Glen Johnson

Somalia’s Agony

September 4, 2011 Le Monde Diplomatique

The graves lay in a clearing beside a potholed road at the south end of Mogadishu. Each was small, perhaps one metre long and covered by an oval mound of red soil, water sprinkled on top to keep it in place. Some were protected by scrub, brambles and small branches from acacia trees, sticking out from the soil, and surrounded by small rocks. None were marked with names.

Nearby a child was flying a small kite, made from a red plastic bag and some scraps of string tied together. The child’s head was a scraggly mop of curls as he walked down the street following the bag blown skyward in the breeze. An old man, Ali, who watched over the makeshift cemetery, said there were dozens of graves in the area, tucked away under acacias or in groups in other clearings. Every day more appeared: “They are all children’s graves. Mostly children are dying here. There are more, but I do not know where they are.” He said the cause of the death was malnutrition or diarrhoea.

The deceased came from the makeshift Badbaado internally displaced persons (IDP) camp just across the road — a sprawling yet cramped collection of huts built from scraps of cloth and pieces of tarpaulin — which is home to 5,000 displaced families. Most of the people in the camp had fled from south and central Somalia, trekking to Mogadishu in search of food and water, before ending up in one of the dozens of camps in the capital. New arrivals can be seen daily, walking slowly along Mogadishu’s broken streets in groups, or sitting in the rubble of skeletal buildings shattered by conflict.

Somalia is in the midst of a severe drought following the failure of the Deyr (secondary) rains from October to December 2010, and the delayed and below normal Gu (primary) rains from this April to June. Crops failed and significant numbers of livestock were lost.

The famine spreads

According to the World Bank (1), food prices in Somalia have soared — with the staple cereal sorghum increasing by 180% and maize by 107% on the previous year — while fuel costs remain volatile as instability in the Middle East persists. Previous economic mismanagement, a booming charcoal trade causing deforestation, rapid growth and urbanisation, and political insecurity have all exacerbated the crisis (2).

As a result, food insecurity is crippling the country: around 3.7 million Somalis are in need of aid — and for 3.2 million of those it is a matter of saving lives. Hundreds of thousands are displaced and the United Nations has declared famine in five regions of the country, with famine expected to spread to all of the south within the next two months. An estimated 29,000 children under the age of five have died.

Standing next to his makeshift home in Badbaado camp, Abdughadr, an animal herder from the Lower Shabelle region, said he had packed up a few scant belongings — a pot, some clothes — and walked for a week to reach Mogadishu, with his wife, children and close relatives. They set up their tents, and began waiting. But they do not know what for: “All the animals have died, there are not any animals. People were dying. Nothing has grown for three years.” Abdughadr added: “Al-Shabab would not let us leave. They are refusing to let anyone go. I said we were going to the next village for food. Then we came to this place.”

But Abdughadr has seen little improvement since arriving in Mogadishu. Badbaado’s six feeding centres are nearly out of supplies, with around five days’ worth of stocks remaining. A local NGO, Humanitarian Initiative Just Relief Aid (HIJRA), has worked to build up sanitation infrastructure and dig safe water wells in the camp, but substantial relief has yet to arrive. So Abdughadr is faced with the decision of whether to look for another IDP camp or to stay where he knows there is a clean water supply. As the international aid effort slowly gathers momentum, you hear many similar stories on the streets of Mogadishu; they are quickly picked up by international media and beamed around the world.

An estimated $2.48bn is required to mitigate the immediate effects of the crisis. But while food and medicine are desperately needed, Somalia largely lacks the mechanisms to distribute aid, according to analysts. And there are growing fears of unintended consequences associated with a massive influx of aid. William Reno, an associate professor of political science at Northwestern University (US), thinks that while outsiders cannot completely withdraw from Somalia, they should play a minimal role: “Whenever the international community becomes involved, there are all kinds of perverse effects, particularly when you start injecting a large amount of money and particularly when it’s through diffuse groups of NGOs that shower money through diffuse channels. That is an invitation for fragmentation.”

The militias re-emerge

Reno, who has extensive experience throughout Africa, cited the example of South Sudan as a cautionary tale: “In South Sudan, the SPLA [Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Army], which was a pretty standard, mid-century-type Leninist rebel group, have run into really big problems since 2005 because they can’t control the flow of resources from foreigners anymore. And I think you can see with the development of provincial militias — well, the re-emergence of them — that NGOs play a role in this. Of course they don’t intend this. But, part of the resource extraction [by militia] is from NGOs and from government aid.”

In August The New York Times reported that humanitarian aid is being stolen in Somalia (3). The World Health Organisation’s Pieter Desloovere, a communications officer based in Nairobi, said that aid organisations faced numerous challenges in Somalia, mostly regarding security, and that the aid community was “working to ensure aid is going to where it is needed. Improving coordination and information flows amongst agencies, as well as continuing to try to influence the leadership of groups that are hostile to aid organisations are key elements of the strategy to increase access. [Somali nationals] are at the forefront of these efforts.”

Aid relief efforts are further complicated by Somalia’s security situation. In the early hours of 6 August, the Islamist militia al-Shabab (Youth), withdrew from large swathes of Mogadishu, following a sustained offensive by the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and Ugandan and Burundian AMISOM troops. Strategic al-Shabab positions — Bakara market, the football stadium and the ministry of defence — all fell to TFG-AMISOM forces and the conflict’s frontlines shifted. As of late August, al-Shabab appears to have fractured into a number of different groups: a basic rift is emerging between its (Somali) national and international factions (4), creating further uncertainty about the overall security situation for aid agencies.

A drive through al-Shabab’s former positions reveals the violence Mogadishu has witnessed. Everything is shot and bombed to pieces. Trees stretch up through buildings now covered in mould; weeds, cactus, shrubs and trees have taken over the city. Roads are destroyed and people walk wearily over potholed streets, always looking out for IEDs and landmines.

Al-Shabab emerged as a potent force following the ousting of the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC), at the end of 2006 (5). The UIC had taken control of Mogadishu in the middle of that year, bringing stability and security to parts of Somalia racked by clan conflict, and gradually winning widespread public support.

According to the Ethiopian analyst Medhane Tadesse, the UIC filled a vacuum created by lawlessness while capitalising on 20 years of Islamisation in the Horn of Africa. He writes: “The way in which the Union of Islamic Courts consolidated its power was a genuine political process in which the Somali business class entered into a pact with the political elite (in this case the Islamists), forging the first political contract in southern Somalia. It could therefore be argued that it was a locally owned, credible, legitimate and substantial political process. However, there [were] actors who aimed at developing the Courts as a vehicle for the creation of an Islamic Emirate, encompassing large areas outside Somalia. Extremist elements … hijacked the Court’s movement for political ends with disastrous effects” (6).

These flaws made the UIC unacceptable both to Ethiopia and the United States. But Eritrea, Sudan and Egypt supported the movement for geopolitical reasons. In late December 2006, acting essentially as a proxy for the US, Ethiopia launched strikes against the movement and quickly overwhelmed it.

Al-Shabab, the UIC’s youth wing — credited with more than 200 assassinations by this stage and led by Sheikh Aden Hashi Ayro, who reportedly received training in explosives and insurgency tactics in Afghanistan in the 1990s — emerged as a potent force. The ensuing conflict between al-Shabab and the TFG reflects the wider geopolitical game underway in the Horn of Africa. And its consequences are keenly felt by ordinary Somalis.

’We have no hope’

Fatooma, 45, had just arrived in Mogadishu after travelling up from southern Somalia. She sat at the western edge of Bakara market with her family and explained that they have no money. They had used what they had to buy their way onto a truck, travelling 400km in two days to reach Mogadishu. So her husband and brothers had gone into the central business district of Mogadishu to beg. “We have no hope. It was a tragedy. All the animals died. The children are starving.”

It is Somalia’s children who are most at risk, as the graves at Badbaado show. Upwards of 450,000 are malnourished — and 190,000 of these are suffering severe malnutrition and at risk of starvation (7). Acute diarrhoea is widespread, with 75% of cases occurring among the under-fives. Unicef and the WHO have warned of cholera outbreaks.

In Mogadishu’s Banadir hospital, the entrance to the paediatric clinic was filled with patients. According to Dr Luul Mohamed, head of the paediatric department, the mortality rate among children is now 10%. She said they hope to reduce it to 5%.

A corridor was crammed with around 50 women and children. Mothers sat on the floor clutching children connected to drips. One child was vomiting white liquid. His eyes swirled as it dribbled down his chin as. Flies buzzed incessantly. A rail-thin woman called Amira, dressed in a red shawl, clutched her 19-month-old infant to her chest. He was dressed in a stained yellow T-shirt. His eyes lolled from side to side as flies landed on his face and arms. “He is not improving,” Amira said. “They have given him vaccines and medicines. He has bad diarrhoea.”

In another room Farhir (meaning happiness) sat with her two eight-week-old twins. One twin’s stomach was bloated and hard to the touch. He screamed. On the next bed, a mother cleaned diarrhoea off the skeletal legs of an infant standing in a blue tub, wailing. His ribs were exposed and his legs shook from the exertion of standing.

In the corner of another room a young mother stood over a bed. The outline of a small child could be seen, under a pink striped bedspread and blue flowered blanket. The mother was wearing a niqab. Her eyes were dry and empty as she said: “She is a girl.” She picked up the bundle, wrapping the covers tightly around the dead child, and walked quickly out of the ward to look for somewhere to bury her.

Foot notes

(1) World Bank, “Food Price Watch”, August 2011.

(2) See Gérard Prunier, “Somaliland, an African exception”, Le Monde diplomatique, English edition, October 2010.

(3) “Somalia: Food Aid Stolen, Inquiry Finds”, The New York Times, 15 August 2011.

(4) Rashid Abdi, “Al-Shabaab and Somalia’s Spreading Famine”, International Crisis Group, 10 August 2011.

(5) Following the collapse of the Somali government in 1991, individual courts employing sharia law formed an ad hoc judicial system, responsible for policing, etc; as businessmen, clan leaders and religious figures, they formed a collective, to provide security. By the mid-2000s they were challenging Mogadishu’s warlords and took control in 2006.

(6) Medhane Tadesse, “Sharia Courts and Military Politics in Stateless Somalia”, Hotspot Horn of Africa Revisited: Approaches to Make Sense of Conflict, LIT, Berlin, 2008.

(7) “Somalia, Famine & Drought” (PDF), United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 23 August 2011.

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