The political origins of the Somalia famine

Mihag Gedi Farah, a seven-month-old child with a weight of 3.4kg, is held by his mother in a field hospital of the International Rescue Committee, IRC, in the town of Dadaab, Kenya, Tuesday, July 26, 2011. The U.N. will airlift emergency rations this week to parts of drought-ravaged Somalia that militants banned it from more than two years ago, in a crisis intervention to keep hungry refugees from dying along what an official calls the "roads of death." Tens of thousands already have trekked to neighboring Kenya and Ethiopia, hoping to get aid in refugee camps.(AP Photo/Schalk van Zuydam)

The devastating famine in Somalia is not a natural phenomenon but a man-made one. Political and military intervention over the last decade made the Somali people extremely vulnerable. The drought simply pushed them over the edge.

The culprits are the U.S. war on terror, the al-Shabab terrorist group, Somalia’s transitional federal government, Ethiopia’s invasion of Somalia and, finally, the United Nations. The combined activities of these actors led to the exhaustion of local food resources and delayed or denied assistance from outside until massive starvation was reported.

The U.S. agenda in Somalia has been to fight Islamic terrorists. Since the bombings of the American embassies in East Africa in 1998, the United States has conducted clandestine operations to snatch terrorists and destroy their routes in Somalia. In the process, the United States sought assistance from the country’s warlords in 2005. Somalis despised this alliance and turned against it under the leadership of the Union of Islamic Courts in 2006. This union defeated the warlords and restored peace to southern Somalia. Recklessly, America and its Ethiopian ally claimed that these Islamists were terrorists and, therefore, a menace to the region. In contrast, the majority of Somalis pleaded with the international community to engage the union peacefully.

But the American-supported Ethiopian invasion of Somalia in 2006 dashed Somalia’s only chance in 16 years to restore a national government of its own. The invasion displaced more than 1 million people and killed 15,000 civilians. Those displaced are part of today’s famine victims.

The international community picked up where the Ethiopians left off by designing a new transitional government led by the faction of the union most amenable to the American agenda. The transitional government has marginalized the militias that forced the Ethiopian withdrawal. And it has become known for its corruption, incompetence and internal strife, and has been oblivious to the devastating famine. It has yet to articulate a plan of action to rescue the population in this gruesome hour.

Al-Shabab has become the dominant military force in southern Somalia. It declared its affiliation with al-Qaida, and American forces have consequently targeted it. Al-Shabab wants to establish an Islamic state, but it has failed to create a rudimentary administration to provide services for the population. Most insidiously, it continues to deny the existence of significant famine conditions in the area. And the United Nations and the United States have blocked food shipment to the areas that al-Shabab controls in order to deny them these supplies.

The callous uses of military and political power against poor people have produced a catastrophic famine. Altering the behavior of the powerful will be tantamount to a revolution, and al-Shabab’s retreat from Mogadishu (Somalia’s capital) provides an opportunity.

But before such a transformation can be imagined, lives must be saved. The international community must immediately provide food to the villages. Then what is urgently required is the establishment of an accountable Somali government, since that is the best defense against famine and terrorism.


Abdi Ismail Samatar is a professor of geography at the University of Minnesota. He wrote this for Progressive Media Project, a source of liberal commentary on domestic and international issues; it is affiliated with The Progressive magazine. Readers may write to the author at: Progressive Media Project, 409 East Main Street, Madison, Wis. 53703; e-mail:; Web site: For information on PMP’s funding, please visit

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