Envoy to Somalia
by Peter Bridges
SEVERAL DAYS BEFORE CHRISTMAS I RECEIVED WORD that the president, Mohamed Siad Barre, would receive me and my credentials at Villa Somalia, once the residence of Italian colonial governors and now the president's heavily fortified office and residence complex. I reviewed an honor guard, walked into the most elegant building in Somalia, and met the man who had been running Somalia for fifteen years. He had been born into a nomad family in the Ogaden when birth records were unknown, but he was probably about seventy. He was tall and thin, with a small square mustacheI thought to myself, Chaplin or Fuehrer?and he spoke good English to me, although I had supposed we would speak Italian.
The State Department had cabled main points they wanted me to make, and left the rest to me. I told the President that Somalia was important for us; I was the first ambassador appointed since President Reagan's reelection. Stability in the Horn of Africa and the peaceful development of Somalia were high priorities for Washington. The Department had told me to point up the size of our aid programs. I did so, but then went on to say that what we were doing should complement Somalia's own efforts; we wanted Somalia to help itself on the economic front. I was personally delighted to be here, and I intended to travel widely and meet as many people as I could. I said this last because I was not going to let Siad Barre and his people restrict my contacts, as I was sure he would like to do.
Siad replied that he deeply admired President Reagan; Somalia was "an allied country" and he hoped for much greater American support. He warned me about what he called quislings and traitors. There were a lot of them in any country and they spewed out misinformation. When I wanted the facts I should come see him, at any time. He might ask to see me rather late at night; such were his habits.
I was thinking hard as he spoke. I knew about his habits from my predecessors; Siad worked through most of the night before going to bed, and had often called my predecessors in after midnight. Somalia from our point of view was a friendly country, not an allied one. I was certainly not going to agree to stay clear of "quislings." So I said that I had just come from three years in Italy, a country closely allied with the United States, but I could not imagine any President of Italy speaking of our President in warmer terms than he had just used. As to assistance, we would do what we could. I intended to report to Washington frankly and accurately on Somalia, and to do this I intended to see a broad range of people. I hoped this would not occasion reports to the President that I was seeing quislings. And I looked forward to seeing the President frequently, and would come willingly at any hour.
So we parted. Tom Hull, who headed our U.S. Information Service, had invited me to a film showing together with a number of Somalis. Soon I was sitting in the Hulls' garden watching It's A Wonderful Life. And so it was: Jimmy Stewart on the screen, the Southern Cross above us, the smell of flowers in the air, and I had just been matching wits with the President of Somalia. I thought I had come off all right.
By the time I left Mogadishu for Christmas in Rome I had met several Somali ministers and a number of other foreign ambassadors. The thought came to me that since our aid program was larger than that of any other country, larger than those of the United Nations and the World Bank, I was in Somali eyes the most important foreigner in that Texas-sized country. I was not sure I liked that thought. We were doing good things in Somalia, on both the civilian and the military side. The defensive weapons we provided would not permit Somalia to invade Ethiopia again, but they helped the Somalis defend themselves against Mengistu's troops and Soviet tanks, a serious threat. Still, I did not like military dictators like Mohamed Siad Barre. And there was a rapacious side to the Somalis. Siad Barre's insistence that Somalia needed still more American aid was echoed by every minister that I called on, and many of their requests were clearly not justified. William Fullerton, the British ambassador, a canny Arabist with a wife from Brooklyn, told me to read Richard Burton's 1856 account of his first visit to Somalia. Burton said Arabs called Somalia Bilad wa issi, the Land of Give Me Something. The longer you are here, said Bill Fullerton, the more you will think that name is apt. He was right.
After I left Mogadishu for Rome, a sizable armed force from Ethiopia crossed the Somali border in the north. I cut short my stay and returned to Somalia. My wife, who worked for the Internal Revenue Service, would be coming out to Mogadishu in June after the tax season ended, but our four children would soon be scattered. In the succeeding decade there would be times when the six of us found ourselves on four different continents. I was sorry to miss the Rabbs' reception and lunch with Minister Scalfaro. Just after my return the defense minister, Mohamed Ali Samantar, summoned me and ambassadors of other Western countries. There had been new skirmishing on the border; the Ethiopians seemed to be preparing massive new attacks. Somalia, I was not surprised to hear, wanted more help from its friends. I was pleased when Bill Fullerton rose and asked the minister why he thought Mengistu's army would attack when it faced major insurrections in Tigre and Eritrea, as well as continued famine. I went back to the chancery and, after a talk with our defense attache, John Ryan, cabled Washington what Samantar had told us. I did not recommend we increase or even accelerate our military assistance, which in any case would have been difficult to do. A week later Samantar found the situation less critical; he went off on a long foreign tour. Soon we ascertained that the invaders had not been Ethiopians but Somali dissidents, armed and aided, to be sure, by the Ethiopians.
I got well and called on Siad Barre's second vice president, Hussein Kulmie Afrah, an older man with a quiet way. He was in government as senior representative of the Hawiye clans, who lived in the region from Mogadishu north for several hundred miles. The later Mogadishu "warlords," Ali Mahdi and General Mohamed Farah Aydid, were Hawiye leaders. Kulmie did not accomplish much; perhaps Siad Barre would not let him. But he had good ideas. He thought this sunny, windy country should develop wind and solar power, rather than beg oil cargoes from the Saudis. Villagers should be taught to make adobe bricks, rather than use precious wood. There was an enormous potential for coastal fisheries; small harbors could be built at modest cost, and rough roads to link them with existing roads inland. And the green revolution could come to Somalia, with higher-yielding grains and better animal breeds. This all made sense to me.
Soon I got to know the Catholic bishop, Monsignor Salvatore Colombo, who had served here since his 1946 ordination in Milan. His flock comprised only several hundred Somali Catholics, plus a thousand Italians. Siad Barre permitted no Catholic proselytizingbut was happy to accept Catholic aid. There were sixty Italian and Indian nuns in Mogadishu, providing the only corps of skilled nurses. The Caritas agency provided Somali villages with sturdy, easily repaired hand pumps for village wells; they needed neither electricity nor diesel fuel, always scarce commodities. If, the Bishop said, he had learned anything in his decades here, it was to keep aid projects simple if they were to outlast the foreigners who brought them and soon left. In July 1989, three years after I left, the Bishop was murdered in his cathedral. The nuns left the country. The cathedral was vandalized and burned. The perpetrators may have been inspired by anti-Christian feelings, but I saw it all as part of the great horror visited on Somalia, almost all of whose victims were not Christians but Muslims.
The director of our Agency for International Development mission was Louis Cohen, an experienced officer who ran the largest element in our Embassy, so large that AID people did not like to be called part of the Embassy. Lou Cohen did not much disagree with Kulmie's and the Bishop's ideas, but our AID program was what it was and it was hard to get Washington to change course. It was Cohen who brought to my attention in 1985 one development project which he recommended we terminate quickly. I was quick to agree. The project was to set up health clinics in a dozen Somali towns where there were no clinics and no trained medical personnel. The American company which had won the contract would provide buildings for the clinics and train Somalis to staff them. They had shipped to Somalia the prefabricated clinic buildings. But the contract did not require the company to send staff to erect the buildings, and the Somalis proved incapable of doing so. There was more. The buildings were designed to be air-conditioned. With low ceilings and small windows, they had to be air-conditioned to be used in the Somali climate. But, as the Bishop had noted, electricity was at best a scarce item in a Somali town. Even if there was a town generator there was often no fuel to run it. We terminated the project, saving the American taxpayer perhaps as much as had been wasted.
Many of our developmental aid programs, which concentrated on agriculture and animal husbandry, did make sense. We were pushing the green revolution. We were helping Somali farmers to import seeds which increased yields by fifty to seventy-five percent; we supported an artificial insemination program which had already improved cattle herds; we were teaching Somali herdsmen how best to protect a fragile environment threatened by the increase in herd numbers. When someday we left, would the Somalis carry on, or revert to traditional ways? Other foreign donors faced the same question, and made similar mistakes. The European Community provided an expensive network of automatic, diesel-powered weather-reporting stations which for the first time would provide the Ministry of Agriculture with nationwide temperatures and rainfall. The stations were too sophisticated and there was no more fuel to run them than there had been for our clinics. Only one or two of the stations ever sent in data.
I soon decided that the sensible thing for us to do was to concentrate on helping Somali education. In 1963 AID had built the teachers' college at Lafoole outside Mogadishu. It still functioned, but the Somalis had spent nothing on upkeep and the buildings were in bad shape. AID had recently thought up a way to generate Somali shillings to renovate the college, but AID was not focusing on education. Yet if we were to help the Somalis effectively to master their problems and become truly independentand economically, at least, they were becoming ever more dependent on donor governmentswe should, I concluded, put all possible effort into teaching them what they needed to know. That might be called simplistic; I thought it fundamental. It was not the direction in which AID was headed, and I got nowhere.
By 1985 our position as top aid donor was being eclipsed by the Italians. It began with Marco Panella, head of the Italian Radicals, one of the smallest parties in the Italian parliament. The Radicals had successfully championed divorce and abortion in Italy. In the 1980s Panella needed a new cause and found it in foreign aid. Italy was one of the seven top industrialized countries, but was doing little to help the third world. Panella began hunger strikes; not long ones, but enough for media coverage. He shamed the country, and parliament appropriated over two billion dollars for additional foreign aid. It was decided to spend most of this on Italy's former colonies. About a billion dollars was allocated for projects in Somalia. Other Italian parties got involved. The Radicals were outside the governing coalition; the Christian Democrats and the Socialists ran it. Christian Democratic interests would handle aid projects in Ethiopia; the Socialists, whose leader Bettino Craxi was prime minister, would work Somalia.
This became a dirty scene. Italian firms linked to the Socialists got the Somalia contracts, working through the Italy-Somalia Chamber of Commerce headed by Craxi's brother-in-law, Paolo Pillitteri. A quarter of a billion dollars was spent on an unnecessary road in northern Somalia. Many more millions went to renovate a useless pharmaceutical plant, several large fishing boats that never went to sea, and a fertilizer plant which never produced a bag of fertilizer. A former Somali minister testified later in Italy that ten percent of the money had gone into the pockets of Siad Barre's family and cronies.1 In 1985-86 my good friend the Italian ambassador, Mario Manca, could no doubt sense the corruption in the air. We all could. But clearly the schemers were not going to take into their confidence this ambassador, who had won a reputation for standing up to bad guys when, as consul general in London, he had acted heroically during a terrorist incident.
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1. See "The Italian Connection: How Rome Helped Ruin Somalia," by Wolfgang Achtner in the Washington Post, January 24, 1993. The last Italian ambassador to Somalia, Mario Sica, who arrived there in 1990, gives a defensive account of Italy's aid programs in his Operazione Somalia (Venice: Marsili Editori, 1994) .