaches the gate to the fortress at the top of the hill, he hears the guns of the president's forces, which kill people every day. Their task is to protect the five buildings inside the wall. Their enemies are less than a kilometer away, and they can be seen running and shooting.

"Welcome to Villa Somalia," says Ainashe.

END excerpt from ‘Der Spiegel’. Read the complete article here.

While you are at it, have a look at this Spiegel Online article about how one German company (mercenaries) has offered to help the country return to stability, peace and security, and democracy:
'Shadow Foreign Policy': Somali Warlord Hires German Mercenaries to Provide Security Services

Another article about Mukhtar Ainashe and his colleagues and associates who have decided to return to Somalia in recent years:
The National (English newspaper published in Abu Dhabi, UAE)
Appeal for Somalis to Return Home by Matt Brown – Dec. 20, 2009

More related news, editorials, and resources_____

Foreign Policy Magazine and The Fund for Peace
The Failed States Index 2010
In the Beginning, There Was Somalia by James Traub
Postcards from Hell - an FP photo essay, images from world's most failed states

And last but certainly not least, a fresh look inside Somaliland, which has recently completed free-and-fair democratic elections according to independent international elections observers but still cannot get any respect or official recognition by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon and  the folks running Turtle Bay. English (Doha, Qatar)
Inside Story: Somalia vs. Somaliland - June 24, 2010
A must-see half hour video about life in Somaliland compared to that in Somalia over the past 19 years.

END Part I: Part II to follow ASAP (Yep, the story gets even better folks.)