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 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 better farming methods and the tools and resources necessary to grow food in drought and flood conditions. They also need to break free of these extremist groups to regain their autonomy. 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 means “the youth” in Somali) 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. Ethiopia invaded Somalia with 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. 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. 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 USG is reluctant to intervene with much military force to avoid losses similar to the Black Hawk Down incident in 1993.
Most of Mogadishu, was under Al-Shabaab rule for the past three years, but the TFG consisting of corrupt politicians and former warlords took control of the capital in August of this year. Some government militias have 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 one common enemy or ally and political actors (as they generally are) are only concerned with their own interests.
Military oppression aside, Somalis have also had to contend with flooding as rains finally started to fall after the drought. Many have been displaced and unable to grow crops due to the floods. Waterborne diseases are expected to spread, 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 about it. Natural disasters 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. It is very telling that this has prompted the American government to restrict aid to Somalia as the USG would rather let people starve than risk food aid reaching terrorists.
Islamic charities like Islamic Relief are allowed greater access to Al-Shabaab controlled areas. Other 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. Al-Shabaab must be abolished by Somalis, and the will to join must be reduced along with the religious extremism and desperation that fuels it.
While the situation is complex and dismal, it is not without solutions. 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 terrorist organizations wouldn’t be able to commit these atrocities 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 developed countries have, and this would be positive 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 their culture and ways of life cannot be sacrificed on the altar of “economic progress”.
Update: The drought ended in mid 2012. 50,000 to 260,000 died, half of whom were under the age of 6.