June 25th, 2007
By Keith Yearman,
In 1992 U.S. commandos “stormed” the beaches of Somalia in what was known as Operation Restore Hope. The United States was invading Somalia to, as was told to the public, restore law and order to a country devastated by anarchy, and to feed the population. As then-President George H. W. Bush told the nation in a televised address on December 4, 1992: “I want to talk to you today about the tragedy in Somalia and about a mission that can ease suffering and save lives. Every American has seen the shocking images from Somalia. The scope of suffering there is hard to imagine. Already, over a quarter of a million people–as many people as live in Buffalo, New York–have died in the Somali famine. In the months ahead, five times that number, 1.5 million people could starve to death…There is no government in Somalia. Law and order have broken down–anarchy prevails.”
Across Africa similar crises were causing mass devastation, yet U.S. Marines were not dispatched to deal with these humanitarian crises. For instance, Human Rights Watch reported on Mozambique: “…The disappearance of any form of effective government throughout most rural areas of the country has appeared to draw closer by the month. The severe drought of 1991-1992 undermined the unified command of both armies, as soldiers turned to looting and pillaging to provide for themselves. Relief agencies are already describing Mozambique as ‘the next Somalia.’”
So why was Somalia the chosen country? The mainstream media applauded the administration’s efforts at humanitarian intervention, and seemingly not a critical murmur was sounded as to why Somalia was chosen over Mozambique, Ethiopia, Angola or countless other nations.
A 1993 Los Angeles Times article offered a clue. This article was completely ignored by other media outlets, yet gave critical insight into an important resource Somalia had – oil. According to the article, “Nearly two-thirds of Somalia was allocated to the American oil giants Conoco, Amoco, Chevron and Phillips in the final years before Somalia’s pro-U.S. President Mohamed Siad Barre was overthrown…” This article also called into question Conoco’s cozy relationship with the U.S. government, pointing out that the U.S. had leased its de facto embassy from the corporation.
Newly-declassified State Department documents offer more evidence concerning the significance of oil behind the intervention. The documents, released in response to two Freedom of Information Act requests filed by the author, highlight the role Conoco played in the years leading up to the invasion and also briefly highlight Conoco’s support for U.S. government operations in the country.
Civil war brought the downfall of Siad Barre in January 1991. The conflict prompted the U.S. and most other nations to close their embassies, and for most oil companies to cease exploration efforts. On July 27, 1990 Conoco suspended operations briefly when its security captain and a fuel truck driver were shot and killed. By April 1991 Conoco notified the State Department it was ready to restart operations. The economic gains would have been great – perhaps even surpassing Hunt Oil’s windfall in Yemen (which was pumping some 200,000 barrels per day in the late 1980s). According to a June 20, 1991 cable from Richard Barrett, then-U.S. Ambassador to Djibouti,
“[A source] claims to have seen an internal document of Conoco (Somalia), which states that sites in the Garoe – Las Anod area are capable of producing 300,000 barrels of oil per day…A confirmed strike could pre-empt moves toward reconciliation…It could also set off battles between clans for control of land where drilling is expected.”
Conoco had long been providing support to State Department missions, from providing space on corporate aircraft traveling to Mogadishu, to housing and feeding State Department and other government employees, to even arranging security for government personnel. Some examples of Conoco’s support:
• From a May 21, 1991 cable from the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi: “Two USG [U.S. government] employees would travel to Mogadishu several days after Conoco re-occupies its offices on June 4…USG employees would be welcome to stay with Conoco and would be protected throughout their stay by Conoco’s private guard service.”
• From an October 9, 1991 cable from the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi: “Embassy is in daily contact with Conoco (Somalia), Ltd…During four visits by USG officials to Mogadishu over the past several months, Conoco (Somalia), Ltd. has provided the following security: USG officials are met at the airport by armed guards and escorted via convoy to the Conoco residence…USG officials move about Mogadishu as little as necessary. When they do, they are provided with armed guards. USG officials sleep and take their meals at the Conoco compound. When they leave Mogadishu, they are again escorted to the airport via convoy under armed guard…The aircraft…is in constant radio contact with the Conoco compound while in flight, which further facilitates security…”
• From an October 11, 1991 cable from the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi (discussing plans for an assessment mission to arrive the following week): “Conoco, a non-USG entity, has basically given the ‘green light’ for this mission. It is not Conoco’s call to do so. Conoco security is excellent. Their guards are well-paid and well-armed…” Concerned that the security situation might deteriorate, Deputy Chief of Mission E. Michael Southwick warned “someone could get hurt. If the latter be the case, Conoco, which has no legal responsibility to protect official USG personnel, will say ‘we tried our best’ and the USG is faced with both an embarrassing political and legal dilemma. A mission of this importance may warrant the use of U.S. military or DS [Diplomatic Security Service] Security assets.”
The assessment mission visited Mogadishu from October 17 – 20, 1991, ostensibly to evaluate the political and security situation in Somalia. The U.S. Embassy had been closed due to civil unrest, and the delegation was tasked with reviewing properties for a small diplomatic mission. According to the October 22, 1991 summary of the delegation:
“There are, at present, few American citizens in Somalia. Conoco (Somalia), Ltd., however, anticipates re-commencing oil exploration work in southern Somalia within the next several months. According to Conoco, this would involve the introduction of 50-60 Amcit employees into Somalia. If the security situation does not deteriorate, it would be realistic to project a total presence of around 100 Amcits in southern Somalia by the middle of 1992. Such a community would justify a consular presence in Mogadishu.
“There are, at present, only two US firms (Conoco and Turnkey) operating in Somalia. Others, especially in the oil sector, are considering resuming operations. These firms will sometimes require the type of diplomatic support best provided by a permanent diplomatic mission.”
In early December 1992, the State Department leased Conoco’s headquarters to serve as the new diplomatic mission (technically the U.S. Liaison Office). The State Department would pay Conoco $41,260 for six months rent. As Michael Parenti noted in Against Empire, “U.S. taxpayers were paying for the troops in Somalia to protect Conoco’s interests, and they were paying the corporation for the privilege of doing so.”
By mid-December, arrangements were made for ” a letter of appreciation from President Bush to the president of Conoco for the tremendous support that Conoco as a corporation and Raymond Marchand [of Conoco (Somalia), Ltd.] as an individual have provided here.”
We know how Somalia turned out – with U.S. soldiers dragged through the streets, the U.S. withdrawal, and with oil companies still hungry for Somali crude. During the occupation of Iraq, with the president’s secret energy task force, high oil prices, and the unquestioned power and influence of the oil companies, both the reasons for and lessons from Somalia must be fresh in our minds.
The Conoco Somalia Declassification Project is available at: http://www.cod.edu/people/faculty/yearman/somalia.htm
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