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The World's Options For Aid In Somalia


The Somali Civil War that began in 1991 destroyed the country's agriculture; that led to widespread starvation and poverty, thousands of people died, warlords took over clans. The United States and other countries tried to help, but all efforts have failed. Now 20 years have gone by. And with piracy and the threat of terrorism from the group al-Shabab becoming a global problem, the British government held a summit last week in London with 55 delegations from Somalia and the international community.

We would like to hear in this part of the program from our Somali-American listeners. As the U.S., Great Britain and many other nations turn their attention once again to Somalia, what do they need to know in order to help this East African country? Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our website. Go to NPR.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Well, Jeffrey Gettleman has covered Somalia for five years as the East Africa bureau chief for The New York Times. He joins us today from his base in Nairobi, Kenya. Welcome, Jeffrey. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.


DONVAN: Jeffrey, you were in Somalia the day before the summit took place in London. And I've seen photographs, literally, of people sitting in their homes and in cafes listening to transistor radios to get the news from the BBC and what was happening there. So I'm curious to know, did the people in the ground actually put a lot of hope in this effort? And were they paying attention in the way those photographs would suggest?

GETTLEMAN: I think there was a lot of cynicism about the effort, and there was a real disconnect between the condition and the needs and the aspirations of the people on the ground and what was being discussed in London, but that said, we're in a really interesting point.

There is more international engagement in Somalia right now than there has been for more than 20 years. And there's a serious international effort to try to get this country back on its feet, and there's some momentum too. There's more investment. There's more people moving back home. More of the country is now governed by the transitional government than it has been for years. So it's a mixed picture, but I think the one thing that the London conference didn't really deal with is these very prosaic issue on the ground about food insecurity and just the kind of quality of life that people have been denied for so long.

DONVAN: If they weren't paying attention to those issues, like getting enough to eat, what were they focused on?

GETTLEMAN: They were focused on these bigger political issues of how to deal with this transitional government, how to coordinate these various efforts of all the different international players that want to get involved in Somalia. The United States has stayed out for a long time after the Black Hawk Down incident of 1993. Nowadays the Turkish are very involved. Arab states are very involved. So there's like a real need to coordinate all this international attention, but there's also some other things.

I mean, piracy has really succeeded, putting Somalia on the international agenda. This country has been languishing for years without a central government, and nobody really cared until these pirates from Somalia started striking ships and taking Westerners hostage and pushing up the prices of global shipping. And people on the ground in Somalia, they don't really care about piracy, and they sort of find it amusing and also disappointing that the international community cares so much about piracy when the conditions inside Somalia have been bad for so long.

DONVAN: We want to hear from Somali-American listeners who can help us understand why - in addition to the reason that was just given by Jeffrey Gettleman about the piracy problem, and there's also a perceived al-Qaida-type of problem for the West - but why else in the sort of positive way should the Western powers, the United States and the British, stay involved in Somalia, so often referred to as simply a failed state and very often the worst example of a failed state? But what are the positive reasons you see for keeping the U.S. and the British engaged in trying to put Somalia back together again, or at least help to put Somalia together again?

And to that point, Jeffrey, I want to get to this. There have been - I don't know - I think, a dozen such conferences over the last 20 years intended to do something for Somalia, and obviously, the previous ones all failed. Is there a common denominator to that failure, and is it different this time?

GETTLEMAN: Yeah, I think, there is. I think, there's been - and there's a couple problems. One, is there's been an emphasis on a top-down government, of trying to establish essential government in Mogadishu, the capital, and have it spread out across the country and bring peace and stability from the top down. That hasn't really worked. People are now more...

DONVAN: Is that because there is no top to move down from really?

GETTLEMAN: No. It's - well, it's because the country has always had a weak central government that has been viewed a bit hostily(ph) by the population. But it's also - it goes to the second issue, which is the type of people who often do the best in these international backed forums are Somalis from the Diaspora and people that have had a taste to Western education and are able to relate to the international community. Many of them had lived outside of the country for years.

And right now, on the transitional government, I think, half of the ministers have dual citizenship, with American citizenship or Canadian citizenship or British citizenship. So there's this, you know, there's a gap between the leaders and the people on the ground. And, I think, what - and that's been going on for years. And it's because those - the complexity of trying to get involved in every little community and identified leaders and people with genuine popularity. So I think what's changing is that the realization that you need to do both. You need to work on central government, but at the same time, you need to work on local government.

And it found, you know, kind of abstract to even talk about these governance issues in a place that has no functioning government. But we're beginning to see different areas asserting themselves on a very local level. And I've even been to some of these places where clans have come together with just a little money and started their own police force, started their own education programs, environmental programs, and this is now beginning to take off as people wise up to the fact that the central government may not be the answer right now.

DONVAN: All right, so some green shoots are there. Our number is 800-989-8255. And our email address is talk@npr.org. If you have something to say on this topic, particularly, if you're Somali-American and can talk to us about your hopes and your aspirations for your home country, give us a call. We'd like to have your insight on this, as I think, for the 14th time, an attempt is made to assist Somalia to undergo a recovery. And we do have a call now from Minneapolis. And, Mayur(ph), if I pronounced your name correctly, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

MAYUR: Hello.

DONVAN: Hello. You're on the air.

MAYUR: Yeah. My name is Mayur, and I'm originally from Somalia. I'm U.S. citizen right now. Let me - my advice to those who want to solve the Somali problem is what they need to do is have Somali people by - not only finding the Shabaab, but also the spoilers of the peace process and neighboring countries who are really nagging Somali, you know, and fueling the Somali problem. Those who are bringing, you know, arm, those who are spoiling by just, you know, just targeting the group. Whenever time international community as Somali community is, they drive in with their (unintelligible), and then they work up one to try to explore.

So what they need to do is, like, when the Islamic course and the Somali government was there, your government was supporting the warlords to fight this young terrorist. So if the Somali government, you know, international community (unintelligible) and instead of, you know, held, you know, and we're working with, you know, this group or, you know, (inaudible) al-Gama'a, this group and stuff like that. If they work with the government, things can work out and banish all this (unintelligible) and create international community, international criminal courts for Somali problem.

DONVAN: Do you go home ever or back ever? I'm not sure if you're an American or visiting. But do you go back to Somalia from time to time?

MAYUR: No. I never went back to Somalia. Last time I was there was April 1991.

DONVAN: Do you have friends who are coming back and then returning and telling you that they see things getting better?

MAYUR: Yeah, things are better in some areas like, for example, in Somaliland area. Puntland area is really getting nice. And Mogadishu is very - you know, actually there is a (unintelligible) who are apparently working in Minneapolis, and then went back there in Mogadishu (unintelligible). We saw their pictures of (unintelligible) beach. Things are getting better. Somali people are ready, but we need international community to focus on, you know, our Western - or, you know, penalizing those who are spoilers.

DONVAN: Yeah. All right, Mayur, thanks very much for your call. I want to bring Jeffrey back into it. And, Jeffrey, it's interesting to hear Mayur talk about Mogadishu improving. You know, most of us don't - most of us don't have an image any longer that's up to date. I don't think about Somalia - rather obsessive news coverage of 20 years ago, as you said, all sort of ended with "Black Hawk Down." And you're in there a lot. If, you know, I know literally you can't quite travel straight north to south. But if you were - can you put us on the ground a little bit, and tell us what you see as you go about different parts of the country in a kind of concrete, you know, roll the movie for us of what the texture of life is like right now.

GETTLEMAN: Sure. Well, there's a few commercial airlines that still fly into Mogadishu. And when you land, you can see the crumpled fuselage of a plane that was shot down a few years ago. That's kind of your welcome to Mogadishu site. You step off the plane. It's a little chaotic. There's lots of armed men milling about inside the airport, outside the airport. You're given a form to fill out, an immigration form that asks for name, address, birth date and caliber of weapon. As soon as you step out on the streets, it's like incredibly ruined place, with just about every building is riddled with bullet holes. And the whole city is like that. It's still standing but crumbling and full of bullet holes.

There's been some repairs lately, some new construction, some people beginning to build new homes and businesses, but very small scale stuff. And the whole country is like that. It's been totally neglected for the past 20 years.

DONVAN: So where's the improvement in all of this that you also say is there? It sounds pretty bleak.

GETTLEMAN: Well, it's small scale. You see in a few neighborhood a few fresh coats of paint on the wall. You see some new schools being rehabilitated, some businesses, some stores, some hotels being open. But it's - they are the kind of brightly painted exception in this very gray, drab, destroyed environment. And one thing I'd like to comment on, the caller made a really good point, which is the Somalia's has never been stabilized from the outside. The U.S. tried it in the '90s. The Ethiopians tried it in 2006, 2007. There are peacekeepers right now in Somalia and foreign troops; Kenyans, Ethiopians, Ugandans that are trying it, and it's never worked.

The only time Somalia has been peaceful is in 2006 when a grassroots movement of Islamists took over the country and pacified it, and they had buy-in from the local population. And there's a part of Somalia, which the caller also mentioned, Somaliland, which is the northwest part. That part is relatively stable. We've had a number of democratic election. They've declared independence. Nobody's recognized it, but that part of Somalia kind of, you know, moved to its own rhythms and ruled itself. And it did it totally organically. It got very little help from the outside, which is part of its success.

So the international community, I think, is wising up to this a bit, but you can't just impose a nation build with lots of money and outside effort. It just hasn't worked in Somalia.

DONVAN: Let's bring Aiden from Salt Lake City. Aiden, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

AIDEN: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

DONVAN: Sure. You're on the air, and we'd like to hear your comment or question.

AIDEN: Yeah, I think the one thing that I would emphasize is, you know, that it is very important that, you know, the regional, you know, the local communities being empowered because they are the ones who are heavily impacted this situation, and if we empower them I think they know what is best for their own local communities. Because you can't build a nation from top to bottom. It has to be from bottom to up, you know, in a way...

DONVAN: How local do you mean? Are you talking about large regions? Are you talking about villages and towns?

AIDEN: I think of the regions. I'm talking about the regions. Somalia is divided into regions. You know, like right now, we know the regions that have their own, you know, administration. They are doing really well. Like if you look at, you know, the north, you know, they're enjoying the peace and stability of most of the regions. But in the south where we don't have the local, you know, they all have struggling and the central government, there is nothing they can do about that and we know there is a high corruption in Somalia right now So - but the local people, you know, they know their own communities, and if we empower them, that is cheaper that way to do it.

DONVAN: All right. Aiden, thanks very much for your call and your point. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION on NPR News. Jeffrey, Aiden was just talking about the regions locally. You actually made the very same point to work from the bottom up, and I'm - it raises the question for me, when we talk about Somalia, should we really be talking, thinking in terms of several almost states that happen to be within the border of the formerly functioning Somalia? Is it really several countries, rather one unified state?

GETTLEMAN: Well, what's really interesting about Somalia is its incredibly homogenous, maybe more homogenous than any other country in the world. Ninety-nine percent of the people are Sunni Muslim. Everybody speaks Somali from birth. It's the same ethnic group, the same race from north to south, east to west. But it's divided by clan. So you don't need to sort of - you don't need to see it as an entity of different states. It really isn't like that, but the local government is the way to go, and the idea is to sort of begin to encourage local administration to take some control of their community and eventually link those up into some type of federal systems and federation.

And we're seeing that happen but very slowly, and the international community doesn't want to deal with 20 different presidents and 20 different ministers of defense. And that's one reason why there still this stubborn emphasis on top-down, working out of Mogadishu outward, which is as you've heard from the callers. You know, everybody's saying that same thing, it just hasn't worked.

DONVAN: Well, Jeffrey, it encouraging to hear that you're encouraged, and even if it is a coat of paint on the house from here to there or a new police force, it's a change in the story, and for once, it's a positive and optimistic change. I want to thank you very much for joining us. Jeffrey Gettleman has covered Somalia for five years as the East Africa bureau chief for The New York Times, and he joined by phone from Nairobi, Kenya. Jeffrey, thanks for joining us. Tomorrow, we will talk about interracial marriage in the U.S. It has come a long way since the Loving Decision. Join for us that. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm John Donvan in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.