Somalia: Famine looms, as politicians fight for control

By Fred Harter
Posted on Wednesday, 16 March 2022 10:00

Somalia, hit by the worst drought in a decade
In Somalia, hit by the worst drought in a decade, people queue for a lone water truck (Photo: Fred Harter)

With the world’s attention focused on Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, a vast humanitarian crisis is quietly unfolding in the Horn of Africa. This year's drought, the driest in four decades, has decimated livestock populations and poses a risk to some 13 million people across Somalia, Ethiopia and Northern Kenya.

In Somalia, half a million people have been uprooted from their homes. One of them is Fatuma Ali.

A sleeping matt, a metal bowl and two battered old cooking pots are all that’s left of her old life. She and her six young children were forced to leave their home in Southern Somalia when their farmland dried up and their cattle were killed in the drought.

They now live under the sparse shade of an acacia tree on the edge of a camp in the country’s Jubaland state, which is home to thousands of others uprooted by three successive failed rainy seasons. It took them 10 days to make 190km-long journey.

Fatuma, like many others, came to this camp near the settlement of Luglow hoping to get help from the government, but so far she has received none. Instead, she is relying on handouts of rice from her neighbours in the camp to feed her children. Some days she cannot find any food and they go hungry. “We were farmers before,” says Fatuma, holding her youngest child, Abdi, just 40 days old.

We have no shelter and no water, and barely anything to cook for the children.

“But there was no rain and we couldn’t farm anymore, so we came here. I left everything behind. We have no blankets for the children – we have nothing,” she says. The UN has appealed for $1.46bn to help 7.7 million people – half of the population – who need humanitarian assistance, but so far the agency has only received 2.3% of that amount.

Halima Ahmed came to the camp two weeks ago with her husband and seven children. The family share a small tent made from sticks wrapped in plastic bags and torn bed sheets. They left their home after their 90-strong herd of cattle died from thirst and disease, and they now survive on occasional bags of grain supplied by the government.

“We had a good life before,” she says. “Economically, we had enough and we were happy, but now we are struggling. We have no shelter and no water, and barely anything to cook for the children. Some days they sleep hungry. Life is very hard.”

Livestock in Somalia has perished due to ongoing drought (Photo: Fred Harter)

Last month, 50 NGOs signed an open letter calling on the international community to step up the response “before it is too late”. “Local humanitarian leaders are saying that they have never seen such a drought and that their biggest concern is an imminent famine if funds are not immediately received,” the letter said.

The drought is already claiming lives: doctors from Save the Children say eight children from one camp died of starvation last month.

Complicating the response to the drought is the political crisis that has gripped the country since February 2021, when President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, better known as Farmaajo, postponed elections and forced a law through parliament that would extend his term by two more years.

Elections fiasco

Gun battles erupted in the capital, Mogadishu, prompting talk of civil war as the security forces threatened to break up along clan lines. Farmaajo has since backed down and the elections are now slowly taking place – so far, the status of around 80% of 275 seats have been settled – but deep political divisions persist, especially between Farmaajo and his prime minister, Mohamed Hussein Roble. The vote has also been hampered by delays.

This humanitarian crisis from the drought is a man-made disaster.

The situation is a far cry from the swirl of optimism that greeted Farmaajo’s rise to power in 2017. In that election, lawmakers were chosen by delegates who had been selected by a conference of 14,000 clan leaders. Farmaajo was picked by the new MPs and scored several policy successes early on, such as securing budgetary support from the EU and promises of $5.3bn in debt relief from the IMF and World Bank.

Farmaajo also failed to hold Somalia’s first proper election, a key pledge. His initial cancellation of the vote (he cited Covid-19 and Al-Shabaab’s insurgency) was seen as a brazen power grab, and the election is now following the same format as the 2017 one.

Politicians are more focused on election issues.

“He has failed on every level,” said Abdirahman Abdishakur, an opposition politician who is running against Farmaajo for president. “This humanitarian crisis from the drought is a man-made disaster. It is the result not just of failed rains, but a failure in leadership. There was no early warning system in place or any emergency response.”

The final deadline for the election was 15 March, but no date has been set for a vote that was to decide 16 seats in the Gedo region, the part of Jubaland that has been hardest hit by the drought.

“Politicians are more focused on election issues, rather than addressing the impact of the drought,” said Abdikani Jama, an economic advisor to the prime minister. “Unfortunately, Somalia has lost from donors, who are fatigued, and there is no appetite to continue supporting the country. That means the drought is not getting the attention it should.”

Al Shabaab insurgency

Farmaajo’s critics say he has focused more on consolidating his political power than addressing the pressing issues facing Somalia, such as the long-running Al Shabaab insurgency. In the last five years, the Islamist group has extended its reach and built up an extensive protection racket in the Mogadishu, as the government has failed to build a viable national military.

“Security has got worse under Farmaajo,” said Omar Mahmood, Somalia analyst at the International Crisis Group. “The priority has been the domestic agenda and re-centralising aspects of the government. Al Shabaab have really taken advantage, with the security forces pursuing political opponents rather than them.”

Cash-strapped government

A western diplomat tells The Africa Report that the government does not have a plan to deal with the drought beyond expecting the international community to step in. Donors are also reluctant to keep pouring money into the country while the political elite fights among itself. The US has threatened visa restrictions over the political crisis and the IMF says it will cut funding for Somalia if there are any further election delays.

Somalia has lost from donors, who are fatigued, and there is no appetite to continue supporting the country.

Some partners have already suspended budgetary support and the government is so strapped for cash that it has resorted to appealing to the diaspora to pay civil servant salaries.

The last time Somalia was hit by drought, in 2017, a crisis was averted after the government moved quickly to raise awareness among donors and mobilise funds. However, the current situation bears more similarities to 2011-12, when a severe drought became a famine that killed 260,000 people, owing to a combination of international inaction, persistent insecurity and political squabbling among elites.

Women queue for food and water in camps, as farming land disappears during drought in Somalia (Photo: Fred Harter)

Worsening situation

The World Food Programme (WFP) estimates that 40-70% of Somalia’s livestock has already been lost to the current drought. Things could get worse if the rains fail for a fourth time in April. “We have not received additional funds,” says Petroc Wilson, a spokesman for the WFP. “Even those who used to give us funds in the past, they are behind… If this continues the situation in Somalia is going to be [worse].”

Wilson says the WFP does not have enough money to support people hit by the drought. “Those people who are affected by malnutrition, who lost their livestock, we are not doing anything for them,” he says. “The situation is serious, and the more you delay the response, the more you make the cost of response high, the more you are driving the people to famine. We are not in famine yet, but we are steadily heading towards famine.”

An estimated 3 million people live in areas under Al Shabaab control and inaccessible to humanitarians. Meanwhile, with predictions projecting the displacement of an additional 1 million people over the coming months, freshly uprooted families continue to arrive at Luglow camp with the hope of receiving aid.

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