When drought becomes famine: the role of politics in the Horn of Africa

Aid is not getting to those who need it most. AFP

With the UN declaring famine in Somalia for the first time since 1992, and other countries in the Horn of Africa suffering critical food shortages, this already unstable region is facing devastation.

Drought-stricken Mogadishu has now been hit with torrential rains, compounding the humanitarian crisis as it unfolds.

But while drought may be a weather event, analysts say it is human intervention that has lead to the mass starvation taking place in the Horn.


What are the causes of famine in the Horn of Africa?

Dr Jonathan Makuwira, Senior Lecturer at RMIT University: I think the crisis has to be looked at from a broader perspective. The region is severely affected by weather patterns, so erratic weather is obviously the major contributor to the famine in the region. But you also have to look at this crisis from another angle, which is political. If you look at the history of the region, Ethiopia has been embroiled in a civil war for quite a while, so too is Somalia and Eritrea, so you’re talking about a region which has perpetually been in a state of internal conflict for a long, long time.

People don’t have the luxury to go about doing their business in the field, rather you have a country that is gripped with fear, and that has basically collapsed. It’s an example of what we may call a failed state, which is run basically by international NGOs.

Dr Apollo Nsubuga-Kyobe: Mainly, it’s climate change. But it’s also because of deforestation, because of the shifts in weather – too much rain, then no rain at all – because of misuse of land and utilities, and then of course there’s population growth.

What human beings do on the land depends on exactly how much you work that land. For example, in agriculture if there is political stability, people are able to recycle the land and manage the supplies that way, but the fact that they have political instability means they have to move from one place to another they can’t sustain these levels of land management. It’s going to create trouble.

Climate change, environmental use, population growth and the dynamics of the world today all play a role. The question of climate change cannot be addressed by one single country, but when you lack resources like many of the African countries you don’t even have the knowledge to start with. The problem is much bigger than it should be.

Associate Professor David Dorward:Famine is really caused by politics and this famine is deeply political.

But it’s not just Somalia that is political. If you look at where the famine is worse in Ethiopia, it’s the Ogaden, where the Ethiopian government has used famine as a weapon against secessionists who want to leave Ethiopia to join with Somalia or have a separate country.

The part of Kenya that is worse affected by the drought is the part that has traditionally received the least support from government.

The provision of aid is highly politicised. AFP

What is preventing aid from reaching those who need it?

Jonathan Makuwira: Somalia was a strategic region for the United States, which failed, and that failure has to be looked at as a significant contribution to the state of affairs today. Because in the end, when you pull out of a country without achieving your objective, you open up to opposing forces. The ideological and philosophical position of these new opposing forces is an anti-western mentality. Unfortunately, it is the West that usually brings in aid. The current insurgency is saying no to aid provided by the West, which is seen as enemy number one.

Even if there was adequate support, that support is not reaching people. Also, over the past couple of years there have been killings of aid personal in Somalia and that has contributed to the current crisis, because now not many NGOs are willing to sacrifice their staff.

Apollo Nsubuga-Kyobe: Aid comes in two forms. Sometimes it’s from actual supplied various materials, in terms of food, but also some kind of support has to come through doubling production by using things like chemicals and genetic modification.

The problem with that is some areas cannot accept that yield for a short time, and then subsequent years it becomes a barren environment. Much of the aid programs just look at the immediate needs. The rest normally don’t take a deep holistic approach to the impacts of these things.

When you have clearly failed states like Somalia, instead of aid going to do what it is designed to do, it is picked up and used to facilitate their political ambitions. People who work for some aid programs can siphon resources to fighting forces on the front. They do not rehabilitate the land and environment.

Another matter is anything to grow you need government and political stability. You need a government that is going to think about population growth, feed the people and manage the ecology. In failed states these things don’t happen, so people are nomads who move from one place to another. They live day by day and this doesn’t help the land.

David Dorward: It’s politics, but it’s also the fact that it’s a difficult logistical operation in this part of the world. The people I have the greatest admiration for are those in the World Food Program and those who go into these areas because it’s dangerous. You have ill-disciplined, armed young men who are high on ideology, be it ethnic as in the Ogaden or religious, as in southern Somalia.

A nomadic lifestyle means food is never secure. AFP

What is the role of insurgent groups like al-Shabab in blocking support?

Jonathan Makuwira: You have a country that has no firm leadership. It’s basically run by insurgents.

We may say Somalia has a President in Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, but essentially he does not have power on his own. That’s why the insurgency of al-Shabab has penetrated close to Mogadishu. These are the guys blocking supply that is required to defeat the hunger. Al-Shabab is very much the agency that is opposed to any support, either by NGOs or by multilateral agencies. In that way, the conflict in Somalia is an ideological one.

David Dorward: For the last 20 years the World Food Program has been active in Somalia, despite all the problems and the political risks. But eighteen months ago, al-Shabab, the Islamic fundamentalists, who control the southern part of Somalia began to put so many restrictions on the UN body that they withdrew. They were trying to siphon of the World Food Program’s resources to feed their own people and recruit soldiers.

Al-Shabab is trying to use the famine to regain a bit of local standing by inviting the World Food Program back in and taking credit for it, saying, “aren’t we the good guys now?”

Is the developed world acting appropriately?

Jonathan Makuwira: The international community should work in collaboration with the African Union. It needs to engage in appropriate measures that provide ownership to the areas affected. Ethiopia, Somalia, Eritrea, Kenya and other regions have to come together and provide means and ways of making a compromise that can help the people get what they need. The machinery should avoid tying aid to anything, because what is needed here is simply to provide support without conditions.

Apollo Nsubuga-Kyobe: The arms of the developed world are a bit tied. They have tended to walk way from the African Union because in a way the African Union is acting like a gatekeeper. The international community cannot go and impose itself in these areas, they have to work with the respective agencies, but those agencies don’t have the same goals.

Affected regions need unconditional support from the West. AFP

David Dorward: The Americans have always supported their close ally, Ethiopia, in its intervention in Somalia. But Ethiopia has not ben part of the solution, it’s been part of the problem. The Ethiopian government wants a weak Somalia, so they’re not all that disappointed that there’s chaos in Somalia because it means they don’t have to worry about their traditional enemy.

Similarly, Djibouti has played an less-than-honest role in the negotiations. The French and the Americans have long used Djibouti as a military base for operations in the Middle East, so they are wiling to turn a blind eye to what the Djibouti government’s been doing by messing with the politics of Somalia, and then of course you have the Saudis and Islamic fundamentalists who’ve been funding al-Shabab.

What needs to be done to combat this crisis?

Jonathan Makuwira: Food support is obviously required, but where does this food come from? The African Union should be in charge of handling these matters, with the support of the international community. But the leadership of the African Union is diminished by the international political machinery. In fact, the African Union has been frustrated a number of times on this issue.

It’s very clear that this could be done differently by looking at resources within the region before you look across the ocean to the transatlantic. If a leader within the region can be supported on that front, it is more acceptable to nations like Somalia. The African Union is supposed to lead that kind of initiative. Given the resources the international community is willing to provide them with, we should let the Union look after the region.

There’s no doubt about the fact that we’re talking about millions of lives at stake at the moment, and the need is critical. What we must do is ask, how can these lives be reached? What strategies need to be implemented? Is it with force? Is it by negotiation? Within the international community they have to act very, very quickly. We have to think about to what extent we compromise, because lives are at stake. At the same time, do you negotiate with insurgents like al-Shabab? This crisis has both political and moral dimensions.

Band-aid solutions won’t fix the crisis in the long term. AFP

David Dorward: The crisis needs to be dealt with by development. The World Food Program and others aren’t development agencies, they’re Band-Aid operations to get people though crises. What really needs to be done in Somalia is for some kind of hope being given to ordinary Somalis.

They need to know that there’s another way to get ahead without using the gun. We’ve got to give transitional governments real financial support. It’s not military support to keep them in power, it’s not putting African Union troops in Mogadishu to defend a government against a faction of its own people, it means providing development assistance.

It’s those who are desperate that turn to banditry, war lord-ism and Islamic extremism. Traditionally, Islam is set fairly lightly in Somalia. The extremism has been caused in large measure by funding and propaganda from outside and nobody willing to do anything about it. To do that you really have to start dealing with the Saudis in terms that the West is not prepared to risk their oil for.