AS Simon Barber of Johannesburg's Business Day suggests, Americans appear desperate for some action designed to remove from their television screens visions of emaciated African babies and mothers that threaten to spoil their Christmases. In a characteristic style-over-substance, media-driven gesture, President Bush has launched an ill-conceived plan with no stated strategic objective that may recklessly risk American casualties.
Americans imagine the United States to be on a mercy mission in Somalia. Will they support Mr. Bush's gesture when US soldiers are killed and wounded?
Somalia is only one of a number of famine-plagued African nations. Famine and civil conflict in sub-Saharan Africa's largest country, Sudan, cost 250,000 deaths in 1988. Two million Sudanese remain in danger of starvation, more than are at risk in Somalia.
Feeding the hungry is, at best, a short-term solution. Following a two-track program to deal with the crisis, the US Agency for International Development and its Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance are preoccupied solely with food relief, while the State Department is responsible for handling the political impasse. There is the thorny political question of northern Somaliland, formerly a British colony, which declared its independence from southern Somalia, once an Italian colony. A resolution of the c omplex political problems is the key to the humanitarian crisis and should be the US's primary emphasis.
At present, looted food, amounting to 80 percent of overall humanitarian food supply, is sold at a 500 percent price mark-up, while merchants hoard food to inflate prices for the Somali middle class who can afford it. Food is also sold on the international market for weapons. Food relief thus exacerbates the fighting, by providing those with arms the means to fortify their weaponry.
The backdrop to this imbroglio is a feud between two former members of the United Somali Congress, each belonging to rival sub-clans of the Hawiye clan, which helped oust strongman Maj. Gen. Mohamed Siad Barre from power in January 1991. Mr. Siad Barre's government once was backed by the US, seeking to offset Soviet support for Ethiopia's Marxist dictator, Mengistu Haile Mariam.
Siad Barre disrupted the traditionally decentralized government and homogenous society by sowing dissension among clans and dispensing political favors to his own Marehan sect. After Siad Barre's departure, the country slipped into anarchy. Two Mogadishu-based warlords, Gen. Mohamed Farah Aideed, a former ambassador under Siad Barre, and Mohamed Ali Mahdi (who professes to be Somalia's president), continue to slug it out in the capital.
While few Africa analysts object to urgent humanitarian aid when feasible, some believe the US should not attempt forcibly to solve Somalia's problems. African intellectuals like Ghanaian economist Dr. George Ayittey, an American University professor, vehemently protest the treatment of Africa by the West as patronizing and racist. Africans must grow up, he urges, and learn to help themselves.
Why, he asks, doesn't the Organization of African Unity try to resolve the Somali crisis? Dr. Ayittey maintains that many of the arguments Westerners use to justify intervention in Somalia are the same ones European powers gave for colonizing Africa.
Michael Clough, director of the World Policy Institute and an adviser to President-elect Clinton, argues in his book "Free at Last," on Africa policy after the cold war, that "the main effect of international involvement in the post-independence era has been to assist African rulers to consolidate their power and insulate themselves from the demands and pressures of civil society.... Africans are neither hopeless nor helpless."
A cogent case can be made that longstanding aid reduces the accountability of governments for their own mismanagement - delaying needed reforms and allowing them to ignore basic human needs. Consider Ethiopia's deposed tyrant Mengistu, who squandered $150 million to $200 million to celebrate his 10th anniversary in power. His celebration coincided with the receipt of millions of dollars worth of international food donations, which either rotted on docks or fed his brutal army, while his people continued to starve to death.
HE same critics railing now about starving peasants and blaming the US for the reign of Siad Barre will undoubtedly be demanding that the US overthrow whoever becomes his successor. Moreover, if the US appears to select the next Somali strongman, it should expect that he will be destined to be contemptuously labeled a US puppet. However well-intended Bush's initiative, the lack of concern of Somali warlords for the plight of their starving countrymen, coupled with the proliferation of Soviet AK-47s in th e country and readiness to use them, does not bode well for the country's future.
Unlike Iraq, Somalia is an inappropriate testing ground for high-tech Pentagon weapons yielding minimal American casualties. Enemy forces will be mostly teenage boys and multiple rival gangs with Russian arms whose unscrupulous commanders have opposed a UN peacekeeping mission and authorized attacks on relief convoys.
The rules of engagement are yet to be decided: Will American forces be restricted to firing when fired upon, or handicapped by political restraints as they were in Vietnam? Seldom broached is the delicate subject of whether US Marines would feel comfortable in a defensive deployment mode which parallels Beirut in 1983 and poses equally dangerous risks.