Britain meddles in Somalia at its peril – don’t make al-Shabaab stronger

David Cameron’s deployment of troops, even in a peacekeeping capacity, will be counterproductive

David Cameron announced this week that he is sending troops to Somaliato assist in efforts to counter al‑Shabaab. The very real possibility, however, is that Britain may end up helping the Islamist group to build its support among local people.

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Cameron has made Somalia one of his foreign policy pet projects. He hosted international conferences on Somalia in London in 2012 and 2013. Some of his top officials visited Mogadishu to show interest. He has promised generous amounts of aid saying the challenges faced by Somalia are issues that must concern Britain. It is worth noting too, that a company chaired by a former Conservative party leader, Michael Howard, has signed oil deals with Somalia.

Last week, I watched with amusement as Britain’s ambassador to Somalia wished Somalis a happy Eid. It may have seemed like a clever idea, but it will take a bit more than a few phrases of badly spoken Somali to convince people that Britain cares.

I believe that Somalis are deeply sceptical about Cameron’s real motives. To understand their suspicions, you have to recall Britain’s colonial record. British people may say: “That’s history, get over it.” But Britain still commemorates its own “heroes”, remembering those who lost their lives defending the UK. Somalis too have heroes who defended their nation and they know their history.

Decisions made by the British colonial rulers affect Somalis to this day. Somali territories were given away to Ethiopia and Kenya. The north-eastern region of Kenya for example is inhabited by more than 2 million ethnic Somalis. When Britain pulled out, the population voted overwhelmingly to join Somalia, but their wishes were ignored.

I wish Cameron would visit Garissa and Wajir in modern Kenya to see the terrible conditions Somalis now live in. It is underdeveloped compared with other parts of Kenya and there are widespread reports of extrajudicial killings.

Survivors of the Wagala massacre, where thousands were killed, are still alive to share their stories.

In the Ogaden region of eastern Ethiopia, some 5 million inhabitants are estimated to be of Somali descent. The 1977 war between Somalia and Ethiopia had its origins in their fight for self-determination from Ethiopia. Somalis still blame Britain for helping Ethiopia prolong its “occupation” by funding and training Ethiopian forces to maintain the status quo.

The artificial boundaries it created in this region mean that families need visas to visit each other. Britain’s past actions have made many Somalis foreigners in their own land.

For those born in Somalia who have personally benefited from living or working in Britain, we are naturally grateful for what it has given us. But we cannot ignore the plight of our people in Somalia.

I have yet to meet a Somali, in politics, in civil society or otherwise, who genuinely believes Cameron is acting in good faith. I understand that the prime minister meets Somali politicians who, as diplomats, won’t share their true feelings, but opinions among ordinary Somalis are not so reserved.

Of course, I am not suggesting Britain is to blame for all Somalia’s ills. But Britain’s historical actions there have caused immense suffering and now history is at risk of repeating itself.

Nearly every Somali knows the words of poets like Mohammed Abdille Hassanwhom the British called “the Mad Mullah”. To Somalis, Hassan is a hero precisely because he resisted the British. And now, al‑Shabaab use his poems to rally support among the Somali public for their cause.

True, in the past few years, the Islamists have been losing territory. They no longer rule major cities, although they still control important parts of the country. But if al-Shabaab is given a new reason to say: “Let’s fight against our historical enemies”, that is a message that will resonate with many Somalis. African Union forces in Somalia are not popular, especially those from Ethiopia and Kenya. Many Somalis see them as part of the problem and puppets of the western powers. They believe their objective is to prevent Somalia ever becoming united and powerful. Britain’s decision to work with these unpopular foreigners will, in my view, be perceived as an anti-Somali agenda.

Al-Shabaab was born when Ethiopia invaded Somalia in 2006 and some still see the group as a resistance movement. That is why deploying British troops could help these militants recruit more fighters and receive financial and moral support.

Great leaders are those who learn from past mistakes. Cameron’s forefathers brought great misery on the Somali people. He should be redressing these wrongs, not inflicting more militarisation on them. What we need is peace. We need assistance in building roads, schools and hospitals. Our country is in a strategic corner of the world. It is rich in natural resources. For once, let’s try to see the mutual benefit and work together for the good of both nations. Cameron should rethink this decision. If he goes ahead he will, I believe, succeed only in making al-Shabaab stronger.

By Jamal Osman

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