Originally Published 2011-08-05 00:00:00 Published on Aug 05, 2011
Although mired in a state of conflict for the past two decades, the year 2011 has turned out to be particularly bad for Somalia. The United Nations declared famine in regions of Bakool and Lower Shabelle on July 20.
Politics of Famine in Somalia
Although mired in a state of conflict for the past two decades, the year 2011 has turned out to be particularly bad for Somalia. The United Nations declared famine in regions of Bakool and Lower Shabelle on July 20. This was soon followed by a ban on foreign aid and assistance by Al-Shabab, an Islamic militant outfit which is in control of the areas declared to be affected by severe drought and famine. Thus, even though over 11 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance, aid has been slow and way below the requirement level.

As a result, large numbers of Somalis have been moving base and relocating to refugee camps in neighbouring countries such as Kenya and Ethiopia. Aid groups have been providing medical assistance through make-shift hospitals and operations of air-lifting food have begun, but these efforts are too little compared to the magnitude of the crisis which is now spreading to other regions. In the recently published Failed States List prepared by the Fund for Peace, Somalia has been ranked at no.1 for the fourth time in a row this year.

Droughts are common phenomena in Africa, especially in the Somali peninsula, but not all of them result in famine. For example, the drought in mind 1970s', known as 'dabadeer' (the long tailed), did not lead to a famine as the Somali government was quick to assist its people. The Horn of Africa drought in 1984, however, did lead to a famine in Ethiopia as the government, engaged in a civil war, was unable to intervene. In 1992, Somalia experienced a man-made famine. Nearly 300,000 innocent people starved to death because of sectarian politics. The epicentre of that famine was in Bay, one of the country's most productive agricultural regions, and starvation was induced by warlords who used food as a weapon against farmers and pastoralists. Although this year's famine is caused mainly by a long spell of drought, sectarian politics has been equally responsible for making the situation worse, leaving 80,000 people to die of starvation.

Besides the obvious ecological factors, the severity of the situation can be linked to a number of political factors. The presence of the militant outfit, Al-Shabab, the inherent weakness of the Transitional Federal Government and the U.S war on terrorism are among the leading political factors which, together with long months of little rain, resulted in a situation where internal food resources were exhausted and any assistance or aid from outside was denied or was too slow in coming. 

The level of terrorist activities prevalent in Somalia has led some to label the country as a safe haven for terrorism. The fact that no effective government has managed to come to power since 1991 has enabled militant outfits to take control of various regions and install their own form of governance. Of these, Al-Shabab  poses the most serious threat. The group emerged as an armed wing of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) and has its roots in the Salafi orientation. The ICU defeated the Somali warlords and came to control most of the southern region in 2006. Though the ICU was defeated in 2007 by combined forces of Ethiopia and U.S, Al-Shabab continued its insurgent activities against the Transitional Federal Government.

One of the reasons for the rise of Al-Shahbab has been the failure of successive governments. Since 1991, the country has seen 14 failed governments The current internationally recognised Transitional Federal Government (TFG)  is seen as corrupt and incompetent. Perpetually facing internal conflict, the TFG has been equally inadequate in preventing the crisis or of providing any support to its citizens. It remained oblivious to the growing crisis and even after a state of famine was declared by the UN, the Somalis have so far not received any succour from the government.

The "Global War on Terrorism", declared by the Unites States post 9/11, too has played a key role in building the Somalia crisis. In the past decade numerous operations were carried out to fight against terrorist groups in the region. In February 2008, the U.S added Al-Shabab to its list of foreign terrorist organizations, making it a crime for aid agencies to provide assistance to them. The US agenda in Somalia has been to fight what it calls "Islamic terrorists" and Al-Shabab in particular. This was intensified last year, when Al-Shabab claimed responsibility for twin bombings that killed more than 70 people in Kampala, Uganda during the football world cup final on July 11, 2010.

All these political factors combined with the long drought have left Somalis helpless and in an extreme desperate state. Referred to as one of the most complicated places to deliver assistance, the international community led by the UN, must conceive a comprehensive plan to help the people of Somalia, before it is too late.

Priyanka Mehrotra is Research Intern, ORF.

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