The Horn of Africa experienced its worst drought in 60 years over the past few months, leaving millions starving and tens of thousands dead. The lack of rain caused agricultural production to reduce by 75% and 1.5 million children in Southern Somalia alone are in dire need of assistance. 190,000 of these children will likely die within the month without aid. The situation is most grim in Somalia in part because of the Islamist extremist group, Al-Shabaab, which is terrorizing the Somalis and preventing refugees from making the trek to refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya. More than half a million Somalis have made it to refugee camps in these countries where the living conditions are only slightly better, and the trek to these camps is covered in blood. According to the UN, 3.7 million Somalis still need emergency food relief.
There has been little international aid to stop this crisis. In fact, The US gave more money to Somalia for humanitarian aid in 2008 when there was no famine than they have in 2011, mainly because of the presence of the Al-Shabaab, which has controlled a great deal of Southern and Central Somalia. Much of the aid sent to Somalia has also been blocked by this extremist group, which forbids Western aid. (Somalian pirates may also be intercepting some of the aid.) Al-Shabaab has also forbidden immunizations, which has increased the spreading of disease. Unfortunately, the aid that does make it through is not a sustainable solution. Some food has been sent to various refugee camps in Eastern Africa that has been of help, but the inhabitants need to be taught better farming techniques and be given the tools and resources necessary to create food in drought and flood conditions. Most farms are ruined in Somalia and they are far too dependent on imported food, which is becoming increasingly expensive. Better healthcare is also a must in Somalia and all of Eastern Africa.
The existence of terrorism in Somalia and the surrounding region is hardly new. Their government was destroyed in 1991 by a group of warlords who eventually turned on each other, resulting in widespread, indiscriminate violence and Somalia still has no functioning, permanent government. Somalis have little autonomy under the rule of warlords. But the drought and the Al-Shabaab have only made things far worse. Al-Shabaab (which in Somali means “the youth”) developed in 2004. They are an offshoot of Islamic Courts Union (ICU), which seized Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia, in June 2006, giving power to Al-Shabaab. After defeating US backed warlords, the ICU and Al-Shabaab began implementing strict Shariah law. (Essentially, one group of militant warlords overthrew another group of militant warlords.) Ethiopia invaded Somalia with eventual US support 6 months later. Ethiopian soldiers took control of Mogadishu, but they were defeated elsewhere, and Ethiopian troops withdrew completely in December of 2008. The region is currently held mostly by US backed warlords who form the interim government called the Transitional Federal Government (TFG).
Kenyan forces were deployed in Somalia at the border last month to rid of Al-Shabaab in response to the kidnapping of several tourists and foreign aid workers, but the Kenyan deployments may end up hurting Somalis under Al-Shabaab’s rule. The US has sent no troops. President Obama sent 100 troops to Uganda about one month ago to kill the head of the Lord’s Resistance Army, a self-identified “Christian” militia with an ambiguous ideology, but if aid isn’t simultaneously distributed, this may only inflame tensions and increase the violence. These troops may end up in South Sudan, the Central African republic, and the “democratic” republic of the Congo that are also being terrorized by this religious extremist group and their own governments. The US is reluctant to intervene with too much military force because they don’t want a repeat of the Black Hawk Down incident in 1993.
Most of Mogadishu, was under Al-Shabaab rule for the past three years, but the TFG took control of the capital in August of this year. However, Somalia’s TFG stationed in Mogadishu, which is made up of corrupt politicians and former warlords, is part of the problem. Some government militias have even joined in the looting and killing of starving people. Due to the corruption of the government, forces that were once unified in fighting Al-Shabaab have split. About 20 mini-states have evolved made up of different clans that seek independent rule and the money that comes with it. There isn’t a clear, common enemy or ally and all political actors seem to be out for themselves. There aren’t any centralized powers that seem to be immune from corruption, which gives all sides fighting all the more incentive to just keep shooting.
Aside from military oppression, recently flooding has become another problem as the rain finally started to fall after the drought. Many have been displaced and unable to grow crops due to floods. Waterborne diseases are expected to spread due to the flooding, which may kill thousands in November and December. According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) the rains have flooded the Sigale camp in Mogadishu, which has made it even more difficult to transport aid to the camp. 5000 people also lost their homes due to the flood waters in the Dedaab refugee complex in Kenya and currently the UNHCR is trying to drain the area.
According to Samuel Worthington, head of InterAction, aid groups have only raised about $60 million from U.S. donations for famine relief, which isn’t nearly enough. Inter-Action managed to raise $1.29 billion for relief in Haiti when an earthquake struck there in 2010, mainly because there was far more news coverage on it. Natural disasters, as a rule, usually get more news coverage than outbreaks of famine or genocide probably because natural disasters don’t implicate rich countries. (One could argue they do as rich countries are the primary consumers of fossil fuels, which increase extreme weather events, but this is a less direct and clear connection.) Therefore, it is acceptable to the USG for American news stations to do bleeding heart stories about the disaster in Haiti, whereas in conflict ridden portions of Somalia that have UN and US backed warloads in charge, rich countries can and ought to be blamed and this makes most US corporate media outlets avoid discussing it.
Most foreign aid organizations are scared to stay in Somalia due to the violence. Almost all of the aid agencies there run their Somali operations in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi. Due to the lack of oversight, some of the food provided by relief organizations (like the World Food Program) intended for the starving Somali people is being stolen and sold by UN contractors who have used some of these proceeds to fund Al-Shabaab. This has prompted the American government to restrict aid to Somalia, which essentially demonstrates that the US government will let people starve if there is a possibility terrorists may get their hands on the food. Aid restrictions couldn’t be a worse solution. Instead, common Somalis should be given all of their power and resources back to run their own lives and defend themselves from state and non-state terror.
Some aid organizations that want to keep their distance have resorted to sending money via cellphones to poor residents in order to prevent Al-Shabaab intervention, but even this is not a good long term solution. Islamic charities like Islamic Relief are allowed greater access to Al-Shabaab controlled areas, but the real solution is to rid of Al-Shabaab and reduce the will to join, as well as reduce the religious extremism and desperation that fuels it.
While the situation is complex and depressing, it is not unsolvable. People need to be more aware of the famine and military oppression in Eastern Africa. Even telling a friend about it could do some good. Ultimately, these governments and terrorists organizations wouldn’t get away with what they’re doing if the international community was pressured to do something about it. The average person in East Africa is in a vulnerable position, because their societies have not developed in the ways that imperial countries have, and this would be a good thing if they weren’t being exploited because of it. Many parts of Africa are also home to some of the most valuable precious metals, and right now the greed of corporate and political powers are sucking it dry. We can’t let this happen, and we must bring 21st century medicine, farming techniques, water collectors and drip irrigation to simple African societies while preserving their much older cultures and ways of life.
Edit: The drought ended in mid 2012. 50,000 to 260,000 died, half of whom were under the age of 6.