w w w . S o m a l i T a l k . c o m


Prof. Hassan Mahadallah

*By: Prof. Hassan O. Mahadallah

US-Somali Relations were always subject to three considerations:

  1. Strategy of Denial;

  2. Foreign/Humanitarian Aid; and

  3. Somali Relations With Its Neighbors

Throughout the state era (1960-1991), none of these considerations had stopped US engagement with Somalia. However, after 9/11, America did not only end its ties with our nation but became hostile to it. The first consideration above became an excuse for a naval blockade; the second, a denial of statehood; and the third, an excuse for the use of Ethiopian proxy forces to invade and punish Somalia. What did we do to America to deserve this punishment? Are there other underlying causes for this American hostility? How can US-Somali ties be restored to their former status, if not degree of cordiality? These are some of the vexing questions Somalis are asking themselves today. Before answering these questions, perhaps a brief overview of US policy toward Africa will help. 

US Policy in Africa: Background History

The United States did not interest itself in African affairs until the outbreak of the Second World War. Before this period, US involvement was limited to signing few commercial treaties with selected countries and the control of piracy along the Barber Coast in North-West Africa. Washington, itself a colonial power, did not much object to the European control of the Continent. The approach of the First World War and the looming German threat changed America’s attitude toward European colonialism, especially that of the Central Powers. Thus, on 18 January, 1918, President Woodrow Wilson delivered his famous Fourteen Points Declaration to a joint session of Congress. In the fifth point of the Declaration, the President gave the principle of self-determination an equal weight as the sovereign right of the colonizing powers.  

In 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt followed Wilson’s Fourteen Points with the Atlantic Charter, which was signed by him and Winston Churchill. As a necessary condition for world peace, the Charter lays down the rights of the colonial peoples to self-determination and self-government. Since then, these principles have never been questioned. However, it took more than two decades before America would become deeply involved in African affairs. The approach of another war, the Cold War, and other looming threat by another great power, the Soviet Union, again changed US foreign policy toward Africa.

After WWII, the admission of the newly independent nations to the United Nations became a hotly contested international issue. The United States feared the influx of newly independent nations with little diplomatic experience and major contempt for their former colonizers, and who may vote with the Communist bloc countries. Let us not forget that up to this point, the Western powers commanded the largest voting bloc in the UN, and the US was not too happy losing this advantage. On their part, the Soviet Union and its Eastern bloc countries, which were consistently out voted, refused to relent on the admission of the former colonies to the UN. Fortunately for them, one major factor worked to their advantage. This was the UN Charter guaranteeing the inclusion of all independent nations in the club of the independent states.  In the end, prudence dictated to the Washington, not only to admit, but to co-opt and cajole the new African members. With the two superpowers agreeing on the matter, the UN drew up and passed in 1963 what became known as “the package deal,” in which all independent countries were admitted to the prestigious world organization. Thenceforth, American involvement in Africa became a diplomatic necessity. With almost fifty votes, the Continent became very important. In regard to Somalia, the US faced some policy challenges, namely how to befriend the country without alienating its neighbors, Ethiopia, Kenya, and France, which still colonized Djibouti. We now turn to this issue. 

Relational Considerations

Throughout the 1960, the US-Somali relations were terse, for a lack of better word. The country’s interaction with its more important neighbors was to blame. Upon independence, Mogadishu was bequeathed a colonial boundary, which cut through Somali territories. This boundary, which ran through the Somali country, divides not only kith and kin but splits wholesome economic and ecological environment, which sustained the life of the local population since time immemorial. Thus, driven by social and economic imperatives, Mogadishu could not agree to the international reverence for colonial borders. Consequently, upon independence, the country became embroiled in territorial dispute with its neighbors, Ethiopia, Kenya, and France. Since all three countries were American allies, Washington could not establish good relations with Mogadishu.  

Still US-Somali relation continued forward. If it was not at its best, it was practical. The idea of severing ties was not an option to either country, especially the US. As a superpower, the country could not discount the strategically important Horn of Africa country. It had to do what was possible under the circumstance. And one thing that was possible was the so-called strategy of denial. Now, let us turn to this aspect of US policy. 

Strategy of Denial

Until recently, the Horn of Africa, much less Somalia, did not possess known natural resources, great markets, or skilled man power, which could attract US interest. However, the region was located in a strategically import part of the world. Understandably, as it concerned the area, America pursued a “policy of denial”—to block the entry of rival powers. After the War, the US was involved in the biggest fight for its life against the Soviet-led communist bloc countries. To counter the threat, Washington pursued different policies in different regions of the world. In Europe and Asia, it was the strategy of containment; and in Africa, it was a strategy of denial. Located in one of the most strategic locations in the Continent, Somalia had become a precious prize to covet for the Soviet Union. However, in the early days of independence, the former was still tied at the umbilical cord to its former colonial rulers, Italy and England. Due to political reasons, this had suddenly changed in 1963. 

In that year, three Western powers, Italy, Germany and US, offered Somalia 18 million dollars in foreign aid, and promised to boost the national army up to 6 thousand strong. Not to be outbid in this strategically important country, the Eastern bloc countries, led by Soviet Union, made a counter offer of 30 million dollars and a promise to raise the Somali military up to 10 thousand fighting men and women. To the dismay of the Kennedy Administration, Mogadishu accepted the latter offer moving ever more close to the Eastern camp. Although disappointed with the Somali decision, the US-Somali ties continued unbroken. 

Since 1963, a number of policy blunders on the part of Somalia challenged the two countries’ relationship. In fall 1969, the armed forces overthrew the civilian regime. Upon coming to power, the Military junta, led by General Siad Barre, suspended the constitution, closed down the parliament, banned political parties, adopted “scientific socialism,” and nationalized all major private corporations. The United States was further alienated in 1974, when Somalia and the Soviet Union signed the prestigious treaty of friendship, first of its kind in sub-Sahara Africa. This was followed with the granting of a naval base to the new patron, the USSR. As though these blunders were not enough, Mogadishu loaned the Somali flag to Vietnamese merchant ships. Despite all these difficulties, the two countries’ diplomatic relations were never severed. 

The US-Somali relation continued in downward spiral until 1978, when the Soviet Union began to favor Ethiopia, over its Somali ally. This act which became known the world over as the “Soviet Perfidy” finally tossed Somali back to the Western camp. Since their relations strained, the United States never totally gave up on Somalia. In fact, when he came to power in 1976, Jimmy Carter instructed his Secretary of State Cyrus Vance to “get Somalia to be our friends.” On its part, Somalia, as a small and poor country, needed a great power patron. Finally, the time has come for the two nations to patch up their differences. In early 1980s, the two countries signed a series of small treaties which transferred military and economic aid to Somalia. The total collapse of the state in 1991 suddenly killed these budding ties.  

Foreign/Humanitarian Aid

Since its independence, the United States offered economic and humanitarian aid to Somalia. In early 1960s, when the country was gripped by famine, America rushed food aid to the East African country. In 1964, the USAID constructed and funded the College of Education and extended several scholarships to Somali students. In addition, the US Peace Corps and the Mennonite Mission taught school children in remote villages in the country. After the costly 1977-78 Somali-Ethiopian War, the US provided humanitarian assistance to the war-displaced Somalis. Furthermore, Washington funded (and still does) United Nations organization and other international Non-Governmental Organizations which assist Somalia. Before the collapse of the national regime in 1991, Somalia received a large share of American aid.  

After the crumble of the state, the relationship between the two countries survived. However, since the country had no government to deal with, relations were conducted at the sub-state level. While still embroiled in civil strife, the country was hit by a massive famine in early 1990s. Within a few years time, Somalia had become a humanitarian case. To alleviate the suffering, President George Bush, the senior, launched the Operation Restore Hope in 1992. Although the project, if I may call it so, saved 300,000 to 500,000 lives, it is considered a failure the world over. Critics charge “mission creep” for the failure. The killing of 18 US Marines, and the subsequent dragging of their bodies in the streets of Mogadishu, ultimately rendered the mission untenable. Under intense political pressure, President Clinton ordered US troops out of Somalia in 1994. Finally, US-Somali relations came to a screeching halt. Still, Washington did not undertake any hostile action against our nation until the 9/11 incident. In the remainder of the presentation, we will discuss the post-9/11 US-Somali relations. 

The Post-9/11 US-Somali Relations

Since the 9/11 incident, US-Somali relations were inordinately difficult and even hostile. As we have seen earlier, this is a novel situation. Three factors seem to account for the current US animus toward Somalia:

  • The ideologization of US foreign policy;

  • Structural complexity of US foreign policy making and implementation; and

  • The low priority of Africa in US foreign policy.

Let us examine these one at a time. 

The Ideologization of US Foreign Policy

Traditional diplomacy does not recognize permanent friends or permanent enemies. The astute statesperson always keeps to the issue and temper of the time. His/her goal is to promote national interest. As a formal belief system, ideology confers “truth” to the interlocutors’ respective positions. Diplomats are blinded by their beliefs. Statecraft becomes rigid as each side is armed with “the truth.” Irrationality replaces rationality. This is the first thing wrong with US policy toward Somalia.  

Following the 9/11 incident, President Bush spoke about the war on terrorism in ideological terms: “You are either with us or against us.” Nothing in between! At the time, Somalia was in the unfortunate situation of statelessness. The majority of the people, although sympathetic to the American situation, could not effectively communicate their feelings to the United States. Some in Washington, oblivious to this fact, had determined that Somalis were in alliance with the terrorists. It never occurred to them that the country had no one to speak for it. Their suspicion was reinforced by local political opportunists (warlords and unarmed politicians) and Ethiopian propaganda operatives, who kept feeding the international media and the US Government the erroneous information of terrorist sightings in the country. The biggest tragedy occurred, when the United States, who prides itself in being guided by law, entered a contract with warlords, who are nothing more than highway men, to apprehend and render terror suspects hiding in the country. The horrendous acts that these warlords were committing against us since the early 1990s were conveniently ignored by an Administration which was blinded by the moral rectitude of its position. “We are attacked and we have the right to retaliate,” went Washington’s logic.  

The ideologization of US foreign policy caused America, not only to employ outlaws, but to abandon any sense of proportionality. The allegation that three terrorists are hiding in Somalia was sufficient for the Bush Administration to employ Ethiopian troops to invade and destroy Somalia. Had it not been for the “anti-terror dogma” the United States would not have supported the invasion of one sovereign nation by another on the pretext of apprehending three persons. To this day, Washington is blind to the horror that this proxy policy brought to millions of innocent Somalis. Even if the three terrorists were in Somalia does the fact justify the indiscriminate shelling of a civilian population? The atrocities, which the Ethiopian army has and still is committing at the behest of the United States, is dogmatic and, at the same time, disproportional for the task of apprehending three individuals. In short, it is outright irrational! 

The Structural Complexity of American Foreign Policy Making

Although the State Department is responsible for the development and the execution of US foreign policy, others can also influence it. These include the National Security Advisor, the intelligence community, the Defense Department, lobbyists, constituents, corporations, and even religious groups. This is not by design, but a reflection of the sophistication of American society. In fact, I venture to say that the State Department was opposed to the invasion and occupation of Somalia by Ethiopia last fall. The policy debacle is driven by others, the most obvious of which is the Department of Defense. My Somali friends tell me that the US embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, which was also assigned Somali affairs, was for a long time against the injection of Ethiopian forces in Somalia. Simply put, there are too many cooks in the US foreign policy kitchen. This is why the current US policy toward our country is hostile and destructive. 

The Low Priority of Africa in US Foreign Policy

Unlike Europe, Asia and Latin America, Africa is not too attractive to the US. With the exception of few countries, the Continent is plagued by poverty and marred tribal violence. Without a rival power, who is interested in African, like the former Soviet Union, the United State assigns a low priority to the Continent. So, Washington sends inexperienced diplomatic corps to Africa, where they train for more complicated assignments or wait for their retirement. While the most talented and most experienced diplomats are assigned elsewhere, African is sent the least experienced and the least talented. This is even more so in the Horn Region, where the US interest is very limited. Therefore, given the fact, you can imagine what an old country, like Ethiopia, can do to cajole and manipulate such gullible personnel. Perhaps, this is why every junior diplomat or admiral who visits Addis Ababa unfailingly comes out parroting the message Ethiopia likes to send to the outside world. In my opinion, US policy toward Somalia will continue to be inimical to us until we develop greater national capacity. 


  • Somalis should continue to engage US policy making officials, lest they hear only from Ethiopians and their lobbyists. We should use all the tools of communication that are at our disposal to reach and influence our target personnel.

  • We should engage our co-nationals who think that Ethiopia is fighting their war. Ethiopia is not fighting for any Somali clan. Rather it is fighting against all Somalis for her own national interest.

  • We should strive to create a modern society that can command international respect. The way to achieve this is through social development. Once a person’s faculties are developed, he/she will defend her interest without anyone telling them to do so.

  • We should extend political, moral and material support to those who are resisting Ethiopian occupation. They should know that the Somali people everywhere are behind them.

  • We should not relent until we drive the last Ethiopian soldier out of our country.

 Thank you very much, and may Allah bless you. 

By: Prof. Hassan O. Mahadallah, Southern University, USA

*Prof. Mahadallah read this analysis at the Minneapolis Conference on Nov 24, 2007..

Faafin: | Dec 11, 2007


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