||THE announcement on Monday that US President Barack Obama has authorised unmanned drone planes to hunt Somali pirates is rather telling. At a time when Israel has caught civil society's attention, critics of US
imperialism should also consider Somalia as a crucial test of whether Obama unleashes the US military's Africa Command (Africom).
With apparent co-operation from Thabo Mbeki, Somalia was invaded by
US-backed Ethiopian troops two years ago, under the guise of hunting
Al-Qaeda. Although the Somali president installed by the Ethiopians
picked a new prime minister last week to stabilise power, there is no
semblance of genuine popular rule in contrast to prior arrangements
which replaced the notorious 1990s warlords with Islamic clerics.
That leaves Somalia in the midst of a complex humanitarian emergency,
according to Africom logic, justifying the active military and naval
presence of the US and Ethio-pia. Washington's presentation of Somalia
as a failed state, overrun by mysteriously financed warlords and
pirates on creaking dhows, legitimises direct political and military
The region possesses the longest coastline in Africa, at 3 300km. It is
the gateway to two primary shipping trade routes: the Suez route,
maintaining close proximity to the Somalian coastline, and the Cape
route, crossing the Gulf of Aden. Roughly 10% of global seaborne trade
passes here, primarily crude and refined oil.
Of late, we have seen a resurgence of starving Somali babies filmed by
caring journalists. Cameras zoom in on bloated bellies, flies buzzing
around anaemic and swollen faces, lips cut from dehydration, poised
against the backdrop of a barren desert of red dust and huts and one or
two emaciated goats.
But like those drone planes, please do not get too close, dear American
readers and viewers, for you will recall the film Black Hawk Down, based
on the 1992 US military campaign entitled Operation Restore Hope. And
you may even remember the group of Somalian rebels who tied the body
of a US soldier behind a vehicle, dragging him around for miles.
What we are not usually told about is a more durable reason for US
intervention: black gold: It's there. There's no doubt there's oil
there, remarked the World Bank's Thomas E O'Connor in 1991.
That year, the bank and the UN Development Programme conducted a series
of co-ordinated regional hydrocarbon studies in Somalia's oil and gas
basins. Somalia and Sudan were placed at the top of an eight-country
list of the world's most lucrative commercial oil producing regions.
It's got high potential . . . once the Somalis get their act together,
explained the bank's principal petroleum engineer, O'Connor.
By the time US-backed dictator Siad Barre was ousted in a 1991 coup by
Mohammad Farah Aidid, the opposition leader-cum-warlord, the entire
region had been divided up into concessions by four energy giants:
Chevron, Conoco, Amoco and Phillips.
The following year, in retaliation for their man being kicked out of
office, the US occupied Somalia. The invasion force operated out of oil
giant Conoco's headquarters in Mogadishu and the Special Forces were
sent in by George Bush Sr, closely connected to Hunt Oil, another energy
giant based in Yemen and Somalia.
How should Africom's role in Somalia be perceived now?
According to Daniel Volman, director of the African Security Research
Project in Washington, The emphasis that US government spokespeople
place on America's humanitarian interests and proclaimed interest in
promoting economic development, security, and democracy are - in my
opinion - just an effort to sell Africom both in the US and in Africa.
Volman continues: The PR effort is designed to conceal the true
purposes of Africom, which are primarily to secure resources, bolster
the capabilities of allies and surrogates to repress internal political
opposition, and act as proxies for the US, as Ethiopia is doing in
Somalia for example, and to counter the growing political and economic
influence of China.
The media tends to provide only skeletal information, microscopically
reducing situations to monolithic conditions like famine and tribal
wars. Media expert Ben Bagdikian, author of The New Monopoly, tells me
that Africa is covered only in relation to its worth.
Historically, Africa was reported on only as it affected the European
nations that had African colonies - Portugal, Spain, Britain, Italy etc.
In the 1960s, as these colonies became independent, most of the former
colonial powers of Europe lost interest except for spectacular events,
and the former African colonies' interests, outside corporations, like
oil companies, markets (like Monsanto's sterile seeds) and using
Africa's many natural resources for their own global trade. This often
meant 'buying' the African political leadership . . . today, the United
States war in the Middle East has made Africa important mostly for
resources or domination, as in Somalia.
How have our continent's own leaders reacted? According to Volman, Most
African governments have been happy to collaborate with the US
government and companies that plunder resources. This is key to their
power bases, necessary to enrich themselves.
Why, then, did George W. Bush have such a hard time finding an African
head- quarters for Africom prior to his departure last month?
Volman explains: Most African countries rejected hosting the
headquarters of Africom for fear of local backlash, but a number have
made it clear that they were eager to attain as much security assistance
Countries like Nigeria, Chad, Angola, Ethiopia, South Africa and
Equatorial Guinea continue to get more and more assistance from the US.
The media moulds identity and point of view, defining reality for a
passive, unengaged audience comprised of main-ly American consumers
who have relegated all thought to specialists. This is also a danger
in South Africa.
Hence Obama's drone attacks on Somalia may be safe because no US
troops are threatened. But the safety of all Africa is at stake if
Africom and US resource interests get a stronger toehold.