Why are Somalia's militants clamping down on famine aid?
Somalia's militant group Al Shabab announced that a ban on some aid groups remains in place. The decision stems from a distrust of outsiders and a desire to deny the famine's existence.
As famine kills people in the Horn of Africa, politics colors the response: political struggles between the United States and the United Nations, inside of governments, and between the international community and al Shabab, the Islamist militia that controls southern Somalia, where the famine’s epicenter lies. Yesterday, an al Shabab spokesman brought the issue of politics front and center:Skip to next paragraph
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“We say [the UN declaration of famine in southern Somalia] is totally, 100 percent wrong and baseless propaganda. Yes there is drought but the conditions are not as bad as they say,” al Shabaab spokesman Sheikh Ali Mohamud Rage told a media briefing.”They have another objective and it wouldn’t surprise us if they were politicizing the situation.”
It now appears that al Shabab has reversed its decision, made just days ago, to lift the ban on outside aid groups entering its territory. The story is still developing, but there is a strong chance that al Shabab will dig in its heels and try to ride the famine out, with all the consequences that entails in terms of human suffering.
Rage’s comment above, which drips with mistrust and anger, got me thinking about famine politics in southern Somalia.
The first point I would make is that al Shabab is minimizing the crisis because, as many observers and experts are saying, the movement itself likely made the famine worse. Famines often (always?) result not only from failed rains or population growth, but also government policies, especially denial and inaction. This problem is not limited to Somalia: the Financial Times writes that early warnings of famine in the Horn went unheeded because “sensitive to their own failures, governments… tend to be slow to acknowledge looming crises and are skeptical about aid agency claims about their severity.” The FT adds that the conflict in Ethiopia’s Ogaden region made the famine worse there. Meanwhile, many suspect that Eritrea’s government is exacerbating hunger by refusing aid and access. Even Kenya faced accusations as recently as 2009 of failing to respond effectively to drought. Every indication points to the conclusion that al Shabab not only fit into this regional trend, but was – because of its limited resources, its preoccupation with the civil war, and its ideology – a particularly bad offender.
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