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History repeats itself in Somalia as famine grips the land amid a failure of political leadership

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Prof Abdi Ismail Samatar is a research fellow at the University of Pretoria and a professor of Geography at the University of Minnesota. His latest book is 'Framing Somalia: Beyond Africa’s Merchants of Misery' (2022).

The horrific famine a decade ago claimed hundreds of thousands of lives in southern Somalia and impoverished countless survivors. Today a similar political horror reigns over the country’s poor. 

Somalia is located in a region where droughts are a normal part of the climate cycle. Like other natural disasters, droughts lead to catastrophic human consequences, mainly in societies that fail to anticipate calamities and prepare contingency plans to preserve human life and strengthen local economic resilience. This applies in particular to areas where climate cycles are highly predictable.  

Slightly more than a decade ago, a dreadful famine claimed nearly 250,000 lives in southern Somalia and impoverished those who survived. Today, a similar horror is taking its toll on the destitute people who have been abandoned by the political elite.

An op-ed I wrote then titled Genocidal politics of the Somali famine, pointed out that nature was not the cause of the catastrophe, but that it had been induced by a coalition of local and international actors pursuing their sectarian agendas. Today that coalition’s configuration is different, but the unfolding catastrophe is no less devastating.

Informed local people report that mass deaths of children and the elderly have begun. The epicentre of the calamity is not the most arid regions of the country, but the relatively better-endowed areas of southwest Somalia, which were also devastated by famines in 1992 and 2011.

The two culprits responsible for the 1992 tragedy were the marauding local militias who looted or destroyed the harvest, and warlords who prevented food aid from reaching the indigent people. It was the colossal suffering of the population that compelled George HW Bush, the American president at that time, to order the American military to intervene and open the roads so that food aid could reach the victims.

However, the rescue came too late for the approximately 500,000 people who perished in 1992. Similarly, the 2011 famine was the result of a deadly mix of local terrorist activities, ill-informed US policy and incompetent leadership in Mogadishu.

Intensified climate change, the callous behaviour of the national political elite and Al-Shabaab’s tyrannical rule in rural areas have precipitated the nightmare that is currently unfolding. Last year’s rainfall in much of the country was much lower than normal and devastatingly low in some regions, while this year’s spring and summer rains have generally been sporadic and meagre.

To make matters worse, the populations in most rural areas have been dominated, tyrannised and taxed by Al-Shabaab for more than a decade, and no programmes have been developed to enhance local economic resilience to withstand climate shocks.

Meanwhile, members of Somalia’s political elite in Mogadishu and the regional capitals have been preoccupied with petty political games for the past two years while their people’s vulnerability to crises has grown immeasurably. Rather than casting aside their political games to mobilise national and international resources to address the harrowing conditions in the rural areas, they chose to prolong their fight over parliamentary and presidential elections. Those elections were scheduled for March 2021, but were only concluded last month.

Over the past year, not a single leading political figure in the country has spoken publicly about the approaching catastrophe, thus losing precious time in the mobilisation of the people of Somalia and the world community.

Empathy is good, but not enough

Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, who was elected president three weeks ago, appointed a political rival as an envoy to deal with the matter, which was a good sign. Last week, the president toured two provinces before his inauguration, but sadly the famine was not his priority. In Baidoa, the capital of the most affected region, he paid a site visit to one of the camps for the displaced victims of the disaster. He showed a lot of empathy as he shook hands with some of the impoverished, asked about their condition and appealed to all Somalis to help.

However, as important a signal as that visit was, what starving people need more than empathy is food, water and medicine. President Hassan cannot be blamed for the disaster since his predecessor had the authority and responsibility to pre-empt the calamity, but since he is the president now, he should abandon his festive inauguration and give his undivided attention to efforts to mobilise the nation and the international community to do what is needed to rescue the hundreds of thousands of citizens whose lives are at risk.      

Needless suffering

Despite the widespread perception that Somalia is a poor country, it actually possesses diverse resources that are more than adequate to provide a decent living for the population.

First, it has the second-longest coastline in Africa (after Madagascar), which contains some of the continent’s richest fishing and marine ecosystems.

Second, the banks of its two perennial rivers, Juba and Shabelle, have the potential to produce enough irrigated grain and crops to satisfy local consumption.

Third, its livestock resources are tremendous and, if properly managed, can make a vital contribution to people’s livelihoods.

Fourth, Somalis’ entrepreneurship is well known across the continent and can be a powerful engine to harness the country’s economic development.

Despite such endowments, the ultimate curse that bedevils this country, as is the case in so many countries on our continent, is the greed and ineptitude of its political elite. Botswana’s late president, Quett Masire, used to say that “without leadership the people shall perish”. I would add that it is not nature, but rather the ineptitude of leaders, that render people destitute. Famine is an extreme manifestation of elite failure and much of the suffering on our continent can be directly attributed to leadership malfeasance.   

When will this Somali and African scourge end? Prayers and patience have been a virtue of poor Somalis and other Africans, but both have failed to deliver relief. Concerted and coherent civic mobilisation that consistently keeps political leaders accountable is the only remedy that can prevent the extinction of our people. DM

 

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