The First Norwegian Colony in Africa: Somalia
By Hassan Keynan
Norway is not a country that could be easily associated with the ugly history and ruinous legacies of European imperialist expansion and colonial conquest across huge swathes of the globe, especially in Africa. It is rather known for a raft of benign attributes and rare achievements that have become the envy of the entire world. The country consistently tops global rankings in almost every field or category of assessment. And, of course, the iconic Nobel Prize for Peace.
However, change has been the only constant; and it appears that for Norway the adage “better late than never,” is applicable when it comes to the country’s flirtation with the magnetic enterprise of colonialism. One hundred thirty four years after the 1884 Berlin Conference on Partition of Africa, Norway is today an important player in a new scramble for Africa. And, this time around, the tools, narratives, manpower and infrastructure deployed in the service of the business are very different, although questions remain as to whether the same could be said about the principal motive and expected outcome.
Norway’s new colony in Africa is the failed state of Somalia. In the 1990’s I was living and working in Norway, and stories about Somali refugees coming into Norway in droves dominated the headlines. One question repeatedly asked by Norwegian authorities was: Why didn’t the Somalis seek asylum in all the countries between Somalia and Norway? And why were they so determined to zoom their eyes on the tiny, hilly and extremely cold country neighboring the North Pole? I vividly recall a stunned senior immigration officer posing this question to me. Today, the same question can be asked in reverse order. Why has Norway ended up in Somalia in what it appears to be its first colony in Africa?
The Norwegian-Somali encounter has its roots in a new phenomenon: The diaspora returning to their countries of origin with a pang. Following the collapse of the authority and institutions of the central government in Somalia in 1991, a large number of Somalis fled the country and sought asylum in many countries across the globe. According to the United Nations Population Division an estimated two million Somali immigrants lived in eighteen countries in 2015. Norway accounts for a small percentage of these.
As the situation in Somalia improved, the Somali diaspora began to return to the country slowly but steadily. The majority of the returnees came from Europe, North America and Australia. By 2008, a significant number of the diaspora community became heavily involved in the country’s fissiparous and polarized politics and governance system. All the six Prime Ministers the country has had since 2008 were from the diaspora, as were many of the ministers and members of parliament at federal and state levels.
However, the profile and status of the politicians from the diaspora grew exponentially during the last parliamentary and presidential elections. By the time the process of government formation was completed in March 2017, the diaspora had dominated the political landscape on a scale not seen in the history of post-colonial Africa. The President, Prime Minister, Speaker of the Parliament, at least a third of the 275 members of the 10th Parliament, more than half of the ministers in the Federal Government, and the Mayor of the Capital are Somalis who pledged loyalty to external powers. The countries represented in the Federal Government include Australia, Britain, Canada, Denmark, Nederland, Sweden, and USA.
In terms of numbers the Norwegians in the Federal Government are not the largest diaspora group. However, they occupy two of the top three most powerful positions in the country, and hold important ministerial portfolios. The most senior Norwegian-Somali in the government is the veteran politician, Mohamed Osman Jawari. Mr. Jawari is the Speaker of the federal parliament. But perhaps the biggest indicator of an emerging Norwegian colony became evident when the Somali-American President appointed the Norwegian-Somali, Hassan Ali Khaire as the Prime Minister of the of the Federal Government of Somalia. Mr. Khaire’s appointment as PM on 23 February 2017 was announced on Twitter, indicating the yawning communication and connection gap between the new hyphenated political elite and ordinary Somalis, the vast majority of whom are illiterate and have no access to Internet.
Mr. Khaire was an unknown figure and a political novice, and his appointment as PM surprised everyone. He fled to Norway in 1991 when he was still a young man, and spent nearly half of his life in Norway. So compared to the older and more experienced Jawari, Norway has had better opportunities to cultivate and profoundly shape and influence the character and mindset of youthful bloke through education, culture, employment, etc. When Prime Minister Hassan Khaire went to the business of appointing ministers, he packed the Council of Ministers with hyphenated Somalis from the diaspora. At least 17 of the 27 members in the Council of Ministers the Prime Minister proposed and the Parliament approved in March last year had roots in and affiliations with external powers. Two of these were Norwegians: the Minister of Defense and the Minister of Education and Culture.
Norwegians are in charge of two of the three organs of the Government, the Legislative and the Executive. The third organ, the Judiciary, is not fully functional yet. It can therefore be argued that the possibility of the Norwegians extending their influence to the third and last organ of the Federal Government is quite real. If this comes to pass, the operationalization of Norway’s first colony in Africa would be complete, ushering in a new scramble for Africa. Norway does not have a monopoly on this new colonial enterprise. It has fierce competitors, including Canada, USA, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Qatar, Turkey, and Ethiopia. All these countries have interests and enclaves in Somalia with varying degrees of political, diplomatic, and military leverage. But it seems that the stars have aligned for the Norwegian camp following the appointment of the current Prime Minister.
On 25 January 2018 the Norwegian daily Dagbladet published a piece on a bilateral meeting between the Prime Minister of Norway, Erna Solberg, and the Prime Minister of Somalia, Hassan Ali Khaire, during the World Economic Forum at Davos, Switzerland. The reporter aptly dubbed the meeting a Norwegian Meeting, and gave the report the title: Here meet two sitting Norwegian Prime Ministers. The accompanying photo said it all, magnifying the message one thousand times.
Somalia has just started the process of moving out of the degrading and deeply humiliating legacy of a failed state. Its institutions are therefore fragile and extremely vulnerable to infiltration, destabilization, corruption, and even takeover by internal usurpers and/or external predators with vested strategic and geopolitical interests. Norwegians who are in charge of this colony have and wield immense executive and legislative powers in a context characterized by lack of accountability, debilitating capacity limitations, and extremely vulnerability to machinations of external actors. How these enormous powers are used or abused and in favor of whom and against whom is therefore a matter of utmost importance. These developments have huge and far-reaching ethical, moral, political, legal and juridical implications for Norway; as it could find itself entangled in awkward, even messy, situations.
- State capture and corruption: Empirical studies on the impact of the high-flying diaspora on Somali politics and society are scant or completely lacking. The little information that is available indicates that Somalia and ordinary Somalis have not meaningfully benefitted from the ubiquitous diaspora presence either in the form of knowledge and relevant technical expertise and skills, or substantive and sustainable investment, or even new ideas, norms, values, and innovations that could be adapted and replicated in Somalia. What is known to date, largely through critical observations and circumstantial evidence, rather suggest a disturbing trend. The diaspora who returned to the country seem to be engaged in a new and insidious form of state capture in the interest of three main beneficiaries: individual diaspora members, the diaspora as a collective entity as a cabal, and the external actors with which they are affiliated through citizenship or other shared interest in that order. The modus operandi followed by most diaspora individuals seeking or holding public office seems to be: occupy every available space, grab every opportunity, share the spoils among fellow diaspora friends and family members, and coordinate and, at times even, collude with external powers, with the embassies of the countries whose passports they hold being the first port of call. Recently, the President of the self-proclaimed Republic of Somaliland accused ‘the young Norwegian boy,’ i.e. Prime Minister Khaire, of interfering in Somaliland’s deal with the Dubai World. If there is one word to describe the rat-infested Federal Government, that word is “corruption”, a corrosive affliction that the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Somalia and Head of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Somalia (UNSOM) recently referred to as ‘horrendous.’
- Scramble for oil and gas reserves in Somalia: The collapse of Somalia in 1991 and the protracted period of failed state syndrome have inspired a huge and sustained rush of oil exploration ventures in Somalia, involving, among other actors, big western oil companies. In the past, two Norwegian oil companies featured in the hunt for potentially lucrative oil deals in Somalia. The first is DNO, which, according to its website, ‘is Norway’s oldest oil company and the first to list on the Oslo Stock Exchange.’ In addition, DNO markets itself as being ‘a nimble and successful operator, even in challenging environments.’ The second is the Norwegian giant Statoil. Both have been previously implicated in controversial transactions involving oil exploration in Somalia. DNO had been accused of obtaining licenses for exploring oil in locations and under circumstances mired in messy jurisdictional and security entanglements. Statoil’s name has come up in the maritime border dispute between Somalia and Kenya, a case that involves issues connected with oil, and is currently in the hands of the International Court of Justice (ICC). In a report submitted to the UN Security Council in June 2013, Norway was accused of backing both sides in what appeared to be a cynical move to ensure that Norway’s oil interests prevail regardless of which of the two parties wins or looses. Norway encouraged and urged the fragile Somali government to implement an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) off its coast, an action that would have led to ‘a modification in Somalia’s maritime boundary in favor of Kenya.’ At the same time, Norway was secretly negotiating with Kenya for an exploration license on a block within the EEZ claimed by Somalia. The UN report warned that such behavior amounted to condoning ‘non-transparent practices’ that could threaten ‘peace and security’ in fragile Somalia. Norway’s name also came up in a 2016 bribery investigation of Soma Oil and Gas Holdings Limit, which involved a Norwegian national described as the company’s East Africa Director and minority shareholder. That Norwegian national is now the Prime Minister of Somalia. It is important to note that Norway and Norwegian companies have vehemently denied any wrongdoing. And the Somalia and Eritrea Monitoring Group (SEMG) had not been able to take the case against the former Soma Oil and Gas official to its logical conclusion. However, that was then. Now the political landscape in Somalia has dramatically changed in a direction favoring Norwegian agendas and interests.
- Humanitarian and development aid for Somalia: In the recent past, Norway had reportedly used its development aid to Somalia ‘as a cover for its commercial interests.’ According to a report by the SEMG, Norway’s involvement in a $30 million Special Financing Facility Fund for Somalia was a case in appoint as it appeared to be largely aimed at promoting and underpinning its strategic interests in the failed state. Following Mr. Khaire’s appointment as Prime Minister, Norway has begun to feature in Somali affairs more frequently and more prominently. Norwegian entities like the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), have suddenly acquired a new, elevated status and stature in the country. Prime Minister Khaire and the Norwegian colleagues he appointed as senior ministers all graduated from and owe their careers to NRC. In addition, former NRC employees are reported to wield a great deal of influence in the Office of the Prime Minister. In the field of education, a key priority for Somalia, NRC seems to have emerged as an influential player, largely due to the fact it has access to the Office of the Prime Minister and the Ministry of Education. In the case of one UN agency, all matters relating to education in Somalia have been delegated to a junior officer seconded by NRC. Given the powerful positions occupied by Norwegians in the current Federal Government of Somalia, one cannot entirely rule out the possibility of Norwegian entities pursing their agenda and interests even more aggressively.
- Gross human rights violations: The Federal Government of Somalia led by Norwegian nationals has displayed authoritarian tendencies and errors of judgment; and has been implicated in serious offences. These include abuse of authority and gross violation of human rights. One incident has attracted enormous attention worldwide, and caused a great deal of unease and concern among Somalis inside and outside the country. It relates to the to the illegal and violent arrest of Abdikarin Sheikh Muse and his extraordinary rendition to Ethiopia on 27 August 2017. The Executive Branch of the Federal Government led by the Prime Minister was not only involved in this ugly crime, but also tried first to cover it up and when it could not concocted a fictitious case against the victim. Mr. Abdikarim is a Somali citizen who fought for and was injured defending his country from Ethiopia, a historical enemy of the Somali nation. Yet the Prime Minister and his government had, in a matter of minutes, stripped him of his citizenship, declared him a terrorist, and handed him over to Ethiopia in the most egregious and shameful manner imaginable. The sight of a Norwegian national, who was also a former senior officer of the Norwegian Refugee Council, presiding over the kidnaping a Somali hero from his own country and delivering him into the hands of his enemy, was a spectacle to behold. The crime committed against Abdikarim stunned the nation, forcing a parliamentary inquiry. The findings of the parliamentary committee declared, clearly and unequivocally, that Mr. Abdikarim’s arrest and rendition were unlawful and that the case against him was fabricated. Yet, Prime Minister Khaire and the Council of Ministers who were quick and eager to humiliate and malign an innocent Somali citizen, remain silent in the face of the parliament’s categorical verdict. They could not even offer a word of apology. Mr. Muse is now languishing in prison in a country known for gross human rights violations against its own citizens. Mr. Muse’s family, young children and relatives wait for and deserve justice.
- The plight of Somali refugees and migrants in Norway: Is the Norwegian government planning to use Somalia as a penal colony? Norway is currently under the leadership of a right wing political party in coalition with an ultra-right, anti-immigrant party. A key priority of the ruling coalition has been to crack down on immigration and immigrants; with the Somalis in Norway apparently bearing the brunt of the aggressive anti-immigrant measures underway in Norway. Norway is home to a sizable Somali community, estimated between 40,000 and 50,000, the largest non-western immigrant group in the country. This vulnerable community is now in the throes of confusion, apprehension and fear. The Norwegian government’s intention is not only to curtail or completely stop new refugees or immigrants coming to the country. It is rather to remove those who are already in the country, including thousands who have already been granted legal residence and even citizenship. Norway has previously coordinated with officials of the Somali government, with a view to soliciting their cooperation and consent in the repatriation of Somali immigrants back to their country of origin without their consent. Now that Norwegian nationals hold the reigns of power in Somalia, one can only imagine what could happen. Some Somalis suggest that the primary motive of the current Norwegian government is to use and promote Somalia as a form of penal colony. Given the fact that Norway has spectacularly failed in successfully integrating its large Somali immigrant community, such argument cannot be entirely dismissed.
These cases and possibly more could end up being litigated in jurisdictions outside Somalia, including the International Court of Justice. Norway has wonderful qualities and a beautiful history untainted by colonialism and other forms of aggression and exploitation. However, Norway is not perfect, and its politicians, particularly those currently in power, are not saints. It has so far kept conveniently silent about its connections with and intentions in Somalia. But surely, the time will come when the truth will be revealed.