Somalia, Palestine, and France: Ghost Countries for Ghost Countries

On October 31, Somalia supported Palestine’s accession to full member of UNESCO. In other words, a state that vanished from the map twenty years ago and survives only as a diplomatic fiction was allowed to cast a vote for a non-state.

I can’t think of a better case to present against UNESCO, the UN, and the other world organizations. They are not just divorced from reality: they nurture it.

The Republic of Somalia existed for about thirty years, from 1960 to 1990. It was set up by UN experts as a merger of two former colonial territories: the Italian colony of Somalia, turned into a UN trusteeship in 1945 though still under Italian administration; and the British protectorate of Somaliland.

Indeed, Italian Somalia and British Somaliland looked like good matches. They shared a common language, Soomali, and a common religion, Islam.

What experts failed to understand, however, was that Soomali is a galaxy of related dialects rather than a functional vernacular language. They also failed to recognize that Somali Islam broke up -- as Islam does everywhere -- into many sects and subsects, Sunni, Shia, and Sufi, and that tribes or clans play more significant role in that part of the world than nation-building or anything related to Western-style nations-states.

Moreover, they underestimated the impact of colonization, especially among the elites: inasmuch as they were educated, former Italian subjects were Italianized, and former British protégés were Anglicized. Worlds apart.

For nine years, there was a serious attempt to make the Republic of Somalia work. Then in 1969, the Italian-educated second regularly elected president of the country, Abdirashid Ali Shermarke, was shot by one of his bodyguards.

Within days, a military junta headed by General Mohamed Syad Barre took over and established a regime patterned after Soviet Russia and Communist China. Traditional Islam, Somali nationalism, and "scientific Marxism" were blended into a state-enforced ideology, backed by a single-party administration.

In 1977, Barre attacked Ethiopia -- a neighboring country ridden by hunger, revolution, and civil war since 1973 -- in a bid to liberate Ogaden, an ethnically Somali province, and incorporate it into a Greater Somalia. The attempt misfired: the USSR, which had hitherto supported Barre’s regime, sided with Ethiopia’s rising Red dictator General Mengistu Haile Mariam. Cuban Soviet proxies crushed the Somalian invaders and drove them back home. In order to survive, Barre mended fences with the United States, without relinquishing his Muslim National Socialism. Military campaigns against several rebellious clans took near genocidal dimensions.

In 1991, Barre was finally ousted. But Somalia collapsed as a state by the same token. Somaliland formally restored its independence and functioned again as a decently managed country: over the years it has won a measure of de facto international recognition, like, say, Taiwan, without being admitted to the UN or other similar organizations.

Puntland, the northern part of the former Italian Somalia, has gradually achieved de facto independence as well, except for one reservation: it claims to be merely an autonomous province within a still-to-be-created Federal Republic of Somalia. Several other Somalian provinces have more or less opted for a similar status.

As for the southern half of the former Italian Somalia, it has disintegrated over the years into one of the most chaotic places in the world.

Mogadishu, the capital city, and most of the coastline are ruled by warrior clans loosely affiliated to radical Islamist networks, including al-Qaeda. Piracy is endemic in what is supposed to be Somalian national waters or adjacent international waters. Inland Somalia has reverted to the Stone Age, except for some Sharia. Demography is exuberant: from 2.2 million in 1960 to 10 million now, and 45% of all Somalians are currently under 14. Hunger is rampant.

The U.S. and other countries attempted once -- the Restore Hope operation in 1992-1993 -- to bring back civilization (law, order, personal safety) to Somalia. It failed, naturally. Neither the U.S. nor its partners were willing to countenance the truth: civilization starts with a display of naked, brutish, power. First you break heads. Then, God willing, you may consider counting them. There is no other way. Since the U.S. and other countries were unwilling to break heads in Somalia, some locals took over the job.

And yet, there is something called the Government of Somalia which still enjoys full international recognition, maintains embassies and diplomatic representations (thanks to Western funding), and takes part in votes at the UN and at UNESCO. And Somalia voted for Palestine at UNESCO. And will vote again for it at the UN and anywhere else.

If Somalia is a failed state, or a collapsed state, or a former state, Palestine is as of today a non-state.