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Somalia: Updates and Reflections

AfricaFocus Bulletin
Aug 5, 2011 (110805)
(Reposted from sources cited below)

Editor's Note

It is difficult to get beyond dichotomies. Either focus on responding to undeniably massive life-threatening famine or on understanding the multiple causes and the reasons that it is happening again. Highlight one cause or another among the factors responsible: drought, global warming, war, failures of governments and international agencies, and more. Nor is it sufficient to say "all of the above."

AfricaFocus only rarely publishes more than two issues on the same topic close together, and in the two issues on Somalia on July 24, I tried to include a range of aspects on this complex topic. But there are two reasons to return to the subject so soon, both the complexity of the discussion about causes and the continued urgency of immediate response. Whether from aid fatigue or other reasons, the international response to the immediate crisis is still both slow and under-funded. The African Union just postponed for two weeks a summit intended to galvanize response by African governments. And some may misinterpret discussions about more fundamental causes or the failings of the aid industry as an excuse to avoid the need for immediate response.

This issue of AfricaFocus includes several current updates and reflections I have found most helpful (thanks to AfricaFocus readers for calling my attention to some of them). I have also included a selection of links to other sources with an even broader range of views. Each of these, in my opinion, is worth your time, although I don't always agree with the nuances and have sometimes added a brief note of my own to contextualize the link.

Those included here are (1) a brief commentary by Muthoni Wanyeki, the outgoing executive director of the Kenyan Human Rights Commission, (2) a very clear analysis of the multiple causes of the escalation of drought into famine, by leading Somali scholar Abdi Samatar, and (3) an update from the Survival Backpacks project (, a project by Somali filmmakers in Nairobi to support refugees making their way from inside Somalia to camps in Kenya. Many AfricaFocus readers contributed to this project after the last Bulletin, and it has now raised more than $18,000 of its modest $25,000. The trailer for the film they are working on is available at QR_1G1yOEbA

The earlier AfricaFocus Bulletins on Somalia from last month are at and Previous AfricaFocus Bulletins on Somalia, including those from the Africa Policy E-Journal from 1999 to 2002, are at An analysis of U.S. policy from 2009, by William Minter and Daniel Volman, is at

++++++++++++++++++++++end editor's note+++++++++++++++++

Kenyan lives are cheap, Somali lives even cheaper

Muthoni Wanyeki

2011-08-03, Issue 543

Pambazuka News

[Muthoni Wanyeki is the outgoing executive director of the Kenya Human Rights Commission.]

'Life is cheap. And so we are lethargic - until the numbers become too large to ignore,' writes Muthoni Wanyeki, as Kenyans fail to heed the plight of either their fellow citizens or neighbouring Somalis during the region's worst drought in 60 years.

KCB, the Media Owners Association and the Safaricom Foundation this past week launched 'Kenyans for Kenya' an appeal to ordinary Kenyans to raise half a billion shillings to help mitigate the effects of the drought in northern Kenya.

It's not clear whether they were aware that 'Kenyans for Kenya' was originally a campaign launched by Kikuyus for Change to create a sense of national purpose and solidarity in the polarised aftermath of the 2007 general election and the violence that followed. But it is clear their motivation comes from the same place - a sense of outrage that Kenyans are dying (this time from starvation) and a sense of moral duty to help stop those deaths.

But beyond acknowledging the effort we should also ask ourselves some harder questions: What does it take to move us? And why does it take so long to be moved? It is not like the urgency of the situation was unclear. Our meteorological department had told us that this was the worst drought in 60 years. The humanitarian and relief organisations - international and national - had been ringing the bells for at least a couple of months. The media - again, both international and national - had been sharing those so familiar and yet so terrible images of people reduced to skin and bone.

Maybe that was the problem - the familiarity of those terrible images. They are not new to us. They are like an almost ever-present backdrop to our lives to which we have become so accustomed that we ignore it. That is why our own government's response seems so ploddingly, routinely unbothered. There is drought. People are dying of hunger up north. Send them some maize. Discuss where to get the maize. Make the deals (and the inevitable profits from the deals for big brokers and middlemen). Expect that some of it will end up off the supply route, being sold instead of distributed. Profess shock. Produce the figures to show that, regardless, the government has done what it can.

Life is cheap. And so we are lethargic - until the numbers become too large to ignore.

This too explains the otherwise incomprehensible situation at our border with Somalia. Kenyans are dying of hunger - that fact is unremarkable. So why would the fact that Somalis are also dying of hunger be remarkable to us? And why would that allow Somalis special dispensation to cross over into our territory? They can do what we are doing here on their side of the border. Anyone who does find their deaths remarkable can do what they want to do about it on the other side of the border. Why here?

It seems callous - but that is the basic and underlying perception of the problem. We are unmoved - why would we be otherwise? Compound that perception with other facts. Refugees, particularly those of Somali extraction, are a security problem, all carrying with them the noxious whiff of Al Shaabab. Conveniently ignoring the fact that the majority of Somali refugees are seeking refuge because of Al Shaabab and the huge mess that is the so-called Somali state. And that we are obligated to receive asylum-seekers.

'Kenyans for Kenya' has forced us to do so with respect to our own deaths by starvation. What will do so with respect to our neighbours' deaths by starvation? 'Kenyans for Somalia?' 'Kenyans for Africa?' What?

Genocidal politics and the Somali famine

The blame for Somalia's devastating famine should not be levelled at the weather, but at geopolitics and armed militia.

Abdi Ismail Samatar

30 Jul 2011 / direct URL:

Abdi Ismail Samatar is a professor of geography at the University of Minnesota and a research fellow at the University of Pretoria, South Africa.

Droughts are common in the Somali peninsula, but only an exceptional one produces famine. For instance, the Horn of Africa drought of 1984 did not produce famine in Somalia, while the Ethiopian population was devastated. The latter country suffered famine because the military government of the time was engaged in a civil war, and did not come to the rescue of its people.

Ten years earlier, in the mid-1970s, there was a prolonged drought, known as "dabadeer" ["the long-tailed"], in several parts of Somalia. Fortunately, this drought did not lead to mass starvation because the Somali government moved quickly to assist the people. They mobilised the population and sought the assistance of international allies to deliver food and water to the needy.

Somalia's last major famine was in 1992 and was not caused by drought. 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.

Marauding gangs had invaded the region after the collapse of the Somali state in 1991 and looted farmers' harvests. The country's major warlord wanted to capture the region, so did not allow food aid to reach the desperate population. Reports told of unimaginable suffering long before TV images of ruined lives reached millions around the world. It was only then that US president George HW Bush decided to send US troops to the country to enable food to reach the indigent population.

The climatic record show that droughts frequently occur in the Somali peninsula, but have not produced famines over the past fifty years, until 2011. However, the UN and other international actors have been arguing about the devastating drought in the area for nearly a year, while only a handful of scholars and activists were alarmed by the creeping famine. What thoughtful people must ask is: "Why famine now?"

Who is to blame?

The Somali people in the affected regions have been made vulnerable to ecological disturbances because of several political and military forces. These include the US "War on Terror", the al-Shabaab terrorist group, Somalia's Transitional Federal Government (TFG), the Ethiopian invasion of Somalia and its continuous political and military involvement there, and finally East Africa's Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) and the UN.

These actors have created circumstances in which local food resources were exhausted and assistance from outside was denied or delayed until tens of thousands of people starved.

Exactly what role did each of these forces play in manufacturing the famine? First, the US agenda in Somalia has been to fight what it calls "Islamic terrorists", and al-Shabaab in particular. Since the bombing of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, and especially since 9/11, clandestine operations were conducted to snatch "terrorists" and dry up their support base in Somalia. These operations sought assistance from several of Mogadishu's warlords, who formed the "Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism" in 2005.

Somalis despised this alliance and their patron, and ultimately turned against them under the leadership of the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) in 2006. The UIC defeated the warlords, restored peace to Mogadishu for the first time in 15 years, and brought most of southern Somalia under its ambit.

Consequently, the US and its Ethiopian ally claimed that these Islamists were terrorists and therefore a menace to the region. In contrast, the vast majority of Somalis supported the UIC and pleaded with the international community to engage them peacefully. But the peace did not last. The US-supported Ethiopian invasion begun in December 2006 and displaced more than a million people and killed close to 15,000 civilians. Those displaced then are part of today's famine victims. Somalia counterattacked, and Ethiopia was compelled to withdraw the bulk of its troops from Somalia. But the dynamics generated by the Ethiopian invasion continue to destabilise the country.

Second, IGAD and the international community picked up where the Ethiopians left off, by designing a new TFG - led by the faction of the UICs most amenable to the international community, and particularly to the US agenda. The new regime marginalised the forces that compelled Ethiopia to withdraw from Somalia. Consequently, the TFG came to control only those areas in Mogadishu under the command of the African Union force.

A new civil war ensued between the TFG and its opponents, and within a month much of southern Somalia fell under the sway of al-Shabaab and its affiliates. Once in power, the TFG became known for its corruption, incompetence, and internal strife. Propped up by the international community, the regime in Mogadishu has been oblivious to the growing crisis, which ultimately led to the death of nearly 80,000 of its "citizens". It has yet to articulate a plan of actions to rescue its population. Engulfed in an internal power struggle, the regime has failed to put aside sectarian politics to save the population.

Al-Shabaab fails to govern

Third, al-Shabaab - originally the youth wing of the UIC - declared its affiliation with al-Qaeda, and were identified as a terrorist group by the UN and the US, and have been consequently targeted by US forces. The UN and the US have blocked food shipment to the areas that al-Shabaab controls in order to deny them these supplies. Al-Shabaab wants to establish an Islamic state, but unfortunately, it has failed to put in place even the most rudimentary infrastructure to govern the region or provide services.

Furthermore, al-Shabaab has denied the population the opportunity to organise itself to meet the challenges of the livelihood crisis. Thus, despite the fact that the two epicentres (Lower Shabeele and Bakool) of the famine are in al-Shabaab hands, they have failed to appeal even to the Islamic world for assistance. Most insidiously, they continue to deny the existence of significant famine conditions in the area and have consequently reneged on the permission they recently gave to the world community to deliver food to the starving.

Normally, societies have three lines of defence against mass starvation: local capacity, national government and the international community. When a disaster hits a region, the first help comes from local administrations and the communities themselves. If events overwhelm the first responders, then the national government takes charge of operations; and when the crisis exceeds the wherewithal of the nation, international actors come to the rescue.

It is clear that all three levels of livelihood protections have failed in Somalia. Al-Shabaab has prohibited the local population from organising their municipal governments and charities to fend off the disaster. Similarly, Somalia's national government, which is beholden to sectarian leadership and international patrons, has been oblivious to the emerging calamity, and has thwarted the international community from coming to its aid.

The African Union, the UN, the EU, and the US continued to describe the famine as a drought until July 18, when it was no longer possible to conceal the deaths of almost 80,000 people from starvation. The United States and its allies have been so obsessed with defeating al-Shabaab that they have ignored the fate of the millions of people who live in areas controlled by al-Shabaab.

Finally, callous uses of military and political power by all actors against poor people have produced a catastrophic famine. Altering the behaviour of the powerful would be tantamount to a revolution. But before such a transformation can be imagined, lives must be saved by immediately dropping food and water in villages and settlements in the region. Such urgent distribution of life's necessities will keep people in their homes before a humane scheme of reconstruction could begin.

What is ultimately required is the establishment, by Somalis with the genuine assistance of others, of a national government that is accountable to the people. Such a government is the best defence against famine, as well as against terrorism.

Deeq Afrika explains WHY Global Somali Response

By Deeq Afrika - Co-coordinator Survival Backpacks project / / / ttp://

Fed up of watching -from the comfort of our living roomsuntold horrors unfold in the Horn of Africa, fed up of hearing plans made but not seeing much done, fed up of making excuses for ourselves -excuses like we were too young or too poor or too far away from the problem to make a difference- we, young people from Somalia, Kenya, America, Australia and the UK formed the Global Somali Response.

The purpose of the Global Somali Response is to identify the major gaps in the existing emergency responses so as to mobilize the Somali community in the diaspora to stand up and take ownership and responsibility for their people, to drive resources where they matter the most -en route to Dadaab rather than just in Dadaab itself- and to restore the dignity of the Somali people.

The road to Dadaab is paved with open graves saying ii kaalay ... ii kaalay ... (come to me ... come to me ... There, we met people that were faced with the difficult choice of sitting and waiting for death, or getting up and walking towards it. We met families that had walked for 22 days straight and were willing to walk another 90km to Dadaab. We met mothers that had left their children on the roadsides to die alone, and fathers that had no more energy left to feel grief for their lost children. The most appalling thing was that no aid agencies were there in the routes to Dadaab to help these people.

We are putting together a series of appeal clips and documentaries to raise money and awareness on the plight of the refugees. We are also raising funds to fill Survival Backpacks with essential supplies; water, glucose, slippers, blankets and some dry food. These survival backpacks shall be distributed to refugees in transit from Somalia to Kenya. This is because most deaths occur during transit, not at the destination. Only six out of ten refugees make it to Dadaab refugee camp. The Survival Packs are meant to alleviate the suffering and decrease the number of deaths.

The Global Somali Response holds the values of initiative, quick response, and genuine care and concern. Our efforts are starting to bear fruits. All over the world, young people are taking the initiative. They are stepping in to save lives. Somalis are choosing to be responsible for their own people. Young people are offering their time, money and skills to the initiative. What is unique about us is that, thanks to volunteers, the raised funds go directly to the victims unlike some other agencies that have high administration costs. It is no wonder that the international media is taking notice.

People are listening and taking action. We identified Dhobley in Somalia as one of the gaps in the emergency response, and already, the international media as well as relief organizations are beginning to focus their attention on this area. We shall continue to identify other gaps in the emergency response and find ways of filling them. Please email us on to find out how YOU can help. Join our Facebook page Global Somali Emergency Response for more updates or follow us on twitter @dadaab_response.

Additional news and commentary

Ken Rice, "Somalia famine relief effort hit harder by food aid delays than by rebels," August 4, 2011 / direct URL:
Horn of Africa Fast Facts about the Drought, Aug 5, 2011

Useful update and background information. Regular reports from IRIN available at

UNHCR, "Fleeing from Dust and Starvation," Aug 2, 2001
A better than usual report, despite the familiar themes. But also notes support being given to newly arrived refugees by other refugees themselves.

Jeremy Scahill, "The CIA's Secret Sites in Somalia," The Nation, August 1-8, 2011 / direct URL:
Detailed investigative reporting on U.S. military and intelligence involvement.

"Famine and Drought", Owen Abroad, July 27, 2011
On why Ethiopia is better prepared to deal with the drought this time. Read the comments as well as the original blog post.

"Famine by man not drought," Africa Answerman, Aug 4, 2011
Title is misleading. It's both, which the author acknowledges.

"Famine in Somalia: The story you're unlikely to hear any time soon", Rasna Warah, Aug 3, 2011
The article's valid points about media hype and the aid industry are undermined by the hype in this article itself, which expresses these critiques in simplistic (and actually very common) language.

"East Africa&a's drought response: [African] Union members must arise," Anne Mitaru, Aug 3, 2011

Calls for African states to take leading role in responding to crisis.

Karen Rothmyer, "Hiding the Real Africa", March/April 2011

Focuses on the effects of NGO & UN agency fundraising needs and dependence of journalists on these sources on the tendency to oversimplify "Africa" as an unrelieved disaster zone.

AfricaFocus Bulletin is an independent electronic publication providing reposted commentary and analysis on African issues, with a particular focus on U.S. and international policies. AfricaFocus Bulletin is edited by William Minter.

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