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From fear to famine: the politics of hunger in the Horn of Africa

The humanitarian crisis in the Horn continues to escalate. EPA/DAI KUROKAWA

While droughts are caused by weather – the failure of the rains – famines are invariably political.

The current famine in southern Somalia should have come as no surprise. Aid agencies have been warning of the consequences of the worst drought to hit East Africa in thirty years.

Crops have failed and livestock perished for want of pasture. But the problem is not spread evenly across the drought-affected region.

Over 12 million people in the Horn of Africa are in dire need of help. Children are the most vulnerable, with thousands dying.

Famine refugees are often faced with the cruel choice of which children they can carry with them for days in the hope of reaching a refugee camp, and which they shall be forced to abandon.

The famine has affected each part of the Horn in different ways. In each port, each capital, each refugee camp, politics decides who, and how many, will starve.

See Famine in the Horn of Africa as a larger map


In Ethiopia, nearly 5 million people, particularly in the southern region along the Somali border, require humanitarian assistance because of the drought. This is in addition to some 7.8 million Ethiopians already being supported in part by the World Food Program.

The Ethiopian government, the World Food Programme, USAID and others are involved in providing assistance, but there are claims that areas loyal to dissidents have been under-resourced.

The Ethiopian government points to security issues in these regions for the failure of aid and the influx of 54,000 refugees from Somalia into the already massive refugee camp at Dolo Odo in the first six months of 2011.


The secretive government of President Isias Afwerki in Eritrea has an official policy of self-reliance and refuses to admit there are any problems, claiming government stores are well supplied from a bumper harvest last year.

The UN lists Eritrea as “in need” but Red Cross officials in the capital, Asmara, admit they have no reliable information on conditions in the country.

Many of those affected by the famine end up in refugee camps the size of small cities. EPA/BORIS ROESSLER

Somaliland and Puntland

In the former British colonial territory of Somaliland, which broke away from the rest of Somalia in 1991 at the beginning of Somalia’s collapse into chaos, the government has been able to counter the worst by providing water and food from government stores.

While yet to receive formal recognition as an independent state, Somaliland has built an effective democratic civil society.

In the semi-autonomous region of Puntland, formed in northern Somalia in 1998, the government has been able to keep the roads open from its northern port of Bosaso to allow the flow of food and relief aid. It is under increasing pressure from the influx of refugees from southern Somalia, but so far is coping, with overseas assistance.

Southern Somalia and Mogadishu

The epicentre of the famine is in southern Somalia where episodic political chaos has persisted for most of the past twenty years, despite repeated international efforts to form a central government.

A succession of clan-based warlords has fought for control of the port capital, Mogadishu, and the trade that still flows through it. There is no effective administration in the capital, much less government writ in the surrounding provinces.

In 2006, a coalition of Muslim clerics – the Union of Islamic Courts – and their followers drove out the warlords and imposed a crude form of Shari’a law on the capital. The rough justice stemmed the chaos and was welcomed by the inhabitants, but raised concern among the Western Powers, especially the United States.

The US feared the Union of Islamic Courts was the thin end of an Islamic fundamentalist wedge with possible links to al-Qaeda.

Ethiopia, which had fought several wars with Somalia over the disputed Somali region of southern Ethiopia, invaded at the end of 2006. It helped install a warlord-dominated Transitional Government of National Unity under President Abdullahi Yusuf, a former Puntland warlord with close connections to Ethiopia.

The fundamentalist faction of the Union of Islamic Court regrouped as al-Shabaab, under the militant Ahmed Abdi Godane, and launched a guerrilla campaign against the Ethiopian invaders.

They eventually forced the Ethiopians to withdraw from Somalia in 2008, but only after a weak Transitional Government of National Unity, backed by the African Union and Western governments, had been installed in Mogadishu.

For the first time in years, al-Shabaab have vacated Mogadishu, and peacekeeping forces have moved in. AAP

The Transitional Government of National Unity has proven dysfunctional, with little authority outside the capital, and dependant upon a small UN-authorized African Union peacekeeper contingent (AMISOM) for what little power it was able to exercise.

AMISOM troops fought pitched battles with al-Shabaab militias for control of the streets of Mogadishu, eventually forcing all but remnant elements of the militants out of the city.

Throughout most of southern Somalia, al-Shabaab militants exercised what little control there was. The peasants acquiesced in al-Shabaab’s rough justice as an alternative to chaos, but an increasingly strident al-Shabaab leadership forced the World Food Programme and other international aid agencies to pull out eighteen months ago.

The United States, the largest donor to the World Food Programme, refused to allow American aid into southern Somalia for fear it would help sustain elements of al-Shabaab.

American policy toward Somalia has been totally preoccupied with the “war on terror”.

The hardliners, led by Ahmed Abdi Godane, seemed prepared to sacrifice the peasants to create an Islamic state. Their rivals within al-Shabaab, with roots in the local southern Somali clans, favour accepting Western food aid. The peasants voted with their feet, fleeing to whatever shelter they could find in Mogadishu or the refugee camps in neighbouring Kenya.


Dadaab in Kenya was being described as the largest refugee camp in the world even before the current influx of Somalis. The camp covers some 50 square kilometres and was originally intended to house 90,000.

A young girl stands among the graves at Dadaab, Kenya. Oxfam East Africa

With a current population of over 440,000 and some 1,300 new arrivals every day, it is overcrowded makeshift city. It sits in the midst of a region of Kenya itself deeply affected by drought.

Up to half the local livestock have perished and there is mounting resentment from the locals, who view those inside the refugee camp as “privileged”, with schools and medical services.

The corrupt Kenyan government is also accused of failing to take steps early enough. In some regions, drought conditions have persisted for the past three years. Officials are accused of siphoning off food aid for their own enrichment while, as one Kenyan remarked, drought is big business for some well placed Kenyans.

An unsustainable life

But the other problem is overgrazing by increasingly large herds supporting a burgeoning population, only to die when drought hits.

The population in the Horn of Africa has more than doubled since the 1980s. Traditional lifestyles can no longer support the growing population across East Africa.

Only long-term development assistance that offer alternative means of livelihood and social security can rectify what will otherwise prove to be an on-going and more frequent series of crises.

Read more about the humanitarian crisis in Africa here.

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