Comment: The Somalian tragedy

Hugo Schmidt 21 July 2011

As drought grips the Horn of Africa, Hugo Schmidt suggests that, for one victim country, famine is far from its only problem.

There is no Somali crisis. The word crisis refers to a stage, a point of crux, something that will be resolved, one way or the other. The current famine in Somalia is simply part of a permanent Hobbesian state that will not be changed within any of our lifetimes.

Oddly enough, within memory of some living, Somalia was an orderly if boring and sleepy colonial enclave, and managed to remain so for about ten years post independence. However, Somalia had the bad misfortune to become independent when Western intellectuals, unable to foment revolution at home, were deciding to export their ideas to the Third World. In terms of sheer wickedness, this policy of experimenting ideologically on the defenceless, practised by intellectuals, must outdo the policy of experimenting medically on the defenceless, practised by corrupt drug firms. Somalia became Communist, with predictable consequences. When that system ran its full destructive course, the Somalis decided to return to the old certainties of tribe and faith. The resulting civil war killed three hundred thousand in famine alone. Nonetheless, it is hard to completely blame the Somalis for completely rejecting modernity after having been exposed to the worst of it (Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s memoir, Infidel, recounts how her father was inspired by first world teachers to become a revolutionary Communist who turned to fundamentalist Islam following his disillusionment).

Here we can see the total collapse and regression of a society to the Dark Ages. In the famine, war, tribalism, banditry, piracy, rapine, tyranny, and fanaticism that is the norm in the Horn of Africa, there is nothing that would come as a surprise to anyone who is familiar with, say, Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous Fourteenth Century.

What can be done? Nothing. The best we can hope for is to help some of the people stave off starvation for another day, or to provide medical care so that those who would die from disease will die from a bullet instead. During the famine of the 1991 civil war, food aid itself became a weapon, with factions fighting for control over it. The only way to prevent rampant theft was to pour in so much food that it was no longer worth stealing – a policy that annihilated the last few remaining farmers in the country. The Taliban clone al Shabab, will make any attempt to impose order impossible, and rule by the Shariah – enshrined in the 2009 “constitution” – is the one thing that can be guaranteed to make things still worse. Every theocracy in history has succeeded in only that.

The very best we may be able to do is to provide sanctuary for those who do not just seek to escape the physical confines of the country, but also its mental confines. I strongly urge anyone with an interest in the subject to read Ayaan Hirsi Ali, whose life is a magnificent illustration of the resilience of the individual, one made destroying when realizes how many more bright spirits must have been annihilated by medieval chaos and deprivation.

Somalia will remain for our lifetimes a non-state that pours out trouble for its neighbours. It is a cold reminder that it is a lot harder to tear things down than it is to build them up again.

Hugo Schmidt