"Somalia is at the heart of one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world today," said the United Nations of the he war-torn country experiencing its worst drought in 60 years. Nearly twelve million people are trapped in it; countless others are fleeing rural areas to escape famine with the hope to find food and shelter in larger cities. The U.N. reports that in the first half of 2011 alone, more than 83,000 Somalis have fled into Kenya and over 54,000 into Ethiopia. In July, daily arrivals in each country ranged from 1,300 to 1,700.

Al-Shabab preventing Somalis getting aid

Even though the he present famine is affecting the whole Horn of Africa, the greatest emergency is taking place in Southern Somalia, an area controlled by Al-Shabab, an Islamist organization closely linked to Al-Qaeda. An estimated 2.8 million people, with an estimated number of 1.25 million children there are facing starvation. Although major aid agencies are trying to distribute supplies through local NGOs, Al-Shabab's hardliners are working to prevent Western donations: "They have routinely diverted food and other supplies meant for starving Somalis into their own hands, leaving many foreign donors unwilling to send more aid," according to Voice of America. And according to the New York Times, Al-Shabab is even diverting water from the rivers to send it to farms that pay a tax to the terrorist organization. Further, Islamic militants are arresting Somalis trying to flee, putting them in a detention camps where conditions are such that survival is at risk. Al-Shabab spokesman Sheikh Ali Mohamud Rage said there was no famine, and accused the U.N. of having ulterior motives. "We say [the U.N. declaration on famine in Somalia] is totally 100 per cent wrong and baseless propaganda. Yes there is drought, but the conditions are not as bad as they say. They have another objective and it wouldn't surprise us if they were politicizing the situation," Rage said.

Possible divisions inside Al-Shabab

According to the media, the current humanitarian crisis is creating division inside Al-Shabab. On July 6, Al-Shabab spokesman Rage said that the movement would lift the ban on foreign aid to Somalia, but only two weeks later the statement was reversed. In an interview to VOA, Abdiwahab Sheikh Abdi Samed, a Somali political analyst with Southlink Consultants in Nairobi, explained that these mixed messages were the result of a division inside Al-Shabab. "There are two groups, although this division has always existed, it remained hidden: those for the al-Qaida notion of what you call global jihadists, and those who normally are the localists -- the local fighters who are close to the people," Abdi Samed said.

Moreover, the fact that Al-Shabab is blocking aid to the famine's victims seems to be creating frustration against the Islamist movements, which are losing support among the population. Nevertheless, TV channel France 24 reported that the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea estimated that, despite divisions and lack of support, al-Shabab currently generates "between $70 million and $100 million annually from taxation and extortion in areas it controls, notably from the export of charcoal and cross-border contraband into Kenya."

The role of democracy in fighting famine

Nuruddin Farah, a Somali-born novelist living between South Africa and the U.S., recently wrote in the Washington Post that in 1992, when Somalia suffered a tough period of famine, warlords held the nation hostage. To face the crisis, the U.S. sent in the Marines, but in 1993, 18 American service members were killed by Somali gunmen linked to Al-Qaeda. The U.S. ultimately decided to withdraw and, as Farah puts it, "the United Nations rewarded the warlords with undeserved honor, describing them as leaders instead of treating them as criminals." Farah added that, "the warlords were invited to a series of national reconciliation conferences to form a government, and Somalis equated this bizarre turn of events to the notion of entrusting a flock of sheep to hyenas. Only a fool thinks that no harm will come to his sheep."

After the U.Snot become the world's worst humanitarian disaster. The Indian economist and Nobel Prize laureate Amartya Sen once said that famines are easy to prevent and often disappear with the establishment of a multiparty democracy, a free press and an active political opposition: Only in democracies, must political leaders be responsive to the demands of their citizens.


Although drought is always cited as the main culprit when famine strikes, drought is only what triggers the crisis. There are a number of countries often hit by long spells of drought that do not enter into a crisis. A sufficiently developed country economically can still offset such dire consequences by technical means, both by building infrastructure, such as water reservoirs, and by importing goods. For countries that permanently live in extreme poverty, however, one year of drought can mean, as in Somalia, the death of millions. Cyclical droughts will hit Somalia again, possibly in six or seven years' time. Again there will be famine, possibly even worse than today's as by then the country will have been degraded even further.

The events in Somalia could be a lesson for other countries in the world, especially Afghanistan. The words of Farah can also be used to describe what is going on in the war-torn Afghanistan, which ,after the war against the Soviets, was abandoned without help to the country in rebuilding either its infrastructure or a political body. As in Somalia, Al-Qaeda could find a stronghold in the lawless Afghanistan.

If Afghanistan is again going to be abandoned and the Taliban honored and considered interlocutors, as happened in Somalia with its warlords, history will not only repeat itself, but the next humanitarian disaster could well be Afghanistan.

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