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July 7, 2011 / calebdresser

Lessons from Anarchy: Introduction

The media has done a great disservice to the Horn of Africa. If you ask most Americans what they know about Somalia, they will probably mention pirates, jihad, and Black Hawk Down. Those with a slightly longer memory might mention war, drought, and famine. The popular image of this region has become a dark mirror into which we look to congratulate ourselves on the success of our civilization.

This is tremendously unfair, both to the Somalis and to anyone seeking to understand what is really going on here. The news stories and sensationalism are true as far as they go, but in reporting only the violence they miss the more important story: this is one of the most unusual places on the planet. There are lessons to be learned here that could provide valuable guidance elsewhere in the world.

If we are to learn these lessons, we must put aside our prejudices and examine this story from the beginning. The Horn of Africa has been inhabited since before the first brick was laid in the cities of Mesopotamia; some of the paintings on rocks in the desert may be as much as 10,000 years old. Throughout this lengthy history, most of the people living here have been herders. In the early years, they herded the cows pictured in the region’s cave art; later, as the climate dried up, they switched to goats, sheep, and camels. The social patterns associated with herding have had a significant impact on the history of the region, an impact that will be examined in subsequent posts.

Over the course of time, trade, agriculture, and settled life have come and gone throughout greater Somalia. Arab traders and Somali fishermen built settlements and market towns along the coast almost as soon as they had boats. Turkey later established a presence along the Red Sea, leaving elegant examples of Ottoman architecture standing in the coastal desert. More recently, Somalia was carved up and colonized by Europeans during the scramble for Africa in the late nineteenth century. The French acquired Djibouti, the British claimed British Somaliland and a portion of what is now north-eastern Kenya, and the Italians established a colony along the Indian Ocean with its capital at Mogadishu.

Appearances aside, this was not a simple land grab. Just as it is today, the Horn was a region of high strategic value. Djibouti provided the French with a deepwater harbour and coaling station on the Red Sea – prime territory with the opening of the Suez Canal. Similarly, the herds of Somaliland provided food security for the British garrison in Aden and the Italians obtained a major port city on the Indian Ocean. For each of the colonial powers, it was an arrangement that furthered their imperial goals. However, in setting up their desert fiefdoms, they drew a set of neat, geometric lines across the brush-land and desert that would come to have profound consequences for the peoples that lived astride them.

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