Five days on from the official declaration of famine in Somalia, the cataclysmic impact of the situation is strikingly clear. Millions of people are facing starvation and tens of thousands have fled the country in a desperate bid to survive. Walking miles on empty stomachs they face bandits and rapists before reaching refugee camps already at breaking point. Every day thousands enter Kenya and Ethiopia – countries themselves in the grip of the famine and with neither the space nor the supplies to cope. The early reports of children dying upon arrival are reoccurring with appalling frequency and stories of people taking their own lives to avoid watching their families starve to death are alarmingly common.
Yet the tremendous effort by aid groups, foreign governments and the UN to tackle this crisis is hampered at every turn by two factors. Firstly is the utterly unjustifiable failure of states such as France, Italy and Denmark to step up and meet their moral obligation to provide funds for relief. All three countries have come under fire from Oxfam for shirking their share of the burden in what is literally a minute-by-minute-life-or-death situation. There is categorically not enough aid coming in, creating the ominous likelihood that the already uncontrollable humanitarian disaster will spread even further.
Economic problems such as those currently gripping the EU pale into insignificance compared to this and no government can legitimately avoid the allocation of significant resources. It is up to the international community and domestic populations to pressure reluctant governments into genuinely joining the relief effort before it is too late.
The second major problem –posing a far more complex challenge, is Al-Shabab, the brutal Islamist militia that controls of much of Southern and Central Somalia including large parts of Mogadishu. Renowned for public beheadings, flogging women, stoning rape victims and even punishing people for watching football - all in accordance with its own warped interpretation of Islam, Al-Shabab has ruthlessly abused and oppressed the Somali people since it formed as an offshoot of the Union of Islamic Courts some five years ago. Perhaps the group's most damaging act so far has been to ban foreign aid agencies from operating in the areas it controls and murdering those aid workers who try to work there.
In recent days, as the famine death toll gathered pace, Al-Shabab relented and began to let in select agencies including the Red Cross. Yet just as progress seemed to be possible, its leaders re-asserted the ban on other major organisations including the World Food Programme, forcefully preventing its workers from reaching some 2.2 million Somalis in desperate need of food and water. Rubbishing speculation that Al-Shabab is changing its overall opposition to relief efforts –its spokesmen ludicrously denied that there is a famine, a claim that would be laughable were it not likely to result in thousands if not millions of needless deaths. Additionally, the group is exacerbating the situation by threatening the security of refugee camps inside Somalia - leading to the current mass exodus into neighbouring countries, piling pressure on their own starving populations and overburdening the humanitarian support there. There are also frequent reports of Al-Shabab militants stealing what little livestock has been left alive, robbing many Somalis of their last hope.
Whilst there is a general consensus that the organisation is not as strong as it once was and is now breaking into smaller loosely linked pockets, the fact of the matter remains clear: the security situation in Somalia is not conducive to relief efforts. The patch-work nature of Al-Shabab affiliated groups, with some allowing limited aid in, some staunchly resisting it and others open to persuasion or bribes, may actually make the environment even more dangerous and uncertain, with aid agencies unsure where they can or cannot safely operate and desperate internally displaced people living in a constant fear.
In many ways this is a case of history repeating itself: the breakdown of order in Somalia during the early 1990s meant it was impossible to adequately address the famine that then gripped the country. Amid the killing of aid workers and the theft of food supplies by local warlords, the UN Security Council authorised Operation Restore Hope -a US led intervention to protect the relief effort. However, whilst the operation itself was largely a success, subsequent attempts to stabilise Somalia were disastrous: the brutal mob killing of eighteen American soldiers and the shootings hundreds of Somalis during the infamous Black Hawk Down incident, following the torture and murder of civilians by Canadian soldiers in what was dubbed Canda's National Shame led not only to a permanent reluctance for the international community become involved in Somalia's affairs, but also disastrous anxieties about intervention elsewhere in Africa - including Rwanda where genocide broke out the following year.
In 2008 - as full scale civil war raged between the Somali transitional government and the Union of Islamic Courts, US forces went as far as undertaking limited airstrikes against Islamist held towns but left combat on the ground to government troops, African Union (AU) peacekeepers and the Ethiopian army- which had entered Somalia two years earlier in an attempt to crush the insurgency. The subsequent retreat by Ethiopian forces and fracturing of the Union of Islamic Courts has left the fight largely between Al-Shabab and the rapidly faltering AU force- stumbling along at the whim of the corrupt and self-serving Ugandan and Burundian governments, with the virtually impotent Somali administration providing what little support it can.
And with lingering memories of the 1990s disaster, an extensive operation to support the rebels in Libya, a protracted withdrawal from Afghanistan and on-going commitments in Iraq, the international community has precisely no impetus to step in militarily now- even to stabilise the situation for famine relief.
Yet whilst such intervention is currently incomprehensible, so is the prospect of doing nothing. It is painfully clear that aid alone is not enough: security for workers, supplies and refugees is absolutely essential if the already tragic death toll is to be contained or even slowed. And there are numerous ways of doing this without deploying more troops and guns: aid drops to citizens in Al-Shabab controlled areas, an effective framework to channel supplies from groups they’ve banned to groups they allow and a tactical redeployment of the AU forces to protect refugee routes and camps – supported by overhead reconnaissance flights to warn of impending militant attacks, should all be implemented with urgency.
Even then however, the prospect of deploying more troops to Somalia, under the auspices of the AU or UN, with the specific mandate of protecting aid and refugees- as a very last resort- should not necessarily be ruled out. There would undoubtedly be fears that the horrors of the 1990s intervention would be repeated; and there would undoubtedly be howls of protests from the anti-interventionist camp who’d cry imperialism and occupation. But if all else fails would it not be the preferable option to letting Al-Shabab literally cause the starvation of millions?
There are many options to try before that stage and so much still to be done in terms of donations and distribution…but for the people of Somalia there is very little time left.