icon caret Arrow Down Arrow Left Arrow Right Arrow Up Line Camera icon set icon set Ellipsis icon set Facebook Favorite Globe Hamburger List Mail Map Marker Map Microphone Minus PDF Play Print RSS Search Share Trash Crisiswatch Alerts and Trends Box - 1080/761 Copy Twitter Video Camera  copyview Whatsapp Youtube
Al-Shabaab and Somalia's Spreading Famine
Al-Shabaab and Somalia's Spreading Famine
Somalia: Averting a Descent into Political Violence
Somalia: Averting a Descent into Political Violence
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.

Women take part in a demonstration against the Somali President Mohamed Abdulahi Farmajo in Mogadishu on December 15, 2020 accused of interferences in the electoral process. STRINGER / AFP
Statement / Africa

Somalia: Averting a Descent into Political Violence

Tensions are running high following the Somali parliament’s decision to extend the incumbent president’s mandate by two years. External partners should urgently convene – and mediate – talks among the country’s bitterly divided elites, to prevent its worst political crisis in years from escalating.

Somalia’s long-running political crisis has entered a new, dangerous phase. In a hastily convened session on 12 April, members of parliament overwhelmingly endorsed a bill that would delay elections by two years, in effect extending the term in office of President Mohamed Abdullahi “Farmajo”. The move is an alarming escalation of a dispute that could well spiral into widespread violence unless Somalia’s political elites return to the negotiating table. The opposition is said to be considering forming a parallel government; cracks have deepened in a security apparatus long divided along clan lines; and the president’s opponents have vowed to resist extension of his rule. But even though the hour is late, it is not too late for the parties to reverse course. Somalia’s external partners, led by the African Union (AU) and backed by the U.S., the UN Security Council and the European Union, should step in to organise – and lead – fresh talks among all stakeholders to craft a roadmap to timely elections. All external actors should unambiguously signal readiness to impose sanctions on parties who obstruct a new initiative to find a consensual path forward.

The distrust that has prevented Somalia’s politicians from preparing elections has been on full display over the last few months. President Farmajo and leaders of Somalia’s subnational units, known as federal member states, agreed on a framework for indirect elections on 17 September 2020. But despite several rounds of subsequent talks, they have repeatedly failed to work out the voting system. Following the expiry of Farmajo’s four-year term on 8 February, the opposition demanded that he hand power to an interim government headed by the prime minister. An attempt by Farmajo’s rivals to hold demonstrations to press home this point was met with lethal force, with clashes between police and demonstrators leaving at least eight people dead. Somalia’s external partners then urged talks to resolve the deadlock. But the parties argued bitterly over the venue, the agenda and the security arrangements. When they finally convened on 3 April at Mogadishu’s international airport, which is guarded by AU troops, negotiations collapsed after four days.

In response, Farmajo and his supporters decided to raise the stakes by summoning parliament to initiate the term extension his opponents had consistently accused him of planning. During a special session convened by lower house Speaker Mohamed Abdirahman Mursal, MPs argued that the failure to reach a compromise made the 17 September agreement impossible to fulfil. They subsequently mandated the National Independent Electoral Commission to hold elections by universal suffrage in two years. The president signed the bill into law two days later.

The parliamentary decision has sent political tensions soaring to levels not seen in Somalia for years – and which could snowball into violence due to two key factors. First, the de facto term extension has shattered already low levels of trust among Somalia’s rival political actors. Farmajo’s opponents have rallied under the banner of the Council of Presidential Candidates, an alliance that includes two former presidents and a former prime minister. They represent important clan constituencies, including in Mogadishu, and have vehemently denounced the extension of Farmajo’s mandate, pledging unspecified action. These opposition candidates are allied with the presidents of the Puntland and Jubaland federal member states. Farmajo, for his part, enjoys the support of leaders from the federal regions of Galmudug, Hirshabelle and South West. With lines of communication cut between duelling parties and with the opposition said to be considering formation of a parallel government, the risk is high that parties will use force to secure political concessions. 

The crisis has sorely tested the cohesion of Somalia’s fragile army and police.

Secondly, the crisis has sorely tested the cohesion of Somalia’s fragile army and police. Hours before parliament convened to vote on the term extension, Mogadishu police chief Sadiq “John” Omar condemned what he described as a power grab and ordered his men to block the entrance to the building, arguing that parliament’s term had expired. Police Commissioner General Hassan Hijar Abdi immediately dismissed Omar and sent forces to secure the venue. Well-placed security sources told Crisis Group that a number of soldiers from Somalia’s elite Turkish-trained Gorgor army units have since abandoned base and retreated to their clan strongholds. Elders from these clans also told Crisis Group that any attempt by authorities to disarm their troops will trigger full-scale fighting. The longer the crisis lasts, the greater the danger that these rifts will grow, raising the spectre of a return to civil war.

Resolving the crisis will not be easy. Farmajo has dug in, warning outside actors to stay out of Somalia’s internal affairs. The timing of the parliamentary decision – two days before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan began – was likely designed to limit the opposition’s capacity to hold demonstrations at a time when most Somalis are observing the fast. Publicly, the opposition has reacted with restraint. Privately, however, it is working to ensure that Farmajo does not get his way. If opposition politicians go ahead to form a parallel government, they will add fuel to the fire and send tensions soaring higher.

As Crisis Group has consistently advocated, there is no alternative to concerted third-party mediation to break the electoral impasse, given the distrust among Somalia’s actors. In the past, the reluctance of external partners to engage directly was understandable, not least due to Mogadishu’s insistence that it could broker a compromise through Somali-led talks. That claim no longer holds. Instead, the spiralling crisis threatens to undo all the progress made in establishing a degree of political stability in Somalia over the last two decades. Moreover, the political stalemate and the wrangling among security forces have offered an opening to Al-Shabaab militants. Emboldened by the partial withdrawals of Ethiopian and U.S. troops at the end of 2020, militants have already stepped up attacks and resumed the large-scale assaults on Somali and foreign military targets that outside forces had prevented them from staging for several years. The crisis has also offered a propaganda coup for the militants, who have boasted that it vindicates their depiction of elites as power-obsessed incompetents.

Somalia’s key external partners need to do more. They have shown admirable unity in rejecting the term extension, with the U.S., UN, AU, EU, UK and regional bloc IGAD all issuing strong statements to express opposition. Now they should urge all Somali actors to resume talks. Ideally the AU, through the office of Commissioner for Political Affairs, Peace and Security Bankole Adeoye, who has already shown interest in resolving the standoff, would mobilise external partners to step up their diplomacy. First, the AU, with the backing of key external partners, should appoint an envoy who, working in concert with the UN envoy, should meet the main parties separately and urge a return to talks. In particular, these emissaries should emphasise to Farmajo that he will need to accept external mediation, given that the opposition will not agree to talks under his supervision. To improve the chances of Farmajo shifting his position, the U.S. could engage directly with his key backers in Qatar and Turkey and urge them to prevail on the president to show greater flexibility, given the risk the crisis poses to Somalia’s stability.

External actors should make clear that they are prepared to impose targeted sanctions.

Next, external actors will need to coordinate with Somalia’s political elite in calling for an inclusive summit to discuss a pathway to elections. Convened by the AU, with the U.S., EU and UN acting as guarantors, such a meeting should focus on delivering a timeframe for elections within weeks, rather than months. Talks could build on the 17 September agreement, but would not necessarily be bound by it, as only a narrow section of the political elite – Farmajo and the presidents of federal member states – crafted the document. Realistically, however, any election would need to broadly follow the contours of the 17 September agreement, given that an indirect election is the only feasible way to hold a vote in today’s security environment, in which Al-Shabaab controls swathes of territory in the south-central Somali countryside. Ideally, new talks would involve more participants, particularly representatives of the Council of Presidential Candidates and civil society.

To ensure that parties stick to their commitments, external actors should make clear that they are prepared to impose targeted sanctions. The U.S. has signalled a willingness to take action and urged key actors to change course in response to the latest developments. The EU has also promised to take “concrete measures” if authorities do not reverse the term extension. These are positive early steps. Somalia’s elites crave the legitimacy that comes with international recognition. Many use foreign passports to travel, hold assets outside Somalia, and keep their families in the U.S. or EU countries. Credible threats to impose visa bans and asset freezes might well concentrate minds.

Despite its many domestic challenges, Somalia has managed to establish a degree of political stability in the past decade and a half. Most strikingly, political elites have fashioned consensus on election management in past electoral cycles and found a way to both hold regular votes and oversee peaceful transitions of power. The current impasse – which could easily tip into major violence – threatens to unravel those gains. Somalia’s elites must return to dialogue.