War and famine, the only option?, Part I

After two successive failed rainy seasons in one year, the Horn of Africa has been confronted with its worst drought in 60 years, a phenomenon environmental scientists are linking directly to climate change. The drought coupled with surging food prices, lack of food aid, and other structural factors have triggered what has been called “the worst humanitarian crisis in the world today” by Antonio Guterres, head of the UN refugee agency.

The crisis “blew up” after April rains failed, leading to widespread crop failure and mass death of livestock, both primary means of sustenance for many in the region. Since then, all aspects of the overall crisis – child and adult mortality, starvation, malnourishment, displacement, and so on – have escalated dramatically. The situation is so severe that over twelve million people in Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Djibouti are in desperate need of humanitarian assistance, while over two million children suffer malnourishment.

The crisis is most dire in Somalia, where a civil war ravages the central and southern regions of the country. Even before the drought reached historic levels, Somalia was faced with already one of the worst crises in the world, one which exploded after the failed rainy season and has reached catastrophic levels. During the last two months alone, close to thirty thousand Somali children have already died, according to US estimates, and over one hundred thousand are inflicted with “severe acute malnutrition” and face “imminent death.”

On July 20 the UN officially declared famine in two regions in southern Somalia under the control of Al Shabaab. Al Shabaab is a loose coalition of Islamist militants and clan militias that since the withdrawal of Ethiopian occupying forces in January 2009 have waged war against the transitional government of Somalia, the Transitional Federal Government (TFG), and the African Union “peacekeeping” mission (AMISOM) that protects it. Famine has since been declared in six regions in Somalia; and it's expected to spread throughout southern Somalia in the coming weeks.

Respite from the drought is not expected to occur until December or January 2012, following the next rainy season which lasts from October to December. Thus, the course of action that is underway and the direction it takes over the next few months will determine the fate of millions.

The two most pressing obstacles to mitigating the current crisis have been: lack of humanitarian access to southern Somalia and the massive resource shortfalls (funding, food aid, medical supplies, etc). As we will see, these obstacles are consequences of the systematic dismantling of humanitarian aid in Somalia that has taken place over the past several years.


Consequences of Aggression

It is no accident that famine first broke out in Al Shabaab-controlled areas. In recent years, Al Shabaab has become notorious for barring Western aid agencies, like the World Food Program (WFP), from providing aid in areas it controls, as well as threatening, detaining, and even assassinating aid workers—all clear violations of humanitarian law. These actions, in addition to imposing taxes and transportation tolls, have obstructed humanitarian access in most of southern and parts of central Somalia.

On July 6 Al Shabaab's leaders reportedly lifted their ban on previously barred humanitarian agencies. But later that month Al Shabaab's spokesman denied lifting the ban and went as far as to call the UN declaration “baseless propaganda,” claiming that “the conditions are not as bad as they [UN officials] say.”

It has since been reported that Al Shabaab leaders are divided over the issue, which is fomenting further division within an already highly fractured coalition. This conflict appears to be manifesting in how local militias under the Al Shabaab umbrella are responding to humanitarian relief efforts underway. In some areas, aid agencies like the Red Cross, UNICEF, and especially Islamic organizations have been able to deliver aid with no resistance; in other areas, Al Shabaab militias are maintaining the ban and preventing Somalis from traveling to regions where relief is available.

Al Shabaab's leaders have deservedly been condemned for their crimes. But they have not been alone in sacrificing Somalis civilians while pursuing perceived strategic objectives. In waging the Somalia front in the “war on terror” (or as Obama prefers, the “war against al Qaeda and its affiliates”), Washington has played a central role in driving Somalia back into a state of civil war and obstructing the response to the misery war creates. These policies proved to be a boon for Al Shabaab, particularly its most extremist elements.

First of all, the rise of Al Shabaab as the most powerful force in southern Somalia is a direct consequence of the U.S.-backed Ethiopian invasion and occupation of southern and central Somalia (December 2006 – January 2009). The military campaign was waged without UN Security Council authorization or a legitimate justification for self-defense. Therefore, it falls into the category of “aggression,” the “supreme international crime” according to the Nuremberg Tribunals

. But given the cast of aggressors, it has rarely been recognized as such.

The invasion successfully crushed a popular movement of Islamic courts and militias, called the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC), which after defeating a coalition of U.S.-backed warlords in June 2006 had ushered in a level of peace and security unknown to the region since the fall of the central government in 1991. After the fall of the UIC, its militant wing, Al Shabaab, waged a popular insurgency aimed at expelling the Ethiopian occupying forces that protected the widely despised TFG. Since the UIC's collapse, every aspect of the overall crisis in Somalia – the humanitarian catastrophe, piracy, and terrorism – has escalated radically, a fact that provides additional support for the inverse relationship between war and national security.

Prior to May 2008, the primary obstacle to the delivery of food aid came from TFG security forces, which were armed, trained and financed by the U.S. and other Western “donors.” According to Somalia scholar Ken Menkhaus, “TFG hardliners viewed the movement of food aid to IDPs [internally displaced persons] as support to an enemy population – terrorists and terrorist sympathisers in their view – and sought to impede the flow of aid convoys through a combination of bureaucratic and security impediments.” The impediments included harassing, kidnapping and detaining the staff of local and international NGOs and UN agencies, and erecting some 400 roadblocks so that TFG security forces and allied criminal gangs could charge for the passage of trucks carrying aid.[1]

During this time, Al Shabaab militias cooperated with local and international relief organizations, as the target of the insurgency was solely the TFG and Ethiopian forces. But in the Spring of 2008 Al Shabaab broadened its war to include Western targets inside and outside the country. According to analysts, this change was in direct response to Al Shabaab's designation as a terrorist organization by the Bush administration in February 2008 in addition to the illegal U.S. missile strikes on Somali soil in March and May 2008, the latter killing militant leader, Aden Hashi Ayro.[2] A report by the British think tank, Chatham House, states that the strike on Ayro “had significant negative consequences for the humanitarian community working in Somalia and resulted in a wave of killings of Somali staff working for international NGOs.”[3] Menkhaus corroborates this point by arguing that the threats and attacks against aid workers were “in direct response to the US designation of shabaab as a terrorist organisation . . . and the May 2008 US missile strike.”[4]

Al Shabaab has since fallen increasingly under the centralized command of its most extremist elements, some of whom are believed to be veterans of other “war on terror” battlegrounds. Thus, the Al Shabaab that now exists is “a very different organization than the one that had led the struggle against Ethiopia in 2007,” writes piracy expert Martin Murphy. In fact, while the U.S.-backed Ethiopian invasion and occupation was justified on the grounds that the UIC (and by extension Al Shabaab) was “controlled” by al Qaeda members, it was not until September 2009 (almost three years after the invasion began) that Al Shabaab leaders declared allegiance with al Qaeda. Analysts interpreted this move as an indication of the more global jihadist ambitions among its revamped leadership core and the growing influence of foreign fighters.[5]

In late February 2010 (five months after the declaration), Al Shabaab leaders barred the WFP from southern Somalia, claiming the quantity of food aid supplied by the WFP disadvantaged local Somali farmers. This decision came a month after the WFP had already pulled its staff from the region due to insecurity. Al Shabaab leaders later expelled other Western aid agencies for allegedly spreading Christian propaganda and spying for Western governments.


Politicizing Aid, War on Terror Style

Just weeks before Al Shabaab barred the WFP, Mark Bowden, the UN Humanitarian and Resident Coordinator for Somalia, criticized what he called the “politicization of humanitarian issues” in Somalia. Bowden's censure was directed at the Obama administration for imposing “impossible” conditions on aid agencies working in Somalia, effectively blocking humanitarian access for the agencies working in areas under Al Shabaab's control. The conditions were instituted ostensibly to prevent money and aid from being diverted to “terrorists,” though UN officials considered U.S. claims concerning the level of diversion to be exaggerated.

As a result of Al Shabaab's placement on the U.S. list of terrorist organizations, humanitarian agencies could face prosecution by the U.S. for providing militants “material support,” like paying taxes and transportation tolls, which, as we have seen, were necessary costs to providing relief in regions controlled by local U.S. allies. The threat of prosecution sparked an ongoing debate  between the Obama administration on one side and the UN and relief agencies on the other. The latter argued it would be impossible to provide relief in Al Shabaab-controlled areas while at the same time avoiding potential prosecution.

The new aid restrictions helped obstruct humanitarian relief at a time when Somalia was on “the brink of famine,” with one in five Somali children “wasting away from malnutrition” and nearly half the population dependent on humanitarian assistance, the New York Times reported in October 2009. Relief agencies operating in Al Shabaab territory were forced to pull out. A sharp reduction in aid revenues also ensued. Relief agencies responded by scaling back their operations throughout the country. For example, several months prior to Al Shabaab's February 2010 decision to expel the WFP, U.S. officials suspended millions of dollars of critical food aid that forced the WFP to cut fifty percent of its emergency rations for over one million displaced Somalis. According to New York Times journalist, Jeffrey Gettleman, UN officials and aid workers believed U.S. restrictions on aid were “one of the biggest challenges to helping Somalia's beleaguered population.”

The Obama administration reacted to criticisms by denying the devastating impacts of its restrictions and justified them on grounds that the U.S. would not “pay a terrorism tax to al-Shabaab.” Meanwhile, the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia and Amnesty International had documented the extensive arms leakages from TFG, AMISOM and Ethiopian military personnel to Al Shabaab.[6] Knowing full well about the arms leakages, the administration increased its military assistance to the TFG and even applied for an embargo exemption in May 2009 so that it could supply some $2 million in cash to the TFG for it procure military materials.

In short, the administration was willing to provide arms indirectly to Al Shabaab as a necessary cost of beefing up its allies' military capabilities. But it refused to drop its crippling aid restrictions and risk Al Shabaab profiting from food aid as a necessary cost of preventing civilian death and suffering.

Obama's aid restrictions gained Security Council legitimacy with the March 2010 passage of Resolution 1916. The resolution calls on all member states and the UN “to take all feasible steps to mitigate” the “politicization, misuse, and misappropriation of humanitarian assistance by armed groups” and requires the UN Humanitarian Aid Coordinator for Somalia to regularly report to the Security Council on the implementation of these objectives. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) called the latter stipulation an “unprecedented requirement.”[7]

That same month, Canada and the UK joined the U.S., Australia and New Zealand by passing national legislation criminalizing financial support to Al Shabaab and introducing bureaucratic processes to ensure that aid does not materially benefit the militant group. UNOCHA has argued that these measures “compromise the independence and impartiality of humanitarian assistance,”[8] thereby further orienting aid agencies to be in line with U.S. foreign policy objectives.

When the humanitarian crisis exploded after April's failed rains, UN officials and aid agencies again began to criticize the U.S. government for its aid restrictions. The Obama administration's initial response was again to deny the impact of its aid restrcitions. After tens of thousands of deaths and increasing international criticism, the administration relented, and on August 2 informally loosened its restrictions by assuring relief agencies that they will not face prosecution "in the event their operations may accidentally benefit al-Shabaab.” There is no indication, however, that this step will be followed by formally removing the restrictions from U.S. and other nations' laws.

Plenty of Warning

The Obama administration's contribution to the dismantling of humanitarian aid in Somalia has been described in unequivocal terms. According to Jeremy Konyndyk, policy director of the U.S.-based Mercy Corps, “While poor access limited the humanitarian community’s ability to address needs in the south, the broader collapse in US humanitarian support to the whole of Somalia since 2009 has undermined humanitarian response and preparedness across the entire country.” The "collapse" in financial terms has translated into an 88 percent drop in U.S. aid to Somalia, from $237 million in 2008 to only $20 million in 2011. Some relief agency officials have claimed the resource shortfall has been as big an obstacle to relief efforts as lack of access due to Al Shabaab's restrictions. It should be noted however that the degree to which the administration has undermined overall relief efforts is by no means fully understood; thus further investigation is a matter of critical importance.

What we can be certain of is the ample time available to raise funding prior to the explosion of the crisis. Governments and aid agencies were informed about an impending food crisis as early as October 2010. The following month the UN launched the 2011 Consolidated Appeal for Somalia in order to raise $530 million in aid (an eleven percent decrease from the 2010 funding request). The UN forecast for the coming months was “reduced rains across the country,” leading to “a likely overall increase in the crisis.”[9] In January 2011, aid agencies warned that if rains failed again in April millions of lives would be threatened. But warnings never became "part of consistent policy," as observed by Randolph Kent, Director of the Humanitarian Futures Program at Kings College in London.

A clear indiciation of the disconnect was the response to funding calls. By early July, the UN received only half of the funds requested by the Consolidated Appeal for Somalia. This lack of funding caused drastic cutbacks in relief. The WFP, for example, was unable to purachse shipments of food between April and the beginning of July. The agency adjusted by slashing its food ration sizes; in May it could only provide 33 percent of its target rations.

The UN has since been able to raise over a billion dollars – still short of the $2.4 billion emergency appeal for the Horn of Africa – with the U.S. contributing close to $600 million. For making this contribution, the New York Times judged that the "Obama administration deserves credit for acting in advance to ameliorate the effects” of the crisis. A humane perspective would take into account the unncessary death of perhaps thousands of children since May, a tragedy the administration played a pivotal role in creating and one that came as no surprise. But as is almost always the case in Somalia, narrow interests took precedence over preventing tragedy, a matter to which we turn in part II.


[1] Ken Menkhaus (2009), “Somalia: 'They Created a Desert and Called it Peace(building)',” Review of African Political Economy, 36: 120, 228.

[2] Ibid, 229; and “'So Much to Fear': War Crimes and the Devastation of Somalia,” Human Rights Watch, December 2008, 96.

[3] Sally Healy and Ginny Hill, “Yemen and Somalia: Terrorism, Shadow Networks and the Limitations of State-building,” October 2010, 13.

[4] Menkhaus,“'They Created a Desert',” 229.

[5] Martin N. Murphy, Somalia: The New Barbary? (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), 154/5. See also “Somalia's Divided Islamists,” International Crisis Group, May 18, 2010.

[6] See Report of the Monitoring Group on Somalia (S/2008/274) and (S/2008/769).

[7] S/RES.1916 (2010), March 19, 2010; and Consolidated Appeal for Somalia 2011, November 30, 2010, 11.

[8] Consolidated Appeal, 11.

[9] Ibid, 23 and 32.

Leave a comment