x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

In Somali crisis an opportunity for real change

The deadly bombing in Somalia helps to remind us that the famine crisis there is a symptom of political failure - which need not continue forever.

Tens of thousands of people have died in Somalia's famine, and aid agencies warned two weeks ago that another 750,000 are at great risk of death in the next few months.

By comparison, 70 bomb deaths may seem unworthy of big headlines around the world. But the front-page stories about the shameful Mogadishu blast were fully appropriate, because they remind us that political failure is behind Somalia's crisis. The shock value of the bomb planted by the Islamist group Al Shabab may at least sweep away the world's donor fatigue and political despair and re-energise the old debate over how to fix a failed state.

Anyone who doubts that this crisis is political in origin should consider that drought has also ruined crops in Kenya, Ethiopia, and Eritrea. But those states function. Aid agencies can operate, food can be distributed and people can survive and remain in their homes.

But in Somalia, most of the factions in the loosely-organised Al Shabab have barred western aid agencies. Mogadishu's port is moribund, Al Shabab controls Kismayo port and pirates infest coastal waters.

In the arid desperation of Somalia, even Al Shabab seems to have been failing. The movement abandoned most of Mogadishu this summer, probably because it could not feed the populace. But the weak UN-backed government has wasted this opportunity to win support.

Al Shabab is promising more bombings, always a sign of weakness. However, excluding Somalia's Islamists from political life, the policy pursued by the US and its allies, notably Ethiopia, can only perpetuate the nihilism we saw this week. Finding a way to persuade the Islamists through dialogue that there is an alternative to never-ending bloodshed is an option worth exploring. It is also time to rethink bans on aid, imposed to penalise militants but which have hurt the public far more.

There is at least one other promising approach. A UN monitoring group noted in July that "Al-Shabab's greatest asset today is its economic strength," including $15 million a year from taxing exports of charcoal, much of which moves through the Gulf. The UN unit urged Dubai and Sharjah in particular to clamp down on this trade.

But while economic leverage - and good intelligence - can help, the solution to this political problem will ultimately be political. After years of failure, a new openness could lead the international community towards helping the hungry.