The Reign of Corporate Imperialism
If one were to correlate the level of media attention with the importance of the subject matter at hand, it would be easy to conclude that the death of one slightly black man in Hollywood is more significant – by several orders of magnitude – than the deaths of close to 1 million black people in the Horn of Africa. And the supposed miscarriage of justice surrounding one American woman in Europe is imbued with more essential meaning than the grave injustices perpetrated by one American financial institution on Europe.
It is indeed a strange world: a world so enmeshed and intertwined that it seems to have coalesced into a new sentient globalised being. At its head is the corpulent corporate behemoth, controlling government strategies, dictating food prices, directing wars and ensuring that its every decision impacts on the lives of each cell in the body. Its veins are the media, pulsing to the 24 hour news cycle and disseminating information out from the centre to the periphery.
Like any organism it has an immune system on patrol, ruthlessly weeding out any cell or substance that doesn’t match its own narrow definition of “self”. “You are either with us ot us”r agains is the categorical refrain of the immune system, but in this out-of-control chimera, the immune system has taken on a life of its own, morphing from a defence policy into a disease, attacking its own body in the pursuit of safety and becoming weaker and poorer as a result.
At its heart is a new religion: the religion of globalised greed spreading like a pandemic across the world. No longer the preserve of the elites, this tenacious, rapacious greed now permeates every echelon of society. “Freed” from the bounds of orthodoxy that promoted patient perseverance, the ordinary person has succumbed to the persuasive proselytising of its high priests, thumping their pulpit of individualism, disseminating their tales of blind chance and proclaiming that narrow self-interest is not only logical but also at the core of our biological programming. Its worshippers are to be found in a rich vein of diversity throughout society: locked in acts of devotion as varied as speculating via hedge funds in The City of London and looting small businesses while Tottenham burns around them.
Somalia: Failed State or “Collateral Damage”?
And it has its sacrificial lambs. Unwitting pawns destined to end their lives on its alter of self-interest: the skeletal baby staring out at the world with weary, pain-filled eyes, never understanding why it had to suffer; and the broken-backed old man who, despite a life of sweat and toil, has only rags and an empty stomach to show for it. The Horn of Africa is the current sacrifice just as Iraq and Afghanistan were the burnt offerings of the recent past.
“Hyperbole and hysteria!” the haters would cry.
“Yes, whilst the famine in the Horn of Africa is a tragedy, it’s all down to the La Niña effect producing the worst drought in 60 years, the Al-Shabaab militia refusing aid, and perhaps some early effects of global warming; and anyway, it is just the story of yet another feckless African nation filled to the brim with gormless victims, without the wit or will to help themselves and seemingly able only negligently to produce child after child that they are incapable of caring for and expect us, yet again, to pick up the pieces.”
How indeed can anyone blame the famine in Somalia on anyone else but the Somalis themselves?
A brief, disinterested trawl through Wikipedia or similar “definitive” modern information sources reveal that Somalia went from being a tribal society to a British colony, then an Italian colony, then a post-colonial dictatorship in the 1960s until it collapsed into an anarchic civil war in 1991, which seems to have endured until now. Surely even the most bleeding-hearted, sandal-wearing, hemp-clad liberal would have to admit, grudgingly, that here is one failed nation that “the West” can’t be berated over, as it appears that Somalis are seemingly unable to form a society stable enough to weather the inevitable ups and downs of the climate.
This week is the first of a series of articles exploring this new globalised culture of greed. In this JumahPulse, I will demonstrate that Somalia is far from a lacklustre society of layabouts, but rather Somalis are a people struggling to reach some sort of stability, which at every turn is crushed by a callous coterie of injustice: the war on terror, Europe’s inability to deal with its own resurgent criminal underclass and food piracy on such a scale that it simply beggars belief. Not a secret conspiracy but rather a completely open process, visible to anyone with half a mind to investigate it. It is the societal equivalent of a child being savaged by a pack of dogs on the street whilst the dog owners look on, scornfully ridiculing the child’s inability to protect itself.
Whilst all of these issues are entirely factual and have occurred in the age of the 24 hour news media, the story has been widely passed by but for a few footnotes here and there.
However, as Aldous Huxley remarked, “Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.”
The War on Terror: Imperialism Rebranded
Many people’s perceptions of Somalia have been influenced by the 2002 blockbuster Black Hawk Down, which portrayed the US/UN’s disastrous 1992-1995 intervention in Somalia and the resulting Battle of Mogadishu as an entirely altruistic act. George Monbiot does a masterful job of deconstructing that particular star-spangled fantasy in an article that should be made compulsory reading for anyone given to watching tawdry US propaganda. Suffice it to say that in the movie, no mention is made of Somalia’s very significant oil reserves, or that the US government was so enmeshed with multinational oil companies that at the time it was using US oil company Conoco’s headquarters in Mogadishu as its embassy.
The story of the US and Somalia doesn’t end with Black Hawk Down. As the dust settled from the twin towers and the US rolled out its borderless, generational war without end, against such a hitherto unknown type of enemy that it required new alliances, new laws and new morality. This was all guided by George W. Bush’s subtle and nuanced foreign policy approach of “America will never seek a permission slip to defend the security of its people”. The Horn of Africa has played a strategic but almost covert role in the war on terror.
From the secret CIA prisons in Mogadishu, to the CIA-run secret detention centre in Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, to the heavily fortified facility at Mogadishu airport where the CIA runs covert snatch and grab raids that kidnap citizens of other countries and enter them into the twilight world of extraordinary rendition, the story of the US in Somalia has been one of misadventure, misery and malign manipulation.
The CIA has been fighting proxy wars by funding one warlord after another and thus adding to, if not creating, the fetid climate of civil unrest and revolt that has embroiled Somalia for decades. It has ignored the advice both of its own experts as well as independent academics who, in as early as 2002, downgraded Somalia’s threat level to the US to negligible, with only the presence of at most 10-12 people in the whole country with any links to Al-Qa’ida. The warlords for their part played a duplicitous game by providing misinformation to the US whilst lining their own pockets with CIA money and weaponry. The fledgling Somali government was entirely sidelined in the whole process and became weaker and more ineffectual as time went on.
The Union of Islamic Courts: Problem or Solution?
Despite this US-backed anarchy, for a brief time in 2006 things seemed to be taking a turn for the better. The Union of Islamic Courts, a disparate group of shari’ah courts supported by local businessmen fed up with the previous decade’s anarchy, swept the warlords out of power in quite a remarkable way. The courts started appearing from 2000 onwards, dotted around the country and operating entirely independently, although loosely affiliated with each other. The local militia enforced the rulings of the court, which reduced robberies, drug dealing, prostitution and general lawlessness. Over the course of the next six years, this militia evolved into a fighting force that had effectively conquered most of the country. Thus the rule of law was established, which then resulted in a revolution. This is not the way things usually happen: customarily, a revolution occurs first and it’s only after some flag-waving, statue-toppling and effigy-burning that the protagonists remember that small matter of justice and the rule of law.
The Islamic Courts, with their grassroots federalist structure, formed not only the main judicial system in Somalia but also began providing policing services and built schools and hospitals, not to mention organising a rubbish collection service in Mogadishu, which had not had waste collection services for over a decade. Despite the fact that some courts closed cinemas and banned the recreational drug khat, the Union of Islamic Courts in general enjoyed a groundswell of public support in a country that had known only chaos for so many years.
By December 2006, the Union of Islamic Courts controlled all of Somalia except Baidoa, a town close to the Ethiopian border which housed the US/UN backed opposition, the Transitional Federal Government, defended by Ethiopian troops. After negotiations collapsed between the two parties, Ethiopia invaded Somalia and intense fighting ensued: the current Somali civil war had started. This however was no internal matter. The US was openly supporting the Ethiopian military’s invasion of Somalia for a significant time when Somalia was still subject to an international arms embargo, so any such armed intervention, military aid or provision of arms and materials would have been illegal under international law. Suffice it to say this has never been investigated.
To add to this international flavour, several key Ethiopian-backed puppets in this new Somali government were British citizens who, after a heavy week of embezzlement, torture and corruption would fly back to the UK to spend some much needed downtime presumably watching Coronation Street and shopping in Poundland. George Galloway, the then Respect MP, delivered a characteristically firebrand speech on this subject to Parliament in 2008. He also made mention of the Channel 4 Dispatches documentary which detailed the complicity between the puppet government in Somalia and the UK. It makes for compelling, if not deeply disturbing, viewing.
As is often the case with US foreign interventions, alongside the covert military funding comes the overt defamation. In the run up to the Ethiopian invasion, the US Assistant Secretary of State fired this shot at the Union of Islamic Courts:
“The Council of Islamic Courts is now controlled by al-Qaeda cell individuals, East Africa al-Qaeda cell individuals. The top layer of the court are extremists. They are terrorists. They are killing nuns, they have killed children and they are calling for a jihad.”
The killing of nuns refers to an incident outside a Mogadishu hospital in September 2006 where a nun was murdered. This was condemned by the Union of Islamic Courts who made two arrests swiftly afterwards. Despite the absence of any evidence linking the Courts with Al-Qa’ida, Somalia in general, and the Union of Islamic Courts in particular, became synonymous with terrorism. Somalia was even cited in a leaked memo written by US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in 2006, in which he directed his staffers to develop “bumper sticker statements” to rally public support for the increasingly unpopular Iraq war.
“Talk about Somalia, the Philippines, etc. Make the American people realize they are surrounded in the world by violent extremists,” he wrote.
As well as ratcheting up public fear and anxiety, the rhetoric over Somalia gave the US enough legitimacy in the international media as well as at the UN to overturn provisions of Security Council Resolution 733 in December 2006 (via Resolution 1725), allowing it to intervene militarily. And what an intervention: large scale air strikes, naval operations and the embedding of military personnel with the Ethiopian army. In the months that followed, several thousand civilians died with nearly half a million others fleeing to refugee camps.
On 26 April 2007, Martin Fletcher wrote in The Times about the five days he spent in Mogadishu, during which he canvassed the opinion of many ordinary Somalis:
“People lack water, food and shelter. Cholera has broken out. The sick sometimes have to pay rent even to sit in the shade of trees. Things will get worse with the rains, which have started. Aid agencies say people will soon start dying in large numbers. Some reckon Somalia is facing its biggest humanitarian crisis, worse than in the early 1990s, when the state collapsed amid famine and slaughter. Overwhelmingly, they loathed a government they consider a puppet of the hated Ethiopians.”
In the midst of all this, over 200 CIA and FBI agents set up shop in the Sheraton Hotel in Mogadishu and started detaining and interrogating suspects, without charge or trial, in a secret prison somewhere in the city.
Faced with heavy aerial bombardment and overwhelming force, the Union of Islamic Courts was defeated within a few months and the Transitional Federal Government assumed power.
Since then, Somalia has once again suffered turmoil and chaos. As well as receiving CIA funds, former warlords who had been driven out by the Union of Islamic Courts have been given military roles in return for the use of their private militias. The US also seems to have adopted the RAND Corporation approach of endorsing strange Sufi groups as “good Muslims” to be recruited in the war on terror. In Somalia, the Americans are funding the Sufi paramilitary group Ahlu Sunna wa Jama’a despite it having in the past fought alongside theBlack Hawk Down bogeyman, Mohamed Farrah Aidid. Ahlu Sunna wa Jama’a now receives arms and training from the Ethiopian military and its London-educated leader, Abdulkadir Moallin Noor, indicated in a recent interview that US intelligence agencies were deeply intertwined with his group.
Al-Shabaab, who had been a minor faction in the Union of Islamic Courts, has surged to the fore in the power vacuum following the defeat of the Union by fighting an insurgency-style rebellion against the government. Continuing US drone attacks act as a recruiting sergeant for al-Shabaab, a situation that mirrors that of US drone attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan. There is recent evidence that al-Shabaab may be moving towards a more guerrilla-style terror campaign which, if true, will only add to the chaos.
A recent UN report on Somalia released in July 2011 makes the following troubling statement:
“The resort to Somali proxy forces by foreign Governments represents a potential return to the ‘warlordism’ of the 1990s and early 2000s, which has historically proved to be counterproductive.”
Madeline Bunting sums it up when she writes in The Guardian:
“[W]hen historians reflect on the early decades of the 21st century Somalia, alongside Afghanistan and Iraq, will be seen as having paid a colossal price in human life as a result of the US war on terror. The deaths in Iraq were brought by bombs, the deaths in Somalia are from hunger: both are a direct consequence of the violent extremism triggered by US aggression.” (emphasis added)
Globalised Greed: A Toxic Legacy
The President of Somalia at the time of the UN/US intervention in the 1990s, which ended with the Black Hawk Down incident, was Ali Mahdi Muhammad, a close ally of the UN/US mission. What is less widely known is that, as well as being the fourth president of Somalia, he also has the inglorious distinction of being one of the main causative factors behind Somalia’s piracy problems. It was his government that signed a deal with Swiss and Italian firms to use Somalia to dump 10 million tonnes of toxic waste at the bargain basement price of $8 per tonne, which would cost up to $1,000 per tonne in Europe. This was the start of Somalia’s toxic waste legacy.
Since then Somalia, both onshore and offshore, has been the unwilling recipient of Europe and Asia’s toxic waste: from toxic heavy metals like lead, cadmium and mercury, to radioactive waste from hospitals and the poisonous by-products of heavy industry. Waste has been dumped on remote beaches and offshore in disposable leaking barrels. Thousands of people have been affected by this with a rise in birth abnormalities, respiratory infections, mouth ulcers, abdominal haemorrhages and unusual skin infections. There have even been several cases of outright radiation poisoning.
Several European firms have been implicated in this deadly trade, including Swiss company Achair Partners and Italian waste merchant Progresso. Most of these companies are simply “shell” companies set up by others as disinformation and most investigations have simply fizzled out due to an inability to collect evidence in such a chaotic place as Somalia. The origins of some of the radioactive waste found in rusty decaying barrels on Somali beaches have been identified in the last few years. Italian crime cartel the ‘Ndrangheta have been implicated in this after one of their own became a turncoat and spoke out against them. The story is one of shocking corruption and greed with former Italian prime minister, Ciriaco De Mita, involved in illegal disposal operations. The secret service, SISMI, was engaged to cover up the connection and other Italian politicians intervened to ensure that Italian peacekeeping troops in Somalia turned a blind eye to the ongoing transportation of waste. The waste itself came from ENEA, Italy’s state energy research agency, which paid ‘Ndrangheta clans to get rid of 600 drums of toxic and radioactive waste from Italy, Switzerland, France, Germany and the US.
There is a growing body of evidence that, at least in the first instance, the pirates were fishermen who, fed up with being shot at by illegal fishing fleets plundering Somalia’s rich harvest of lobster, tuna, sardines and mackerel, formed into a ad-hoc coastguard. A 2006 UN report estimated that foreign fishing fleets, mostly from Japan, China and Korea, stole over $300 million of seafood each year from Somalia’s waters. The practice of illegal fishing became so widespread that large stretches of the Somali coastline, which once provided food and a livelihood to entire coastal communities, had become barren of fish. It is ironic that now because of the dangerous nature of Somalia’s pirate infested waters, widescale looting of Somalia’s resources has ceased and so fish stocks in those areas not affected by toxic waste have increased to such an extent that the average fisherman has increased his catch from $5 a day to over $200. Also, in a development that should make the heart of every capitalist sing with happiness, it appears that piracy is injecting a well-earned economic boost into the local economy, with boom towns growing up on the Somali coast on the back of this new “industry”. For this reason the pirates (who often refer to themselves as “coastguards”) enjoy a great deal of local support.
In this new religion of greed, morality has become skewed beyond all recognition. An alliance of the planet’s richest nations can manipulate, undermine and eventually attack one of the poorest nations causing anarchy, death and untold misery and yet call this attack a “war on terror”. Some of the same countries can plunder a nation’s fish stocks, or be complicit in dumping toxic waste that kills and maims the poor, and yet the word “pirate” is never used to describe them. Indeed, the same countries will race to pass UN resolutions to condemn piracy and frantically set up navy patrols to control it but find themselves completely unable to control or combat those criminals from their own society who caused the problem in the first place.
When I began writing this JumahPulse, I had assumed that I could mention, briefly, a few dirty deeds carried out by the US in Somalia before swiftly moving on to everyone’s current favourite bloodsport: brutalising bankers. What I hadn’t counted on was the sheer volume of criminality, misconduct and villainy that has been perpetrated by the international community on the country and people of Somalia, all of which merited further discussion.
Astoundingly, even a cursory look at the available evidence demonstrates that this is only the tip of the iceberg.
It seems no country in the world is free from the stain of culpability in Somalia’s fate: whether they were partners in the war on terror; or had their toxic waste seemingly magicked away by dodgy middlemen for suspiciously negligible sums but lacked the moral fibre to ask any questions; or whether their fishing fleets suddenly brought back bumper harvests of previously rare fish; or whether their UK passport-carrying citizens’ day job was as torturer in chief of a puppet regime, propped up by British and American military aid and protected by weapons and armaments from British, American, French, Russian and/or Chinese companies.
In this globalised world of global communication, global government, even global warming, we can add another globalised moniker: the globalised rape of a country.
Enjoying the Benefits, Sharing the Blame
It could be argued that we are complicit in these outrages as we are the educated, informed citizenry of liberal democracies who, in theory, are supposed to hold those in power to account. The reality is that instead of an engaged, enlightened body politic, we are more like mushrooms: kept in the dark and fed a steady diet of manure masquerading as news. When a wayward fact does come our way, it is presented as a solitary snippet of information, isolated from any wider context.
As Muslims, we are well-accustomed to some journalists and opinion-makers making very tenuous links between misquoted verses from the Quran here and an out-of-context hadith there in order to demonstrate that violence and hatred are essential qualities of Islam. And yet, here we are with an abundance of hard evidence proving the misdeeds of the international community in Somalia in the form of UN reports, independent evidence, leaked documents, personal testimony and so on. Despite this, there seem to be very few people who are prepared to make the links and demonstrate how this famine is man-made. Why is it that journalists only seem to want to exert themselves and join the dots (or, in Islam’s case, get the dots Robert Spencer and Melanie Phillips et al have drawn and join those together) when it comes to demonising Muslims?
This new globalised world has indeed created a new globalised being: a self-absorbed caricature of humanity at its nadir, an invidious and repugnant hellion. Somalia is not an isolated case. We see the tentacles of this tenacious creature extending into every sphere, where we see new adherents to, and new victims of, the religion of greed.
We need to define ourselves as heretics of this new religion of greed. In a world of avarice, we need to give charity. In the midst of selfishness, we need to act selflessly. When presented with cherry-picked facts and simplistic conclusions, we need to be aware of the shallowness of such arguments. Above all, we need to realise that the wealth that makes life so comfortable in the West is the result of a steady stream of dodgy dealings glossed over by saccharine sweet platitudes. All of the conveniences we take for granted depend on their costs being borne by those other than us: cheap energy secured through the support of regimes who ignore their own people’s demand to share in the wealth; heavy industries whose toxic by-products are dumped somewhere else; and cheap food, stolen from the hungry to overfeed the corpulent. And, in the quiet of our hearts, we need to ask the uncomfortable question that whether, as Muslims in the West, the lifestyle we “enjoy” is really consistent with our values once we factor in the hidden costs.