- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 18, 2010

NAIROBI, Kenya | When Virginio Bresolin passed away recently in Merka, a coastal Somali city run by al Qaeda-inspired rebels, so did the last of a generation of Italians who emigrated under Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini.

He worked as a blacksmith, spoke fluent Somali and rusty Italian, and few people noticed when he died.

Fifty years after independence, indifference characterizes how most feel about the former colonial ruler of Somalia, a country where 60 percent of the population is under 18 and 80 percent has known nothing but conflict.

Abdullahi Halane Mohamoud, a 62-year-old Merka resident, hardly takes issue with the Italians invading in the first place but only seems to regret there wasn’t more in it for Somalis.

“Italian colonization only used people as servants and never provided proper education opportunities. Most people who lived during that time were left illiterate,” he said.

Somalia’s independence started comparatively well and, in 1967, even produced the first post-colonial African leader to step down gracefully.

Adan Abdulle Osman accepted his electoral defeat, transferred power to Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke and retired to his farm near Merka, where he died in 2007, at age 99.

The hand-over ceremony was held in the garden of Villa Somalia, the former residence of Italian colonial governors and now the fortified redoubt from which the country’s Islamist president is battling even more Islamist rebels.

Somalia, mired in violence for three decades, is now best known to the outside world for being the place that inspired the Hollywood war movie “Black Hawk Down” and the reason the term “failed state” had to be coined.

Like any colonization, Italy’s left scars in Somalia, too.

One instance of colonial oppression vividly remembered by many older Somalis is the construction of a canal still known as Asayle — a Somali word for a mourning veil — in reference to the men decimated by forced labor there.

“My uncle worked there and has told me harrowing tales. He used to say that officers would trample on their backs when crossing the water channel to avoid the mud,” said Mohamed Abdi Elmi, 56.

But Somalia’s case was very different from most others on the continent, as evidenced notably by the nation’s “three independences.”

In November 1949, Somalia was granted independence by the United Nations but placed under an Italian-led trusteeship.

On June 26, 1960, the northern protectorate of Somaliland acquired independence from Britain. Five days later, on July 1, Italian Somalia became fully independent and merged with Somaliland.

But the lack of a founding liberation struggle left the country without an experienced political class.

President Sharmarke — whose son, Omar Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke, is the current prime minister — was assassinated in 1969, then Mohamed Siad Barre seized power and thrust his country into the Cold War, choosing to side with the Soviet Union.

More than a byproduct of colonial times, the deadly chaos that erupted with Barre’s ouster two decades ago is often blamed on a double vacuum.

The Cold War ended and with it a system that had propped up Barre’s regime. Simultaneously, Italy’s political order was turned upside down by the Tangentopoli crisis, a nationwide police probe into political corruption that exploded into a scandal in 1992.

“The country best equipped to steer Somalia at the time was not able do so. The Italian political class was floundering,” one observer explained.

Italy couldn’t make its voice heard when the world’s new American masters — puffed up with their doctrine of humanitarian imperialism — led the 1992 U.N. invasion of Somalia.

The disastrous cycle of violence that ensued was interspersed with numerous peace talks, in which Italy’s expertise was overshadowed by U.S. involvement.

The 2004 transitional federal charter still lists Italian as an official second language but ties between Somalia and its former colonial rulers are withering away silently.

In contrast with the way the British administered their colonies, Italians accounted for half of Mogadishu’s population after World War II.

Conversely, unlike its European neighbors bursting with immigration from the former colonies, Italy is now home to a mere 6,000 Somalis.

Meanwhile, millions of Somalis have been forced to flee the country and take refuge in several Western countries, including the United States, as Islamists fight to take control of Somalia.

Somalia has not had an effective government in almost two decades. The current administration controls only a small section of the capital with the help of some 5,000 African Union peacekeepers.

The al Qaeda-linked Islamist group, al-Shabab, has been targeting members of a U.N.-backed government in Mogadishu. The Somali capital witnesses almost-daily attacks aimed at disrupting the government.

The latest such attack occurred Monday when a suicide car bomber targeted a top defense official in Mogadishu, killing at least one bystander.

State Defense Minister Yusuf Mohamed Siyad said the bomber’s vehicle chased his car but exploded before colliding with it because a civilian minibus unexpectedly came between the two. Two bodyguards in a car driving behind the minister were wounded.

As the convoy stopped to collect the wounded men, a second vehicle and then a wheelbarrow packed with explosives detonated nearby, Mr. Siyad said. Al-Shabab took responsibility for the attack.

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