x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Arab countries should step up to save lives in Somalia

Somalia, at the crossroads of bad governance and disastrous drought, desperately needs help, a lot of help. And it is Arab and Muslim countries which should step up.

Imagine a country with the longest coastline in Africa, bordering some of the busiest sea lanes in the world. Imagine this country has very wealthy neighbours just across the water, and a history of commercial links to faraway places as an old Silk Road trading post. If geography is destiny, then this country is fortunate indeed.

Alas, few would consider Somalia fortunate today. Drought-stricken, wracked by nearly 20 years of civil war, in the grip of Al Qaeda-linked extremists in the south and warlords and pirates in other parts of the country, Somalia is considered the epitome of a failed state. And now its 10 million people face the worst famine in 60 years.

When natural disaster and governance disaster intersect, it does little good to focus on how geography or regional aid could come to the rescue.

What matters is the facts on the ground: a vicious cycle of civil war, violence, banditry and warlordism coupled with a debilitating drought that has already killed tens of thousands in the past few months and threatens the lives of nearly one million children.

The United Nations has declared a famine in the southern part of the country, where the Al Qaeda-linked extremists of Al Shabaab (mis)rule.

The UN says nearly half of Somalia's population needs urgent aid. Oxfam reports that more than 30 per cent of children are acutely malnourished. Camps in neighbouring Kenya, run by the United Nations High Commisioner for Refugees, are jammed with children on the verge of death, the elderly and desperate people fighting for scraps of food.

The Food Security and Nutrition Analysis Unit, a non-governmental monitoring organisation, reported on July 20 that "this crisis represents the most serious food insecurity situation in the world today, in terms of both scale and severity".

And what does Al Shabaab have to say about all of this? The group claims that the UN is "exaggerating" the crisis for "propaganda" purposes, and has banned some aid groups from operating in their fiefdoms. Militants have even seized some aid shipments intended for the starving.

Al Shabaab's preposterous assertion is yet another example of its predatory misrule. Indeed, the group's actions should be seen as war crimes.

The world still vividly and painfully recalls searing images of emaciated children in Ethiopia in 1984-85, and in Somalia in 1991-92. Now it is happening again. It must be stopped.

The Somali Transitional Federal Government (TFG) has demonstrated an inability to control the country beyond its Mogadishu base. Two northern regions, Puntland and Somaliland (which declared independence from Somalia in 1991) face smaller problems. In fact, the majority Muslim Somaliland is often praised by outside observers as a beacon of stable self-governance and democracy.

But if the TFG is unable to secure effective aid corridors for southern Somalia, and if the African Union forces assigned to combat Al Shabaab cannot dislodge the militants, the people there will be caught in a deadly trap of nature and man combined.

Michelle Kagari of Amnesty International noted that the war-zone children of southern Somalia are already "experiencing unimaginable horrors on a daily basis". Spiralling famine has compounded those horrors.

What is to be done? The UN says an extra $500 million (Dh1.8 billion) is needed for 2011 to meet the immense needs of refugees flowing into Kenya and Ethiopia, and to deliver desperately needed food aid.

Here is an opportunity for the Arab League and the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) to demonstrate leadership in a growing crisis in their own neighbourhood, rather than simply waiting for the western "cavalry" and the United Nations.

Somalia is a member of both the OIC and the Arab League, but the Arab grouping has for far too long ignored the plight of Somalia, giving it scant attention compared to the Palestinian occupied territories or Lebanon.

The new Arab League secretary general Nabil Al Arabi has already urgently called for Arab states, the private sector and civil society organisations to act.

The UAE, for one, is doing exactly that: a delegation of officials, acting on a directive from the UAE's leadership, plans to go to Mogadishu this week to co-ordinate relief supplies of food, drinking water, and medical supplies.

And the Kuwaiti Emir, Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah, has already pledged $100 million to relief efforts.

GCC states should have little problem covering the $500 million the UN says its needs, but the work is not for the Gulf states alone.

The Islamic Development Bank should approve immediate humanitarian assistance for Somalia, and the OIC and the Arab League should become involved more vigorously in a Somali peace process.

The OIC, which has so far only issued requests for aid, should convene an emergency meeting of members with religious leaders and declare al Shabaab's obstruction of aid to contravene the humanitarian principles of Islam.

That would not be likely to change their minds, but it is important for the OIC to go on the record on the right side of history.

Key Arab states stepped up with massive aid packages for Egypt after the revolution there, which had difficult economic fallout. Somalia's crisis, far more severe, requires the urgent attention of the entire world, and the Arab and Muslim world should be at the forefront.

Muslim and Arab intellectuals and leaders often complain of western meddling in their societies, but most of the aid organisations that are now trying to save Somali lives are western. It's time Muslim and Arab organisations and governments stepped up to tackle this humanitarian disaster.


Afshin Molavi is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, a non-partisan think tank in Washington