The world's No. 1 failed state is crumbling and crazy-dangerousWhenever one becomes discouraged with life in Ourtown - its potholes and falling masonry, its war between drivers and cyclists, its noisome politics and bizarre language quarrels - one can always, at the end of the day, crack a cold one and sink into the sofa while murmuring gratefully, "Well, at least this isn't Mogadishu."This will certainly have occurred to readers of National Geographic. The September issue has an outstanding piece on the world's No. 1 failed state, Somalia. It is a stunner - especially the photographs by Pascal Maitre, Paris-based but a five-time visitor to the country and its crumbling, crazy-dangerous capital.Older correspondents will shed a tear for the days before religious war and clan violence tore the place apart. Thirty years ago, when I visited to report on a refugee crisis, Mogadishu itself was a pretty safe place featuring elegant buildings left by the former colonial ruler, Italy.Today much of the city is rubble, its streets a feral cockpit where only the unwise venture after dark. Hotels along the Indian Ocean beachfront are shattered hulks.That was where the old Anglo-American Beach Club was located. Foreigners, mostly Italian, would gather there to commiserate about Somali bureaucrats whose perfection of the 10-second attention span ensured that nothing, absolutely nothing, ever got done. An official speaking to you while simultaneously signing his name to documents would actually halt his pen in mid-signature to discuss a new matter with a new arrival. It drove the Italians nuts.The evidence of near-madness was clear at the Beach Club: They were mixing their gin with Fanta orange.The decline of Somalia is one of the saddest stories of our time. It almost makes one pine for dictators. The country was no paradise, but it did enjoy relative stability under a buck-toothed general named Mohammed Siad Barre, who took power in a coup in 1969 and held it until ousted in 1991.Barre ran a taut ship in which opponents did not prosper. He seems to have had a nose for the ferocious, deeply-rooted clan politics of Somali society, as noted in a stark proverb:
Me and my clan against the world;
Me and my family against my clan;
Me and my brother against my family;
Me against my brother.
Since Barre's downfall, there has been almost constant warfare in the Horn of Africa. Life has been hell for millions - although, it must be noted, more hellish for the inhabitants of the former Italian Somalia, in the south, than those of the former British Somalia in the north. Known, somewhat confusingly, as Somaliland, this northern territory today is effectively independent and relatively sane. No one is quite sure why, or how long the blessed surcease will last.
It is a harsh, arid land, Somalia, burdened by drought, heavy weapons, brutish leaders, female circumcision and now pirates (pirates!) openly plying their trade along the coast. Islamic terrorists are on the rise; security experts warn that Somalia could become a safe haven for Al-Qa'ida, as happened in Afghanistan in 2001. Foreigners are kidnapped for ransom (including Canadian freelance journalist Amanda Lindhout, who has been held for 13 months since being abducted together with an Australian colleague on the same road, and the same day, as National Geographic's reporter and photographer passed with difficulty).
Here are a few figures. Population: about 9.1 million. Number killed in civil warfare: about l million. Top 5 ranking in 2009 Failed States Index issued by the Fund for Peace and Foreign Policy magazine: Somalia, Zimbabwe, Sudan, Chad, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Number of Somalis estimated by recent UN report to be in need of humanitarian assistance: 3.76 million.It was an earlier crisis that took me to Somalia in 1979. Mohammed Siad Barre had made a bad mistake by invading Ethiopian territory in the Ogaden desert, counting on the Americans to aid him against Ethiopia and its Communist allies, Cuba and the Soviet Union. When the Americans did not come through, a counter-attack pushed the Somali army back to its borders.Then the Ethiopians began a brutal cleansing, driving hundreds of thousands of ethnic Somalis from their homes in the desert. The victims told wrenching (and believable) stories of torture, rape and executions, villages put to the torch, camels slaughtered and, that most terrible of desert crimes, the poisoning of waterholes.Meanwhile, the so-called Western Somali Liberation Front was carrying on a guerrilla campaign in the Ogaden. At its headquarters, a peeling back room in Mogadishu, the Front's secretary-general added an unusual item to his charges against the much-hated Cubans. It seemed that Fidel's boys, missing the delights of home and Havana, were wont to have, er, unnatural relations with donkeys in the desert. Chuckles all round.
I took notes gravely. You never know.
Norman Webster is a former editor of The Gazette.