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Proletarian issue 47 (April 2012)
Somali oil: black gold and imperial conquest
The imperialist drive to monopolise Africa’s resources is intensifying.
Discussing imperialism in the years since Lenin’s seminal work on the subject, [1] the noted progressive US economist Harry Magdoff remarked:

One of the features of imperialism that persists unabated to this day is the reliance of the giant corporation [and consequently its home nation] for its monopolistic position, including the size of its profits, on foreign sources of raw materials. What is new in today’s imperialism is that the United States [and many of the other imperialist nations besides] has become a ‘have-not’ [ie, a net-importer] nation for a wide-range of both common and rare minerals.” [2]

Magdoff was writing in the late 1960s, at a time when the predominant foreign policy interests of the United States were concerned with recapturing lost markets in East Asia, but the relevance of his remarks to the 21st century are immediately apparent.

Securing energy supplies

The run-up to the 2012 American presidential elections has seen a number of debates centred around the issue of America’s dependency on foreign raw materials and, in particular, its dependency on foreign oil. Both parties, Republican and Democrat, are agreed that foreign oil-dependency is a major issue, and both favour developing domestic sources of energy – in the case of the Republicans, this takes the form of the dwindling domestic oil reserves, [3] in the case of the Democrats this takes the form of alternative energies such as nuclear, hydroelectric and biofuels.

President Barack Obama made the case for the Democrats’ plan in his State of the Union address, delivered in January of this year:

“We’re issuing a challenge. We’re telling America’s scientists and engineers that if they assemble teams of the best minds in their fields, and focus on the hardest problems in clean energy, we’ll fund the Apollo Projects of our time.

“At the California Institute of Technology, they’re developing a way to turn sunlight and water into fuel for our cars. At Oak Ridge National Laboratory, they’re using supercomputers to get a lot more power out of our nuclear facilities. With more research and incentives, we can break our dependence on oil with biofuels, and become the first country to have 1 million electric vehicles on the road by 2015.” [4]

These fine words mask the harsh reality of bourgeois realpolitik. As Magdoff put it:

What may seem dramatic in the laboratory or in a pilot plant is often a far cry from what is needed in practice to transform an entire industry. Managers of business [and the bourgeois politicians who represent them] may plan for the future, but they live in the present. Any president of a big corporation [or a big country, for that matter] who did not aggressively pursue acquisition of foreign leases for raw materials because in the historical long-run a domestic substitute will probably be found, would most properly be fired from his job [or not re-elected].” [2]

So while in his domestic addresses President Obama may speak of clean energy and domestic self-sufficiency, in his foreign policy he must act aggressively to secure new sources of the same dirty, foreign energy that prompted his predecessors to wage bloody wars of conquest. He is joined in the fray by the leaders of the other great imperialist nations – in particular Britain and France – whose domestic energy needs are also at a crucial tipping point after being hit hard by the recent move to halt Iranian exports. [5]

If imperialism is to survive, it needs to monopolise all sources of black gold insofar as it is able, not only to secure supplies for its own needs, but to deny vital energy to its rivals, especially China. To this end, it has been gradually extending its focus beyond the Middle East to the original victim of the white man’s burden – Africa. We saw a key component of this shift last year with the invasion of Libya and the toppling of the anti-imperialist government of Muammar Gaddafi.

Gaddafi’s crime, as readers of Proletarian will now be well aware, was not ‘massacring his own people’ (as western news agencies fraudulently claimed) but, rather, seeking an independent path of development for his own country and for Africa as a whole.

Back in 2009, when he was elected head of the African Union, Gaddafi pledged “to achieve the United States of Africa” – a new interlinked regional trading bloc that would encourage the development of strong, sovereign nations, free from the influence of imperialist powers. Clearly, the Colonel had to go. [6]

Controlling African oil

With Gaddafi out the picture, the imperialists have removed a major impediment to their wholesale rape of Africa’s natural resources. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the archetypal ‘failed state’ – Somalia. According to the Financial Times, the situation in Somalia is currently best characterised as “a three-headed hydra of terrorist training camps, piracy and humanitarian disaster”. [7]

But much like the ancient Greek monster it evokes, this assessment is largely mythological. The real three-headed hydra in Somalia today is the foreign interests of America, France and Britain – supported by their regional stooges in Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda etc. These imperialist predators have long sought to control Somalia’s vast prospective oil wealth which, as the Observer has reported, is likely to be “comparable to that of Kuwait, which has more than 100 billion barrels of proven oil reserves” making Somalia, potentially, “the seventh largest oil-rich nation”. [8]

Though many such western media outlets have seemingly only recently begun to understand the possible reasons for imperialist interest in Somalia, the reality is that Somalia’s potential oil wealth has been recognised by the imperialist powers themselves for decades.

The United States obtained lucrative oil contracts from the former government of President Mohamed Siad Barre in the early 1990s, but was never able to cash in on them. Barre’s government had initially been socialist-oriented, but Cold War realpolitik and the meanderings of the revisionist Soviet leadership drove him into the (not-so) loving embrace of western imperialism.

Partly as a result of this volte-face, Barre’s Somali Democratic Republic was overthrown in 1991 by a united front of opposition forces – whose motives ranged from the admirable to the abhorrent – prompting a series of ill-conceived imperialist military interventions in a desperate attempt to install a new puppet regime that would honour the much-prized oil contracts.

Forces of resistance

Most famously, in 1993, the Somali people successfully ousted an American invasion force that sought to use famine as a pretext for occupation – a victory for national self-determination that was grossly misrepresented in Ridley Scott’s racist cinematic epic, Black Hawk Down.

The current national-liberation movement is centred around the islamist group al-Shabaab, whom western powers have predictably claimed to be linked to al-Qaeda – despite a complete lack of substantive evidence – and whom western media outlets have sought to blame for every ill that befalls the country, from piracy to famine. The reality is that al-Shabaab remains the only credible opposition to imperialist intervention in Somalia and enjoys the confidence of the people, giving it de facto control of the majority of the country, outside of the capital Mogadishu and the northern regions, which are nominally administered by the pro-western Transitional Federal Government (TFG).

The significance of the Ethiopian-installed TFG is that it allows imperialist intervention under the bogus pretext of defending Somalia from ‘internal subversion’ by ‘terrorists’. It was on this pretext that Kenya launched an invasion of the country in October of last year – supported by its imperial benefactors, the United States, France and Britain – which has already killed hundreds of Somali citizens. [9]

However, in January of this year, WikiLeaks put paid to the phony pretext when it released classified documents which proved that the Kenyan Defence Force (KDF) had been planning the invasion, in close connection with the United States, for nearly two years. Codenamed the ‘Judaland Initiative’, the goal is to establish a separatist dependent region of the country, which could then be ruthlessly exploited by foreign interests. [10]

Such a plan has already come to fruition in the north east of Somalia, with the establishment of ‘Puntland’. This region has been the centre of an imperialist black gold rush, as western powers seek to tap into its oil reserves. The Canadian firm Africa Oil has already begun drilling in the region, and numerous other western firms are likely to follow suit. [8]

The divide-and-conquer tactic currently being employed in the north of Somalia will be intimately familiar to those who remember the dismemberment of the former Yugoslavia in the mid-1990s, a region which now provides a chilling reminder of what the future would be for an imperialist-dominated Somalia.

Simultaneously with the Kenyan invasion, the African Union has also dispatched troops in an attempt to suppress al-Shabaab freedom fighters in and around the capital of Mogadishu. The African Union Mission (AMISOM) is made-up of ground troops from the imperialist dependencies of Uganda, Djibouti and Burundi, and is being supported by French naval forces and by drone attacks launched from both the US surveillance drone base in Ethiopia and the United States Africa Command (Africom) base in Djibouti. [9] In addition, both Britain and Israel are believed to be involved, in a military capacity, in Somalia but the extent and specificity of this involvement is as yet unclear.

British eyes on the Somali prize

While this bloody conflict is being waged, the imperialist powers, led by British prime minister David Cameron, have already made plans to divide up the spoils. A conference held in London in February of this year set out to examine what Prime Minister Cameron called the “jigsaw puzzle” of Somalia. Attending were representatives from all the major imperialist countries, as well as Ban Ki-moon of the United Nations, and members of the Somali TFG.

Notable by their absence were any representatives of al-Shabaab, who, despite being the only credible representatives of the majority of the Somali people, were not invited to attend. The purpose of the conference was to organise investment opportunities in Somalia for western corporations, a reality masked by rhetorical talk of ‘rebuilding the country’. [11]

The British spearheading of the conference is due in no small part to the aggressive manoeuvring of Britain’s own oil multinational, BP, which clearly hopes to play a major role in tapping in to Somalia’s substantial oil reserves. To aid the corporation in this ambition, the British government has worked hard to create close ties with the ‘Transitional Federal Government’.

A representative from the TFG in Puntland told the Observer: “We have spoken to a number of UK officials, some have offered to help us with the future management of oil revenues. They will help us build our capacity to maximise future earnings from the oil industry ... We need those with the necessary technical knowhow, we plan to talk to BP at the right time.” [8]

This potential goldmine for the imperialist powers is not sewn up yet, however, and if the history of imperialist intervention in Somalia has taught us anything it is that the Somali people have a nasty habit of asserting their national self-determination.

An inopportune moment may be afforded by the impending weakening of the regional forces of reaction that some commentators have already noted. The editor of the Pan-African Newswire, Abayomi Azikiwe, has noted the cracks which have begun to form in the Kenyan Defence Force, opening up the possibility of a victory for al-Shabaab in the south of Somalia – the repercussions of which would be felt across the whole country.

Azikiwe references a United Nations report, which noted: “Security, service delivery and economic activity in north-eastern Kenya have deteriorated considerably since October 2011, when the country’s military forces deployed in neighbouring Somalia ... Food prices had also increased with local traders no longer able to import goods from Somalia.” [10]

A domestic crisis in Kenya would most likely force a withdrawal of the KDF from Somalia and free up al-Shabaab to concentrate on repelling the African Union troops in the north.

In Mogadishu, the TFG is also beset by problems. Several reputable sources have pointed to serious divisions and disagreements within the group, which may well lead to more serious rifts. Late last year, Sharif Hassan Sheikh Aden, a prominent member of the TFG, was expelled by a vote of no-confidence following a heated debate about the future of the country.

Such potential problems are clearly recognised by the United States, prompting Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to issue a stark warning to “people inside and outside the TFG who seek to undermine Somalia’s peace and security or to delay or even prevent the political transition”, [12] and by the United Nations, which has issued the so-called ‘Kampala Accord’ in an attempt to restore stability.

A further deterioration of relations between members of the TFG would completely undermine its ability to persist in fraudulent claims to legitimacy and destroy any ability to deliver the lucrative contracts that the imperialist powers seek.

A simultaneous collapse of the pro-western TFG and a forced withdrawal of the Kenyan Defence Force would undoubtedly open the possibility for a unification movement within the country, spearheaded by al-Shabaab, that would seek to drive out imperialist forces, just as was achieved in 1993, and re-establish Somalia’s national sovereignty.

A duty of solidarity

However, all attempts at establishing Somali national sovereignty on a firm footing are being met by aggression on the part of the imperialist powers, and so require the full support of progressive forces around the world.

In Britain, the beginnings of such a support movement have been established with the Hands Off Somalia campaign, which has organised a series of meetings and protests designed to raise greater awareness of the plight of the Somali people. [13] Though admirable and vital, it is as yet too early to say whether this campaign will be able to become a real force for anti-imperialism, as its broad and inclusive stance has led it to forge ties with a number of highly suspect ‘left’ organisations – most worryingly John Rees’s utterly counter-revolutionary Counterfire organisation, last seen diligently spreading lying imperialist propaganda against Libya and Syria under cover of a supposed anti-war stance. [14] [15]

Genuine revolutionaries must ensure that groups like Hands Off Somalia remain true to their noble beginnings and are not side-tracked into social-democratic and Trotskyite dead ends. We must continue to press for a revolutionary anti-imperialist line on Somalia, and on all global issues, and continue to give support to all those forces engaged in combating imperialism on the ground in the oppressed world.

In the words of the leader of the Burkina Faso national-liberation struggle, and one of the great African revolutionaries, Thomas Sankara: “Imperialism is determined, it has no conscience, it has no heart. Fortunately, the more we’ve discovered how dangerous an enemy imperialism is, the more determined we’ve become to fight and defeat it. And each time we find fresh forces ready to stand up to it.” [16]

The Somali people are standing up and we must support them. A defeat for imperialism in Somalia would further exacerbate the domestic energy crises that are brewing in the imperialist heartlands and would strengthen the revolutionary forces around the world.

Hands off Somalia!

Death to imperialism!


1. VI Lenin, Imperialism: The Highest State of Capitalism, 1916
2. Harry Magdoff, The Age of Imperialism: The Economics of US Foreign Policy, 1969
7. ‘Solving Somalia’, Financial Times, 22 February 2012
12. ‘Cameron hails “turning point” on Somalia’, Financial Times, 23 February 2012
16. Thomas Sankara, Thomas Sankara Speaks, 1988

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