Q&A: Somalia Expert Ken Menkhaus on the Famine
Eminent Somalia expert and political science professor Ken Menkhaus spoke to Laura Heaton of the Enough Project about what’s behind the famine sweeping East Africa and lessons that we should take away from the crisis.
HEATON: The famine in the Horn of Africa was spurred by a drought, but there are plenty of man-made triggers of the current crisis. Can you pinpoint the most responsible?
MENKHAUS: This is a part of the world that is more susceptible to extreme variations in seasonal rainfall than almost anywhere in the world. One in every five years there is an extreme drought; one in every five years there is an extreme flood. Historically, local populations have developed pretty elaborate coping mechanisms. But those coping mechanisms have been overloaded in recent decades by a wide range of factors, some environmental but also by more direct man-made problems like armed conflict – all of which have disrupted the old coping mechanisms that populations used to have. Previously, people would suffer during these years of extremes, but they would usually survive. Now that’s broken, particularly in Somalia.
So what we’ve got is the worst drought in 60 years, combined with 1.4 million Somalis internally displaced by years of warfare. As we all know, internally displaced people are always the most vulnerable because they’ve lost their livelihoods and their support system at home. And this has all been unfolding in the context of a perfect storm for food insecurity globally: We have a spike in fuel prices and food prices. A big part of the crisis in Somalia is not just that people used to be able to farm for subsistence and now can’t; there are lots of people whose purchasing power has been badly eroded. There is food on the market in much of Somalia, but people can’t afford it.
Another element of this perfect storm is the suspension of food aid to southern Somalia [the area controlled by the militant group al-Shabaab] for two years. Somalia hasn’t been self-sufficient since the early 1970s; the country is dependent on food aid from World Food Program and others. But aid delivery has been suspended in recent years for three main reasons: Insecurity – In 2008 Somalia was the most dangerous place in the world for aid workers, whether international or national. A third of all casualties worldwide occurred in Somalia, so aid groups started pulling out because they couldn’t justify the risk. Second, the U.S. government’s suspension of aid due to counterterrorism grounds; allowing aid to reach Shabaab was a violation of the Patriot Act. Third was Shabaab’s ban on most international agencies from working in the areas it controlled, accusing them of being spies and of trying to put Somali farmers out of business. We heard good news this week on a shift in U.S. policy to legally protect NGOs from being prosecuted under the Patriot Act. But that third bottleneck is still unresolved. As long as Shabaab continues blocking food aid, we’re limited in what we can do.
HEATON: When Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government was created in 2004, it was seen as a step in the right direction because it represented the first government in Somalia since 1991. But the TFG has had little success stabilizing the country, and TFG officials are often accused of personally profiting from Somalia’s lawlessness. What role has the TFG played in the current crisis?
MENKHAUS: The TFG is now in its seventh year of transition and has yet to even exercise modest governance capacity in the portion of the capital where it is located. It is protected by 9,000 African Union peacekeepers, and if they were not there the TFG would be driven out in hours. They have been largely irrelevant in the current famine – they are not a cause of the famine; they lack any capacity to play a constructive role in famine response. We’re hardly even talking about them, which in some ways is a real indictment of this transitional period.
The TFG does have legal control over an area of Mogadishu where the African Union provides protection, and that is a safe haven where food aid is being brought in. Somalis are flocking there in increasingly large numbers to get assistance. But what is happening unfortunately, but predictably, is that uncontrolled elements of the TFG – paramilitaries – have been fighting among themselves and have been in some cases looting the food aid. So the TFG, in as much as it could play a role right now, is actually looking like part of the problem rather than the solution.
The one difference between the TFG and Shabaab is that we have no leverage over Shabaab, but we have a lot of leverage over the TFG. I expect that donor countries are going to be weighing the full force of their diplomatic influence on TFG members and reminding them that they will be held responsible if they divert food aid away from people in need. Keep in mind that many of these TFG officials are diaspora members who hold citizenship abroad, so they are bound by those laws too.
HEATON: How are independently governed areas like Somaliland and Puntland faring? I understand the crisis hasn’t been as severe in those areas, but it’s interesting to consider how governance factors in to either prevention or response to the famine.
MENKHAUS: Actually, the drought has been quite severe in the north of Somalia as well, but what is interesting is that the north is generally much more arid than the south. The south has rivers and generally has better rainfall. But the north, despite being more arid and being affected by the drought, has not seen famine. The reason for that is pretty straightforward: There is a social peace. There is governance. The Somaliland government has been able to maintain a reasonable level of security and stability that has allows for the flow of commercial food, and as the drought hit, for the flow of international assistance. As a result, they have been hosting more and more displaced people from the south.
But it’s not necessarily the government itself; it’s also the maintenance of a social peace. There’s an enduring pact between clans in the north, managed by clan elders, that has helped keep society there together, whereas in the south that isn’t the case. Of course these are areas that don’t have a Shabaab presence, and that’s been critical too.
HEATON: There have been conflicting reports on whether the militant group al-Shabaab would let aid groups into the most gravely affected parts of Somalia or not. But you’re in touch with people in the region all the time – local sources, aid groups, governmental entities. How has the group’s presence impacted the response?
MENKHAUS: We’re pretty sure that Shabaab is splintering now. The famine has been a source of tension within the organization, and the hope is that we’ll see some breakaway wings again that would say, ‘our people are starving, and we welcome aid.’ It would be very risky for those splinter groups, but desperate times call for desperate measures. That could open some space for aid groups to come in. That’s the last best-case scenario we’ve got left, because right now we have people flooding the Kenyan border, and that creates a massive, long-term refugee crisis that will haunt us.
It’s important to flag the breaking news that Shabaab has pulled out of Mogadishu. We’re still trying to make sense of that – Is it a tactical measure? Do they want to launch more hit-and-run attacks instead? There are a lot of possible explanations, but it could be that the social pressure now is so great that clans are rebelling, that the group is fragmenting and actually being pushed out by local Somali communities. That would be a major break for the famine response. Regardless, Shabaab’s in trouble no matter what. [The famine] is just disastrous for this group – by blocking food aid, blocking people from getting out, they have just shredded what little credibility they had left with Somalis and jihadist around the world.
HEATON: What lessons should the international community take away from this present humanitarian crisis? How should the U.S. government revamp its approach to Somalia or to the Horn more broadly to help prevent crises from continuing to occur in regular intervals?
MENKHAUS: This crisis is a potential opening, both for humanitarian response and for new policy directions on Somalia. The scale of this crisis has forced people to do a fundamental rethink of all of our policies and assumptions. It has also put political pressure on actors to do things they wouldn’t have otherwise done for bureaucratic reasons. The challenge right now is just to get food aid in. The second challenge is going to be the immediate transition toward rebuilding livelihoods, and that – between insecurity, state collapse, and Shabaab’s continued presence – is going to be very difficult both logistically and legally, because of OFAC [Office of Foreign Assets Control] restrictions on humanitarian aid [to prevent it from benefitting terrorist groups].
But the broader question is what do we do about governance in this country. Shabaab may be crumbling, but the TFG remains irrelevant and is just a source of massive corruption. I think what we’re going to see over the next year is a rethink about continuing to support the TFG versus finding alternatives. But it’s difficult to get people to think about alternatives when we’ve got such immediate problems.
HEATON: So maybe that will be the slight silver lining from this crisis – that policymakers will see that we need to approach Somalia differently.
MENKHAUS: Yes, it would be a small consolation considering the scale of suffering in the country, but hopefully some new policies can come out that will create a more durable solution to these problems.
[The interview has been edited for brevity.]
(to be updated throughout the weekend)
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