Aidan Hartley

Drought didn’t cause Somalia’s famine

War did. And food aid may well make it worse

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War did. And food aid may well make it worse

It seems wicked to question charity appeals for starving people in the Horn of Africa. Hunger is a terrible way to go, as I discovered when I once asked a dying Somali near Mogadishu to tell me what he was feeling. He was just passing into that zombie-like state with staring eyes. He said how the first ache was replaced by burning thirst that never leaves you. Marasmus turns children into martian-headed skeletons. Kwashiorkor swells their bellies. Glossy black hair turns reddish. Teeth fall out and ulcers like gunshot wounds eat into the cheeks. Inside, the body cannibalises itself, eating up fat reserves, then muscle proteins. Immune systems crash, diseases pour in and terminal release comes with organ failure.

I am haunted by the people I have seen die in Somalia, and by news pictures of the latest famine, but aid agencies are presenting this crisis misleadingly — as if it were an act of God in the Old Testament. In early July charities were blaming it on the ‘worst drought in 60 years’. They are still calling it the ‘worst drought ever’ when in recent days torrential rains have flooded refugee camps in Mogadishu. The reality is that war caused this famine, not a drought, and the heart of it is in the battlefields of southern Somalia.

In December 2006, Ethiopian forces, financed by US and British money and reinforced by western special forces, invaded southern Somalia and occupied Mogadishu. The objective was to expel Islamists accused of being linked to al-Qa’eda who had seized power six months before in the capital. Under the Islamists, the city was enjoying its first period of relative peace since Somalia collapsed into civil war in 1991.

The infighting was by no means over, but what was evident in Mogadishu under the Islamists, as I saw, was that Somalis were doing a surprisingly fine job of sorting out their own problems. The Ethiopian invasion smashed this process to smithereens, stirring up an insurgency led by militant forces of al-Shabaab. In the past 55 months of conflict, thousands have been killed in Mogadishu. It has become a battlefield between militant factions and an African Union force that replaced the Ethiopians with support from western intelligence agents, mercenaries, aerial drones and lashings of anti-terrorism money. Out in the provinces, al-Shabaab forces rule over the population in a style reminiscent of Pol Pot’s Cambodia crossed with the Taleban.

In the sorghum-growing areas that are Somalia’s breadbasket, al-Shabaab forces looted grain stores, taxed food markets and menaced farmers until they gave up planting crops. These farmers are Rahanwein, a family of clans who suffered most of the 300,000 deaths in Somalia’s 1992 famine. Some Rahanweins are aligned with al-Shabaab, but that hasn’t saved them. Other weak clans, meanwhile, are powerless against the onslaught of warlike nomadic militias in the pro-government or militant forces.

For let’s get one thing right: the ‘Somalis’ are not starving. The victims are mainly the weak or minority clans — or anybody who has not armed himself to the teeth. Add to this political mix the failures of the United Nations and its main sponsors. The UN’s diplomats evacuated Somalia in 1995, following the collapse of the Unosom peacekeeping mission. They have sat in Nairobi ever since.

In the absence of useful action to solve Somalia’s conflict, the UN through its World Food Programme agency has funnelled just enough grain into Somalia to make it appear as if a humanitarian policy exists. But shipping the subsidised harvests of Nebraska to Africa year after year is not a clever thing to do unless you have a bigger plan. Across Africa’s Horn, vulnerable populations have been kept alive with food handouts that do not allow them to live well — but maintain their fertility so that their numbers have exploded. In Ethiopia, one of the nations now affected by hunger, the population is now twice the figure it was in the 1984 famine, and even in a good harvest year aid agencies feed the same number of people as those who received food handouts in that one historic year.

In 2010, al-Shabaab fell out with the United Nations and kicked the WFP out of its territory. Another season of war — and the failure of recent rains — and disaster seemed inevitable. The signs have been there for months, but the story was set to break in the quiet summer news cycle — what journalists call the ‘silly season’ of July — which is when famine stories always make the front pages. Suddenly, the UN declares ‘tens of thousands’ have already died. Aid agencies demand billions of dollars in emergency relief. The UN kicks off its campaign with a flight of four tonnes of food to Mogadishu. Flying food to a large port on the Indian Ocean — is this a good use of money in a recession-hit world? Will heads roll at the UN for allowing mass death and the waste of funds? Of course not, because the UN system has undergone no reforms whatsoever since it presided over the last famine in Somalia 20 years ago.

Even so, the British public who have had their holidays ambushed by pictures of starving Somalis will now hope their donations will alleviate the problem. Wrong again. Those photos of starving children are, in aid worker parlance, DBTs — Dead By Tomorrows. By the time you see these pictures, your donations will be too late to save them. In 1992, almost all the children below the age of five in Rahanwein-populated areas died despite the aid that culminated in the US military-led Operation Restore Hope. That ill-fated mission, which collapsed after Somali mobs dragged the bodies of American servicemen through Mogadishu, means that the West will not deploy troops in response to those who demand we ‘do something’ again to stop the suffering in Somalia.

These days, we have African Union troops in Somalia, though what exactly they are ‘doing’ — except fighting, shelling civilian districts and having the corpses of their lost comrades dragged through the streets — is unclear. Rumour suggests the African forces will be given more military clout to take on al-Shabaab. This will serve Western interests in the liquidation of extremists regarded as al-Qa’eda’s allies. Another thing that may happen is that Mogadishu’s businessmen will make fortunes out of humanitarian aid, just as they did in 1992, because Somalis are the most enterprising of all African entrepreneurs. And if the last famine is anything to go by, the famine relief, delivered too late, will stir up fresh tensions as political rivals fight over the aid bonanza. Aid workers will be kidnapped and murdered, food will be looted, battles will erupt. As one UN military officer summed it up after the last famine: ‘We fed them. They got strong. They killed us.’

As a result, all of those who donated so generously to the famine appeals will end up loathing the Somalis, who they will blame for being ungrateful savages. World governments will hold a conference, then wash their hands of Somalia yet again. But it won’t save those starving children.