Ever since the most recent functioning government was swept away in 1991, Somalia has been consumed by a seemingly intractable civil war. For twenty years, various governments and warlords have vied for control of the world’s most failed state. The presence of an African Union Mission has done little to help the situation on a fundamental level. In 2011 the atrociously poor humanitarian situation was further exacerbated by a devastating drought. A widespread famine soon engulfed Somalia. Starvation killed tens of thousands of people, with 750,000 more dead predicted in four months if nothing was done to help the populace. Yet in Somalia as in the rest of the world, famines are always man-made, not ascribable to Acts of God.
Inside Somalia, conflict raged between the troops of the transitional government and the al-Qaeda-linked Shabab Islamist militia, a group which controlled large parts of the south. The Shabab have an active policy of thoroughly oppressing the people under their control. Their militias collect a third of the harvest as taxation, deny access to river water for crops and violently break up meetings of four or more. Despite the fact that fully half of Somalia’s 9 million people are presently reliant on food aid, the Shabab militia also blocks aid agencies from the areas it controls. The present famine is the only logical by-product of these strictures, as food itself is used as the Shabab’s ultimate weapon against potential rivals and as the easiest way of controlling the population. In general, wherever there is a war there is never enough food to go around.
Ethiopia and Kenya, acting on behalf of the African Union, invaded Somalia in October 2011, motivated by the need to open desperately required corridors for humanitarian aid. In doing so, their armies opened a new front which dealt a severe blow to the Shabab. Yet in doing so, this invasion further destabilised the Horn of Africa and even contributed to the terrible humanitarian situation. The war has internally displaced one million Somalis, and made hundreds of thousands more flee the country altogether. This massive societal disruption eradicated the Somali people’s food production capability, resulting in the current famine. Refugees are by definition incapable of auto-subsisting, as a population of farmers can do little to feed their families when they have been forced away from their crops and animals. The fighting also cut off transport lanes, restricting the delivery of food to famine areas. In this context, starvation is inescapable. Though a drought may serve as a catalyst for a crisis such as Somalia’s, a famine generally does not result unless the situation is exacerbated by mankind.
It is evident that this most recent famine was the fault of the Shabab when one observes the overlap between the area of famine and the area of Shabab control in the maps above and when one compares south Somalia to the region of Somaliland in the north, or to the other countries of the Horn of Africa. In Somaliland, animal exports reached a record high in 2011 as Lebanese and Saudi traders once again ventured into the local livestock markets. With more than 250 million dollars in sales and one billion dollars of remissions a year from the diaspora, economic growth is certain. Without the deleterious influence of the Shabab, Somaliland is a world apart from the crisis around Mogadishu. Kenya and Ethiopia also dealt with the famine much better. Just across the border from Somalia, the drought itself was just as severe, but the effects were five times less devastating in these two properly governed nations. In terms of food distribution, the difference between a peaceful, functioning state and a lawless society could not be clearer; and the situation in Somalia does not look likely to improve on a fundamental level for many a generation to come.