Déjà vu: Famine and Crisis in Somalia

Mary Hope Schwoebel | USIP | September 2011


Somalia is currently experiencing the worst drought and famine in over half a century. Half of the population (close to four million people) is dependent on food aid, while tens of thousands are estimated to have died since the drought began this past summer.

In early September, the United Nations warned that as many as 750,000 people could die in the coming months if aid efforts are not ramped up. At least 150,000 have fled their homes seeking assistance in internally displaced persons (IDPs) camps located in Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, and in refugee camps located in neighboring Kenya and Ethiopia.

Mary Hope Schwoebel, a senior program officer in USIP’s Academy for International Conflict Management and Peacebuilding, has extensive experience in Somalia. Here, she discusses the latest crisis in Somalia and how it impacts security in the region.Somalia has always experienced droughts, why is this one worse than before?

Cyclical drought is a part of life in Somalia, and populations traditionally had mechanisms for dealing with it. The last time that drought resulted in famine in Somalia was in the early 1990s following the collapse of the Somali government.

Tragically, many of the elements that followed the collapse of the government in the 1990s are occurring once again. Refugees are flowing into neighboring countries, and humanitarian agencies are unable to get aid to the populations in need due to the presence of armed militias. Making matters worse worse, armed militias are denying humanitarian nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) access, and aid intended to go to Mogadishu is being stolen. So, while the drought is a natural phenomenon, the famine is a social phenomenon.

Even before the latest drought, Somalia was already in crisis from two decades of violent conflict and grappling with an estimated 1.4 million IDPs. Neighboring Kenya already had the world’s largest refugee camp, known as the Dadaab camp, with a population of at least 300,000, almost exclusively Somalis. And now, with the latest crisis, this camp grows even bigger every day.

What impact will the drought and famine have on the regional security?

Kenya and Ethiopia have large semi-arid regions that are also suffering from drought, but because they have governments in place and a modicum of infrastructure, and because they allow aid organizations access to populations in need, the immediate humanitarian threat is not as great. At the same time, however, these semi-arid regions are characterized by less development -- and less security – and are thus more vulnerable to conflict.

Over the past two decades, members of Somalia’s armed militias in the Horn of Africa have included violent Islamist extremists. Refugees and IDPs are particularly vulnerable to recruitment efforts by violent extremist groups and those fighting against them. And these spillover effects will continue to contribute to instability throughout the region until their root causes are addressed.

Is the situation as hopeless as it seems?

It is not hopeless, but there have been a number of missed opportunities over the past two decades.

Yet, the current tragedy offers another opportunity for peace. The recent territorial gains of the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and African Union Mission in Somalia (ANISOM) in Mogadishu are reportedly in part the result of a dispute in the top leadership of al Shabaab, Somalia’s largest violent Islamist group -- between Sheikh Ahmed Abdi Godane (aka Abu Zubayr) and the faction led by Sheikh Mukhtar Robow (aka Abu Mansur). Robow and his loyalists hail mainly from the Somali region most affected by the drought and the famine. Robow is willing to accept humanitarian aid from Western aid organizations. Godane is not. When Robow withdrew his troops from Mogadishu, Godane and his troops retreated as well. This willingness of this Shabaab faction to accept aid from Western humanitarian organizations offers an opportunity to begin a dialogue with al Shabaab that might eventually pave the way for a legitimate peace process.

While the international community supports the TFG, the reality is that it controls only a portion of the capital and is not generally viewed as legitimate. This is not surprising. Ideology is seldom a motivating factor in Somali politics, and elites tend to be willing to get resources from external funders whether they are Western governments or Islamist non-state groups. The motivations of rank-and-file fighters tend to be more diverse, but are even less likely to be ideological.

Somali society is still organized along clan lines and two decades of violent conflict have only entrenched people’s reliance on ties of kinship. What Islamist ideology offers many of its followers is an escape from the primacy of clan-based identities and thus clan-based opportunities – especially for individuals from clans who have been marginalized and denied access to power and resources. Ultimately, patience, more than any tangible resource, will be required for a legitimate peace process.

What is the international community doing to help?

Humanitarian aid is streaming into the Horn of Africa. In July, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said that, in addition to the $431 million the U.S. government provided this year in emergency assistance to the Horn of Africa, it would provide an another $28 million in emergency assistance to address the famine.

But humanitarian aid, as necessary as it is, treats only the symptoms of the crisis, not the root causes. The international community needs to reframe its understanding of the root causes of Somalia’s conflict.

Ultimately, a system of governance that builds on the strengths of the clan system, in ways that provide equal opportunities for individuals from all clans, is the only kind of system that will work in Somalia. That is not unrealistic. It has worked in Somaliland, the self-declared state in the northwestern part of Somalia that has achieved relative peace. The current crisis provides yet another opportunity for those segments of al Shabaab and the TFG who have a genuine concern for their followers to begin a peace process that will seek to do for Somalia, what Somaliland was able to do for itself. Naturally, the result will not look exactly like that of Somaliland, but it can be a system designed by Somalis, that Somalis can live with, and that will protect the right of all Somalis to life.

Article source: United States Institute for Peace

Image source: IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation/TURKEY


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