Islamic fundamentalist environmentalists, and other news from Somalia

While the situation in Somalia is still not garnering a great deal of news attention, some of the web’s smarter commentators are weighing in on the tensions between the Islamists and the Ethiopian-supported provisional government. Taylor Jackson sees the fact that Somalia isn’t front-page news in the US as an indictment of US foreign policy, a tendency to focus on situations only when they’ve exploded, not when they’re igniting.

“Somali militias may seem underfunded and inconsequential now, but plenty of people were saying the same thing about Afghan warlords and Saddam Hussein 20 years ago.

All this goes to show that the war on terror cannot be won as a fight against terrorists. It must primarily be a fight against the conditions that allows violent ideologies to flourish. Our war should be a fight against desperation, closed-minded ideology and the collective memory of America’s arrogant, failing foreign policy abroad.”

Meanwhile, I find myself agreeing with Foreign Policy’s Aditya Dasgupta – I can’t tell whether it’s worth fearing the advance of the Islamists or celebrating them. Despite some recent clan-based violence in Southern Somalia, the areas controlled by the UIC are a great deal safer than they were a year ago. And there are some truly remarkable developments, like a UIC ban on exporting charcoal and rare animals. As the IRIN story reports, Gulf states are willing to pay huge amounts – $15 a bag – for charcoal, especially sweet-smelling charcoal made from mango trees. At these prices, it’s very difficult for impoverished people to resist cutting Somalia’s remaining trees and selling them to Saudi Arabia.

(Charcoal is a big freaking deal in environmental and development terms. While charcoal is a smoky fuel, it’s a great deal cleaner than other biofuels – animal dung, for instance – which means it’s a healthier alternative. It’s comparatively affordable in many nations, fairly easy to produce, and gives the sort of heat most people are comfortable cooking over. (It would be great if everyone would convert to using solar ovens, but the cooking popular in the horn of Africa requires a pot over a flame, not baked casseroles…) But charcoal has horrific environmental consequences, leading to deforestation and, in some cases, increased desertification, especially when it becomes a commidity for export. Dr. Amy Smith at MIT’s D-Lab is focused on ways to create charcoal that doesn’t require cutting trees – corn cob, sugar cane and other biofuels.)

If the UIC can actually enforce progressive policies like these, it may increase their international legitimacy and reassure some who are concerned that UIC’s advance is a worse outcome than the vacuum of authority they’re filling. Then again, UIC may be focusing on other issues in the very near future – despite Ethiopia’s insistence that they don’t have troops in Somalia, the AP is reporting the presence of troops in Galkaayo, a key city in Puntland. The UIC has threatened a military response to this troop presence, which would almost certainly trigger the conflict observers have worried was impending.

It’s hard to prevent charcoal smuggling while fighting a land war against Ethiopia.

Other recent Somalia posts:
Mapping Somalia
UIC on the move in Somalia
And you thought it was hard starting a business in your country…

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5 Responses to Islamic fundamentalist environmentalists, and other news from Somalia

  1. If the UIC can actually enforce progressive policies like these, it may increase their international legitimacy

    Given that 15 years of stability haven’t done so for Somaliland, why would these law and order advances do so for the UIC? The international community, and particularly that part of it immediately adjacent to Somalia, has a great deal invested in the TFG and seems intent on protecting its investment at all costs. The UIC’s legitimacy depends on a single factor: whether it can deal itself into the TFG. Security and human rights considerations, whether positive or negative, aren’t likely to matter.

  2. Ethan says:

    You’re absolutely right, Jonathan – that was really a throwaway phrase on my part, an attempt to nod at this interesting idea that the UIC appears to be taking on some of the more advanced functions of a state. I don’t know how realistic I find the idea of UIC becoming an active part of TFG – I guess I’m attracted to the idea that UIC might prove a stabilizing force and allow a Somaliland-like situation to occur in the south, with or without international recognition. But you’re certainly right that other governments – and especially Ethiopia – aren’t going to recognize UIC just because they make some smart environmental moves.

  3. JF says:

    Taylor Jackson’s article has a lot of inaccuracies.

    ““Somali militias may seem underfunded and inconsequential now, but plenty of people were saying the same thing about Afghan warlords and Saddam Hussein 20 years ago.”

    20 years ago, Iraq under Saddam Hussein was at war with Iran and was financed by the US, the Soviet Union and France, in addition to oil revenues. Not exactly underfunded.

    “… Yet after more than a decade of famine and civil infighting, Somalia barely registers on the Reuters report.”

    While Somalia hasn’t been evening news for a number of years, there’s been a swarm of news about the country since the Islamic courts topic power in Mogadishu and areas of the central/south region in June.

    “It is little surprise that violent radicals are able to gain support in a country where the only thing resembling a national government is a gang that functions solely because of the support of the United States — a place most Somalis cannot begin to imagine — and Ethiopia, a country Somalia has been at war with for hundreds of years. ”

    Ethiopia is certainly a major donor of the Transitional Federal Government, and sabotaged its predecessor, the Transitional National Government, due to its Islamic ties. It can be argued that Ethiopia has interests in keeping Somalia weak, since a strong Somalia might be able to threaten Ethiopia’s hegemonic status in the Horn of Africa, and may have aspirations to expand its territory into the Ogaden territory in Ethiopia (with a large Somali population) and the Northern Frontier District of Kenya (and possibly Djibouti). However, the TFG has a number of other supporters, and the US is not among the largest by any measure. The major impact the US has had in Somalia during the last year has actually been to the advantage of the Islamic courts: the courts did not, contrary to what Taylor Jackson seems to imply, have wide popular support until the US sponsorered the “Alliance for Peace and Counter-Terrorism”, a coalition of warlords set up to fight the Islamic courts over concerns that the courts have ties to terrorist networks such as al-Qaeda. The perceived threat of a US-backed force gaining ground in Somalia and lending a new ‘lease on life’ to warlords that were exploiting the population resulted in increased popular support for the Islamic courts, allowing them to take control of Mogadishu and other areas.

    Further, it does not appear that Somalis, at least traditionally, have fundamentalist leanings. You can easily find at least a dozen different researchers that point out that Somalis historically have not had such leanings. While there are fundamentalists in Somalia, they appear to be in the minority, and comparing the Islamic courts to a Taliban-like regime seems a bit much. As the Washington Post’s Johannesburg correspondent says in Foreign Policy:

    “…I think this Taliban comparison is a little overdone. Somali boys and girls have always gone to school together. The women in Somalia have not traditionally worn burqas, and only a very small percentage veil their faces. They are Muslims, and they are serious about their faith, but it doesn’t have the same character that we saw in Afghanistan [under the Taliban]. It’s not likely that Somalis will embrace a Taliban-style regime. That said, governments don’t always reflect the will of their populations.. ” ( http://www.foreignpolicy.com/story/cms.php?story_id=3536 )

  4. JF says:

    Just an addition – for a recent detailed update, check out the newest report from the International Crisis Group – http://www.crisisgroup.org/home/index.cfm?id=4333&l=1

  5. You’re absolutely right, Jonathan – that was really a throwaway phrase on my part

    It was a bit of a throwaway on my part as well. Even if stability doesn’t result in international recognition, it could still win the UIC a fair amount of de facto cooperation, especially from countries like Yemen that will do business with any entity that promotes security in Somalia.

    It’s important to keep in mind, though, that many of the things the UIC is doing aren’t as progressive as promoting land conservation and suppressing piracy.

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