Some Thoughts on Famine Politics in Southern Somalia

As famine kills people in the Horn of Africa, politics colors the response: political struggles between the United States and the United Nations, inside of governments, and between the international community and al Shabab, the Islamic militia that controls southern Somalia, where the famine’s epicenter lies. Yesterday, an al Shabab spokesman brought the issue of politics front and center:

“We say [the U.N. declaration of famine in southern Somalia] is totally, 100 percent wrong and baseless propaganda. Yes there is drought but the conditions are not as bad as they say,” al Shabaab spokesman Sheikh Ali Mohamud Rage told a media briefing.”They have another objective and it wouldn’t surprise us if they were politicizing the situation.”

It now appears that al Shabab has reversed its decision, made just days ago, to lift the ban on outside aid groups entering its territory. The story is still developing, but there is a strong chance that al Shabab will dig in its heels and try to ride the famine out, with all the consequences that entails in terms of human suffering.

Rage’s comment above, which drips with mistrust and anger, got me thinking about famine politics in southern Somalia.

The first point I would make is that al Shabab is minimizing the crisis because, as many observers and experts are saying, the movement itself likely made the famine worse. Famines often (always?) result not only from failed rains or population growth, but also government policies, especially denial and inaction. This problem is not limited to Somalia: the Financial Times writes that early warnings of famine in the Horn went unheeded because “sensitive to their own failures, governments…tend to be slow to acknowledge looming crises and are sceptical about aid agency claims about their severity.” The FT adds that the conflict in Ethiopia’s Ogaden region made the famine worse there. Meanwhile, many suspect that Eritrea’s government is exacerbating hunger by refusing aid and access. Even Kenya faced accusations as recently as 2009 of failing to respond effectively to drought. Every indication points to the conclusion that al Shabab not only fit into this regional trend, but was – because of its limited resources, its preoccupation with the civil war, and its ideology – a particularly bad offender.

My second thought is that when looking at al Shabab’s hostility to outsiders, it is worthwhile to try to understand the movement’s thinking from the inside.

Two important factors to take into account are demographics and brutalization. The movement is made up mostly of young men (its name, after all, is Arabic for “the youth”), many of whom were children, or were not even born yet, when the Somali state collapsed in 1991. They have only known war and instability. They have seen weak would-be central governments come and go, they have seen clan rivalry tear at the social and political fabric of the country, and they have seen a parade of external actors, some of whom, like Ethiopia when it occupied Somalia from late 2006 to early 2009, carried out massive violence. Growing up in that environment would brutalize many people and make them deeply suspicious of outsiders. In terms of the internal culture of a government, those are two of the worst traits to have when famine hits.

But the famine strikes directly at the relationship between al Shabab and its constituents. The movement is taking a huge risk if it tries to solve this problem through violence and denial. Al Shabab controls territory, and so it must have some local support – support that is likely based in large part on al Shabab’s ability to offer some security and stability after years of fighting. Allowing the famine to go unchecked could destroy whatever local legitimacy al Shabab possesses, potentially resulting in infighting, fragmentation, rebellions, or desertions. From this perspective, it is not difficult to see why al Shabab originally decided to re-admit external aid agencies. And yet it now seems that paranoia and suspicion of outsiders are winning out in the leadership’s thinking.

Yesterday I argued that the return of aid agencies to al Shabab’s territory could provide important political openings and even, over time, establish channels of communication and relations that could shape the future of southern Somali politics for the better. Whatever opening that may have existed seems now to be closing.

4 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on Famine Politics in Southern Somalia

  1. It’s possible that there may be some fierce struggles going in Al-Shabab over this. Even though it is an extremist group there must still be ‘moderates’ and local leaders who are held responsible for the well-being of the people. Do we know who was the Al-Shabab member who first declared that aid groups would be allowed to return?

  2. Ali Mohamud Rage made the initial announcement, or one of them, and disagreement was reported immediately afterward. Hard to say whether this is an internal dispute or conflict between Mukhtar Robow and al-Qaeda’s cadre, but the debate was ongoing until al-Shabab postured itself against the UN’s use of the word “famine.” Perhaps they believe their governance looks bad, but the religious component isn’t to be overlooked in this case. al-Shabab sold the West as “The Devil” and has blamed Somalis’ hardship on impiety; now they need “The Devil’s” help and this narrative undermines their ideology. But since I thought al-Shabab was buying time to regroup, I expected them to stall longer than they have.

  3. I think it must be considered as a possibility, if al-Shabab intends to repeatedly shift its position and lead the UN on. But their internal dispute seems real enough.

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