Southern Africa's Crisis

SOMALIA'S terrible problems are now better understood, thanks to extensive coverage of the devastation there and of the clan warfare that perpetuates it. Relief efforts in Somalia are increasing, but that country, sad to say, is only one crisis in a sea of need.

Nearly the whole of the southern half of Africa - embracing some 110 million people - is gripped by drought. Many of the areas most threatened by famine are, like Somalia, weakened by war.

In southern Sudan, for example, civil war between the Islamic government in Khartoum and Christian and animist rebels has dragged on for nine years. Hundreds of thousands of Sudanese have been forced from their homes, and bleak refugee camps are sealed off from help.

Sudan's government has been reluctant to give international agencies access to its southern regions. Relief flights by the International Committee of the Red Cross have been banned since February; overland routes are cut off too. Pressure must continue on both the government and the rebels to allow delivery of aid. But the only lasting remedy for Sudan's suffering will be a political agreement that recognizes the rights of all Sudanese.

A political solution is also critical to avoiding a Somalia-like disaster in Mozambique. The fighting there started back in 1976. Earlier this year an agreement was reached to allow relief supplies into rebel-held areas, but it had little effect on the ground. Another, more effective agreement is reported to be in the works. Meanwhile, as many as 3 million Mozambicans are threatened by starvation.

Food shortages and damaged agricultural production beset the entire region, including such relatively well-off countries as Kenya, South Africa, and Zimbabwe. These countries would normally produce surpluses of food. The corn crop failed last January and February, forcing countries to live off existing stocks.

In the midst of this crisis, many southern African nations - such as Angola, Zaire, Zambia, and South Africa - are struggling toward democratic reform. Drought and famine deepen economic inequities. Governments, democratic or not, can fall because of poor response to disaster.

The resources of the United Nations and private relief agencies are stretched thin in Africa. Leadership will have to come from countries that can share their abundance of food, with the United States at the forefront. Anticipating the need, the US Agency for International Development prepared an action plan for southern Africa early this year, earmarking 2 million tons of food for the region. Shipments of US food have been underway since April, with 700,000 tons already delivered, mostly through South A frican ports. Supplies are then transported on to neighboring countries.

The US plan is a good start. UN humanitarian branches have an important coordinating role, though turf battles often hinder their effectiveness.

Private voluntary organizations like the Red Cross are old hands at responding to disaster, but they're sometimes resented, ironcially, by governments in the countries they want to help. And their fundraising badly needs augmenting. Finally, European governments must follow the US lead and contribute as much food as possible.

Immediate, concerted action can keep the abhorent conditions in Somalia from spreading beyond that embattled land.

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