x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

A new invasion, an old reality for famine-struck Somalia

A domestic political solution - of and by Somalis - is still vital. Without one, the ongoing failures of the Somali state will outlast this military intervention, this drought and this famine.

Somalia has been here before. A foreign power, motivated by a compelling need to stop the spreading havoc resulting from state collapse, has sent its army in to fight. The Islamist enemy seems evident, the threat alarming and the objectives of the military campaign clear.

Many Kenyans believe their government had to act after international visitors were abducted from the coastal resort town of Lamu about a month ago; tourism, one of the largest sectors of the economy, was at risk. Following the subsequent attack on aid workers at Dadaab refugee camp, the humanitarian operation in northeastern Kenya was in jeopardy.

Further, it had become apparent that the hijacking of commercial vessels by Somali pirates was not a problem that could be solved purely at sea - tackling the pirates' home ports on land was also necessary. And as the July 2010 Kampala bombings showed, Somalia's rogue Al Shabaab government and its sympathisers were a continuing threat to all of East Africa.

But, as with the Americans and Ethiopians before them, it was easier for Kenya to embark on a military expedition than to single-handedly resolve Somalia's political crisis.

Somalia has indeed been here before. A catastrophic famine has displaced hundreds of thousands of people within Somalia itself and into neighbouring countries, primarily Kenya and Ethiopia. Their coping mechanisms exhausted, four million people still in Somalia are in need of emergency food assistance.

More donor assistance is forthcoming, but there is no end in sight to the famine. As in 1991, it will ultimately claim tens if not hundreds of thousands of lives. And while the emergency response has rightly focused on the immediate alleviation of suffering, this is the most short-term of solutions.

Much of what we think we know about Somalia is wrong. Somalis have proved more than capable of building functional polities - witness the realities of Somaliland and Puntland, the two autonomous enclaves in Somalia's north that operate without any need of Mogadishu. They are states by most definitions, regardless of their lack of international recognition.

Far from being a barren wasteland, parts of Somalia even grow watermelons, and the bountiful harvest is exported to Djibouti. One of the world's leading money remittance companies, Dahabshiil, is a business with its entrepreneurial roots in Somaliland, even if today its corporate headquarters is in Dubai.

Starvation alone is not responsible for the huge death toll. Easily preventable diseases are some of the biggest killers in the famine. In September, the UN reported that at one refugee camp in Ethiopia, measles was responsible for 68 per cent of recent child deaths. A mass measles vaccination campaign is under way, targeting 2.3 million children, but only about half of those in need have so far been reached. Cholera, polio and malaria are all resurgent threats. Somalia's anarchy, which has caused efforts at universal preventative immunisation to fail, can be directly blamed for the deaths of so many victims.

It is too early to say if Kenya will succeed where the United States and Ethiopia did not. Already, Al Shabaab has retaliated with bomb attacks in Nairobi. As an open society, it will be impossible for Kenya to prevent every determined attacker with the aim of targeting a bus, a shopping centre, a government office or an embassy. It may also mean more internal strife and tension, as ethnic Somali Kenyans are treated with suspicion by their countrymen and their own government.

A combination of the rains and the emergency humanitarian response will eventually bring an end to the famine. But long-term food security remains out of reach for millions.

Food insecurity, even famine, does not mean overall food production in the region is inadequate. The problems are elsewhere: the war and general insecurity and displacement in southern Somalia, chronic inequitable access and distribution of food resources, high food prices, and the limited resilience of subsistence agriculture in times of climatic stress.

Violence has disrupted agricultural production. It has made trade more difficult and raised costs. In step with global trends, fuel and fertiliser prices have increased, further raising the cost of production. Subsistence agriculture is at the limits of its resilience in a time of climatic stress.

Somalia's official Transitional Federal Government will carry on, despite having little legitimacy or popular support. And the Kenyans may rout Al Shabaab as the Ethiopians routed the Union of Islamic Courts before them, but no country has the appetite for a protracted Somali occupation, and some form of Islamist politics is a Somali reality.

A domestic political solution - of and by Somalis - is still vital. Without one, the ongoing failures of the Somali state will outlast this military intervention, this drought and this famine. Somalia has been here before. Will this time be different?


Aly Verjee is senior researcher at the Rift Valley Institute specialising in the politics of East Africa