Why Somalis are closely watching the US elections

Just as people across the United States will be waiting eagerly for the results of Tuesday’s voting, thousands of kilometres away, on the far eastern corner of Africa, Somalis will also be closely watching the hard-fought matchup between Donald Trump and Joe Biden.

It hardly comes as a surprise. A country of some 15 million people, Somalia has for decades felt the impact of US policies – both directly and indirectly.

“Ever since Somalia got independence in 1960, America and its leaders have tried to have a strong foothold in the country,” said Hassan Sheikh Ali, a lecturer of international relations at Somali National University.

The main reason? Somalia’s “strategic location”.

Bounded by the Indian Ocean to the east and the Gulf of Aden to the north, the Horn of Africa country occupies a significant geopolitical position along major trade routes. Up to 30,000 ships, carrying goods from crude oil to iron ore, pass annually through the Gulf of Aden, a key transit zone for maritime traffic between the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea.

“America is in Somalia to protect its commercial interest,” said Hassan.

The US’s engagement in Somalia remained steadfast throughout the Cold War when it competed with the Soviet Union for influence and control. “Somalia first sided with the West, then the USSR, before switching sides yet again in the 1980s and going with the West,” said Hassan.

In the late 1980s, Washington deployed military aid and trainers to stem the tide of a rebellion threatening the government of autocratic ruler Siad Barre.

But in 1991, after 21 years in power, Siad was overthrown by rival clan militias. As fighters ransacked the country, the US closed its embassy in Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, and watched from afar as chaos reigned.

The next year, Somalia was hit by a severe drought that led to a catastrophic famine. The militias pillaged whatever little resources the country had, including international food convoys that had arrived as part of a United Nations-led humanitarian effort.

In late 1992, as hundreds of Somalis died of starvation and thousands more were on the brink, the UN approved a proposal by then-US President George H W Bush to deploy US combat troops with the goal of protecting aid workers.

But it would not be long before the operation ended in a bloodbath.

In early October 1993, Somali fighters loyal to rebel leader Mohamed Farah Aidid engaged US forces on the streets of Mogadishu and shot down two US Black Hawk helicopters. Hundreds of Somali militia fighters and 18 US soldiers were killed in the so-called Battle of Mogadishu.

Television footage showed the bodies of the dead US soldiers being dragged through the capital’s streets. Soon after, newly elected President Bill Clinton withdrew all US troops – who at the height of the mission numbered some 28,000 – from the country.

“It was a disaster. Instead of helping, they [US forces] caused more misery,” Hassan said. “The US has never helped the people here. Their actions have always led to more harm than good. But that has never stopped American leaders from meddling in Somalia,” he added.

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