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Al-Shabaab and Somalia's Spreading Famine
Al-Shabaab and Somalia's Spreading Famine
UN Court Decision a Fresh Test for Kenya-Somalia Ties
UN Court Decision a Fresh Test for Kenya-Somalia Ties
Interview / Africa

Al-Shabaab and Somalia's Spreading Famine

Originally published in Council on Foreign Relations

The famine declared in five areas in southern Somalia is expected to spread across all regions of the south in the coming four to six weeks, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The UN estimates twenty-nine thousand children under the age of five have died in southern Somalia and 3.7 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance across the country. Rashid Abdi, a Nairobi-based analyst for the International Crisis Group, calls the crisis in Somalia "a collective failure of the international community," which failed to act on early warnings of a crisis, or to invest in sustainable agriculture to make local communities self-sufficient. Additionally, al-Shabaab, an Islamic militant group which controls most of southern Somalia, had banned several international aid groups from the region in 2009. Though they lifted the ban last month (al-Jazeera), restrictions remain. The priority now, Abdi says, is to reach people trapped inside al-Shabaab-controlled territory, and "if that means negotiating with al-Shabaab, so be it."

CFR: What is the scale of Somalia's humanitarian crisis, and how do you see it evolving

Rashid Abdi: The scale of the crisis is unprecedented in many ways. The closest example you have is the 1984 famine in Ethiopia. Because the population of Somalia is not that big, the numbers of people who have died are less, but there's no denying the fact that you have a huge humanitarian crisis in southern Somalia and you have tens of thousands of people who have died, mostly children. Now the famine has spread to regions that used to be the bread basket of Somalia, especially the Juba valley. The whole of south and central Somalia is now in the midst of this famine.

Do you fear this humanitarian crisis will spread beyond Somalia, beyond the Horn of Africa?

This famine is the outcome of many factors. One of them, of course, is ecological, environmental, and climatic. There hasn't been any significant rain for the last four years, so the wells have dried up. You have deforestation in southern Somalia, especially involving charcoal traders. You have poor land use and overgrazing. So environmental factors contribute to it. And this goes beyond Somalia--it extends to the whole Ogaden region of Ethiopia and northeastern Kenya. But in Kenya, and in Ethiopia especially, you have a more robust system of coping with disasters. You have a professional disaster management authority, and both these countries have learned how to cope with this crisis.

In southern Somalia, you don't have a government; you don't have a sense of any authority, except for al-Shabaab. So there has been a neglect of efforts to alleviate this kind of situation, and al-Shabaab has little experience in this aspect as well. So these regions are all closely tied together, and many of these so-called environmental factors are also close together. So in many ways, you can talk of a regional crisis, but at the moment the epicenter is Somalia.

What are the main problems in getting aid to the people in Somalia?

South-central Somalia is controlled by al-Shabaab. Al-Shabaab is paranoid about international NGOs and a year ago, they banned aid agencies from helping people in that region. A lot of the crisis is attributable to the fact that many people whose situation was very vulnerable did not get adequate help in time. That is why you see this crisis has reached this level. Al-Shabaab appears to have recently backtracked on that ban, but it's very difficult to tell who is in charge in al-Shabaab and very difficult to know their real motive. But you have flights going into Baidoa, which is controlled by al-Shabaab, and you have reports of aid agencies now reaching al-Shabaab-controlled territory in southern Somalia. This is a good step, but al-Shabaab has not opened all the humanitarian corridors in southern Somalia. There are still restrictions in place.

There are many other practical and logistical problems in delivering aid. You have only one port that is open to aid agencies, which is Mogadishu. Kismayo is not open because it is controlled by al-Shabaab. But you are talking of port facilities that are completely run aground; there is no machinery in place, and you have infrastructure that has not been rehabilitated in the last twenty years. You have checkpoints by militias extorting money. So the practicalities of delivery are enormously challenging in Somalia.

How do you interpret al-Shabaab's decision to leave Mogadishu (BBC) and how will it affect aid delivery?

We should be cautious in saying, "al-Shabaab did this; al-Shabaab said that." There' s no longer one al-Shabaab; you are talking of many al-Shabaabs. There was a faction that announced that "we are pulling out of Mogadishu." But the reports in the last two days clearly indicate that there are pockets of al-Shabaab presence in Mogadishu, and they have been conducting attacks against the AU peacekeeping forces. So, the picture is much more complicated.

Has the famine weakened al-Shabaab in any way?

Al-Shabaab has been enormously weakened by this crisis. Many are blaming al-Shabaab for catalyzing the [crisis] by locking out aid agencies. Al-Shabaab has been under enormous pressure from clan leaders in the region to act fast, but they have been dragging their feet, and when they reacted it was probably too late. Tens of thousands of children have already died. Tens of thousands of people have fled as refugees to eastern Kenya and southeastern Ethiopia. Many in Somalia, even those who initially supported al-Shabaab, are now blaming them and seeing them as culpable in this crisis.

Does this present an opportunity to stabilize the country?

If al-Shabaab was a cohesive organization and it was serious about averting humanitarian crisis in southern Somalia, then there would have been an opportunity. The problem is that you have a string of factions of al-Shabaab; you don't know who speaks for al-Shabaab. Even engaging them on the question of provisions of humanitarian supplies to the vulnerable populations in southern Somalia is no longer credible, because you don't know how senior or powerful that interlocutor is. Unless we know the power configurations within al-Shabaab, unless we know who calls the shots and who is in charge, it will be difficult for this crisis to have a peace dividend.

Potentially there is an opportunity that you may cut a deal with one faction or another. But what if you have a faction that doesn't like it, that creates its own challenges. As long as al-Shabaab is fragmented and deeply divided as a group, the possibilities of engagement for a positive result are very remote. Many had hoped that engaging al-Shabaab on humanitarian corridors and a ceasefire for a brief period [would] kick-start a positive dynamic. But I don't think we are there.

Do you think the international community is doing enough to alleviate the humanitarian crisis in Somalia and the rest of the Horn? And what more can they do?

This is a failure of the whole international system of aid delivery. We had excellent analysis coming out of Somalia on a potential food crisis. We had all the early-warning systems many months ago, but perhaps everyone thought, "Things will not be that bad." This is a collective failure of the international community

What should be the main priorities of the international community in the short term?

Reach those people who are desperately in need, especially those who are trapped inside al-Shabaab-controlled territory in southern Somalia. Every effort must be made to reach out to those people. If that means negotiating with al-Shabaab, so be it. It is actually more moral to engage al-Shabaab in that than anything else, to save millions of lives.

Somalis' displacement will continue until there is a resolution of the crisis, a resolution of the political conflict, and that appears far away because of what's going on in south Somalia.

Beyond emergency aid, what would be your policy recommendations for the international community to prevent such crises in the future?

We need to learn from this crisis that there are many factors that contributed to it. One is conflict. And conflict resolution should be essential. The epicenter of this famine is southern Somalia, which traditionally used to be the bread basket of the country. So the question to ask is, "Why are we in this state?" And it's clear it is because the [international community has] not made the investment that needs to be made in those [famine-affected] communities in how to [improve] agriculture, how to build their coping mechanisms. We need to help those communities become self-sufficient because they are capable of it.

We don't act until the crisis is in full bloom and then we throw bags of wheat. That is not how to deal with crisis. We need to help communities to fend for themselves, to help themselves, to rebuild their traditional methods of coping. Somalia has had many severe droughts in the past, but why has this drought turned into a famine? There are reasons for it, and those are the lessons we need to learn. And we need to act fast when we get evidence that things are really serious.

So are you asking the international community to invest in agriculture?

Absolutely, and not only in agriculture. People have various methods of coping. For example, the Juba Valley and the Shebelle region are drained by two huge rivers: the Shebelle River and the Juba River. They drain massive volumes of water into the Indian Ocean. So if we build methods of water conservation in those parts, we will have enough water for human use, for livestock use, and for agriculture as well. And these systems used to exist. It's just that now there isn't any government.

We also need to criminalize and punish those who are involved in the charcoal trade, because they are contributing to this crisis. Much of southern Somalia has now turned into a lunar landscape because of the [deforestation] work of criminal mafia groups who are involved in the charcoal trade. We should criminalize the buying of Somali charcoal too, tightening the screws both on the supply end and on the demand end.

What are the implications of large-scale displacements of Somalis who are fleeing to Kenya and Ethiopia, countries also facing some level of drought?

Somalis' displacement will continue until there is a resolution of the crisis, a resolution of the political conflict and that appears far away because of what's going on in south Somalia. When we talk about the drought in northeastern Kenya and Ethiopia, these are places where despite a lot of hardships, you have governments in place, you have administrations that are in place, and they have better coping methods.

Kenyan coastal fishermen fly black flags on their fishing dhows with the message "Save Lamu Waters" as they take part in a demonstration demanding to be heard in a legal dispute between Kenya and her northern neighbour Somalia Tony KARUMBA / AFP
Q&A / Africa

UN Court Decision a Fresh Test for Kenya-Somalia Ties

The International Court of Justice on 12 October handed down a decision mostly upholding Somalia’s claims in a long-running maritime border dispute with Kenya. In this Q&A, Crisis Group expert Meron Elias assesses the potential impact on relations between the two countries.

What is the outcome of the court ruling?

After seven years of bitter wrangling between Kenya and Somalia for control of contested Indian Ocean waters, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on 12 October issued an eagerly awaited judgment demarcating the two countries’ maritime boundary, ruling mostly in Somalia’s favour. The main disagreement between the parties had centred on how the maritime border should be drawn. Kenya argued that it should run in a straight latitudinal line from the point on the coast where the countries’ land borders meet. Somalia contended that the sea border should run south east, perpendicular to the coast at the point where its land border with Kenya meets the sea. The resulting disputed triangle amounted to 100,000 sq km of maritime space. Much of that territorial sea is believed to contain significant oil and gas deposits as well as rich fisheries.

The judges in the end trod a fine line and gave each party roughly half the disputed territory. The bench unanimously rejected Kenya’s claims that the two sides shared a decades-long understanding of where the maritime border lies. In setting the new boundary, the court, in a split decision, largely concurred with Somalia’s reasoning as to how the boundary should be delineated. The Court also said it had attempted to “attenuate in a reasonable and mutually balanced way” any effect on Kenya’s access to the sea by granting Nairobi a substantial portion of the disputed territory. In practical terms, the court meant that the boundary line would extend south east, but at a reduced angle to the coast as compared to what Mogadishu had originally demanded. The Court meanwhile rejected Mogadishu’s demand for compensation for Nairobi’s historical exploitation of the contested waters, finding that Kenya had not violated its international obligations through its maritime activities in the disputed area. Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta quickly rejected the decision, while Somalia’s President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed “Farmajo” hailed it as a historic victory.

Initial border claims by both countries delineating the disputed triangular area in the Indian Ocean.

Why did out-of-court negotiations fail?

Both Kenya and Somalia had agreed as far back as April 2009 to settle the matter through negotiations following a Memorandum of Understanding they jointly filed with the UN Secretariat, rather than ruling on boundaries themselves. A senior official who served in Somalia’s foreign ministry in that period told Crisis Group that Kenya never took Somalia’s approaches for bilateral talks seriously at the time and that at least three attempts to meet Kenyan officials over the issue failed. A Kenyan official confirmed this version of events, saying that Kenyan foreign ministry officials were “negligent”, underestimating the seriousness of Mogadishu’s demands.

With political talks stalled, Mogadishu pushed ahead with its case at the ICJ, dragging Nairobi reluctantly into proceedings in 2014. Starting in September 2019, Kenya made repeated representations to the African Union Peace and Security Council, pressing for Somalia to withdraw the case and settle the matter through talks. Judges in The Hague rejected Kenya’s demands to refer the case back to the African Union. Nairobi contends that the court decision, which it says significantly alters the existing approach that many countries take to delimiting boundaries along lines parallel to the equator, could result in a cascade of similar border disputes along the Indian Ocean coast.

The adjusted line, which represents the final border according to the ICJ ruling, roughly splits the disputed area into two.

How has the case affected relations between Somalia and Kenya?

The case has increasingly poisoned relations between Somalia and Kenya – especially over the last two years. Ties nosedived in February 2019 when Somalia held a conference in London to gauge interest in the exploration of offshore oil and gas. Kenya protested strongly, accusing Somalia of auctioning off blocks in the disputed area. Somali authorities denied that the blocks in question were located in the disputed zone. Meanwhile, Mogadishu contended that Nairobi has been taking advantage of the dysfunction in Somalia since the collapse of the state in 1991 to illegally annex Somali waters.

Amid the legal battle, both sides engaged in an escalatory cycle of tit-for-tat measures.

Amid the legal battle, both sides engaged in an escalatory cycle of tit-for-tat measures. These include a short-lived Kenyan ban on all flights to and from Somalia and a Somali ban on the importation of Kenyan khat, which is an economic mainstay for thousands of farmers in central Kenya. Nairobi has dangled the prospect of recognising Somaliland, whose declaration of independence in 1991 Mogadishu rejects and which no other state recognises. Kenya has also repeatedly threatened to close the Dadaab and Kakuma refugee camps, which are home to hundreds of thousands of Somali refugees.

By the end of December 2020, Kenya and Somalia had suspended diplomatic ties amid accusations from Somali federal officials against Kenya, which has deployed thousands of troops in Somalia as part of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) to combat Al-Shabaab. These officials claimed that Nairobi was meddling in Somali politics by taking the side of Ahmed Madobe, president of Somalia’s Jubaland state, in his separate dispute with Mogadishu. In March 2021, Kenya withdrew its legal team from the court’s proceedings in The Hague. Kenya claimed that the ICJ, which until that February had been headed by Judge Abdulqawi Ahmed Yusuf, a Somali national, was biased.

Although diplomatic relations were restored between the countries in May after Qatari mediation, Kenya began hardening its stance again as the ruling approached. In what was viewed as an effort to ratchet up pressure on Mogadishu, President Kenyatta on 23 September presided over a ceremony upgrading a military station located near the disputed waters into a full naval base. In an 8 October statement, just prior to the ruling, Kenya denounced the ICJ and what it said as a “flawed” court process. Invoking the memory of Nairobi’s defeat of ethnic Somali rebels who fought to secede from Kenya and join Somalia in the 1960s, a senior Kenyan official also said the country would be as resolute in defending its territorial integrity as it was during that revolt.

After the judgment was announced, positions continued to harden. Kenyatta stated that the court’s judgment would “strain the relations between the two countries”. Leading contenders in Kenya’s forthcoming 2022 elections meanwhile have urged authorities not to cede “an inch of the country”. While some Kenyan officials told Crisis Group they were surprised by the judges’ efforts to find a middle ground, as they expected the judgment to lean more toward Somalia’s position, they said they would still reject the judgment.

Somalia’s political class is treating the decision as a victory for the country, and many are positioning themselves to reap political dividends. In recent weeks, all the main contenders have cast themselves as champions of Somali sovereignty facing off against what they portray as the country’s overbearing southern neighbour. President Farmajo, in particular, has had poor relations with Nairobi since coming to office and almost certainly will look to the ruling for a political boost as he gears up for the delayed elections in Somalia. His opponents, including former Presidents Hassan Sheikh Mohamud and Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, however, say Farmajo merely benefitted from a court case they had set in motion during their respective periods in office and that they deserve more credit.

Strained relations will likely continue to affect efforts by Nairobi and Mogadishu to confront Al-Shabaab’s lethal insurgency.

Strained relations will likely continue to affect efforts by Nairobi and Mogadishu to confront Al-Shabaab’s lethal insurgency. Instead of focusing on how to reverse Al-Shabaab’s control of large swathes of south-central Somalia, including Jubaland, Mogadishu has been sending troops to fight forces allied to Jubaland President Ahmed Madobe. Madobe partly relies on the Kenyan military to help him secure Jubaland’s capital and main port, Kismayo. Although, as Crisis Group has reported, the drivers of the clash between Mogadishu and Madobe are internal – the former seeks to centralise power and resources while the latter favours greater devolution – tensions between Kenya and Somalia over the maritime dispute could provoke Kenya to double down on military support for Madobe.

How can Nairobi and Mogadishu rebuild ties going forward?

Both sides have a strong interest in repairing relations. Somalia and Kenya are historically, culturally and economically interlinked. Many citizens of both countries share a common ethnic heritage and the neighbours’ social and trade links have proven deep and enduring. Thousands of Kenyans, particularly teachers and traders, work and live in Somalia. Tens of thousands of Somalis likewise live in Kenya, including many university students who attend Kenyan colleges. The repeated ructions between the sides tend to disrupt the lives of scores of ordinary citizens, and hinder the wider effort to stabilise Somalia, which will require continued involvement by Kenya (a key AMISOM troop contributor) and other neighbours. Despite strong views on the judgment on both sides, especially in Kenya, all have an interest in de-escalation and greater cooperation.

A direct armed confrontation over the maritime dispute is unlikely.

Thus, while in the short run Nairobi and Mogadishu are likely to exchange more barbed words, a direct armed confrontation over the maritime dispute is unlikely, notwithstanding the sometimes belligerent rhetoric. Some Somali officials have privately told Crisis Group that Mogadishu may ask a third country to patrol the oceans to counter Kenya’s claims, but that prospect seems remote as Somalia’s allies are likely to press instead for a more amicable settlement.

Along those lines, the most promising way to manage the risk of confrontation would be talks to agree on a mutually acceptable approach to enforcing the judgment. Qatar, which has good relations with both Kenya and Somalia and as noted above helped mend fences between the two earlier in 2021, has quietly offered to mediate. Nairobi and Mogadishu should accept this offer and use any talks to establish mechanisms for further dialogue. Although both sides have repeatedly promised to revive the Somalia-Kenya Joint Commission for Cooperation – a forum bringing together high-level officials from both sides to discuss bilateral ties – they have taken little action on this front. The two neighbours should restart this platform to regularly discuss their many shared interests and smooth over disputes.