x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

By land and sea, Somalia needs a helping hand

Somalia, already beset with many serious problems, now faces famine caused by drought, as well. This is an opportunity for the world community not only to provide humanitarian aid but also to help root out the fearsome al Shabaab militia

The time has come for the world to try again in Somalia.

The worst drought in six decades has accomplished the unlikely feat of making life even worse - and shorter, on average - for that woebegone country's 7.5 million people. A United Nations agency says a quarter of them have now left their homes in search of food or safety or both. More than a third of those reaching Kenya or Ethiopia are malnourished. Even hardened UN relief workers say the level of distress is unprecedented.

The world has largely turned its back on Somalia, leaving it as a weak, (not to say failed) state known mainly for civil war and piracy. The fearsome al Shabaab militia controls much of the country, leaving only part of the capital, Mogadishu, to the grandly-named Transitional Federal Government (TFG) which has lukewarm international support. Because the US, with good reason, deems al Shabaab a terrorist group, US food aid has been slashed. Even UN organisations have only a timid presence.

But now there are sound reasons for a new international push into this forbidding morass. For one, any serious analysis of piracy off Somalia's coast quickly arrives at the same conclusion: desperation on land is driving the crisis at sea.

The more immediate concern, though, is the humanitarian one, which raises questions about donors' ability to get food aid to those who need it. But there is a strategic opportunity here: the crisis has exposed al Shabaab's ruthless disregard for the people it rules. A determined push now could discredit the movement, even dislodge it.

Indeed, al Shabaab has startled observers by saying it will now accept food aid from non-Muslim donors, provided they work through al Shabaab. This sign of desperation comes a month after Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, al Qa'eda's leader in Somalia, was killed at a government checkpoint. UN-approved African Union peacekeepers and local militias have recently helped TFG soldiers push out of their enclaves.

But if al Shabaab is under pressure, the government faces internal squabbles. Added diplomatic pressure for TFG unity, plus a robust international food-aid effort, could provide a decisive one-two punch against al Shabaab.

Just as the plague of pirates off Somalia's coast can be solved only on land, so the country's other problems, too, need to be addressed by bringing hope to the people. If the world can find the energy to care and the resolve to act, there is potential now to accomplish great good.