Somalia is in the midst of a famine, suffering from the worst drought in 60 years. 29,000 Somali children have died within the past three months, and 100,000 Somalis are expected to die in the next few weeks. The al-Qaeda affiliate al-Shabab has destroyed the country, taking over much of the southern part of the country where it has imposed a strict version of Sharia law. The Taliban-like organization refuses to allow humanitarian organizations associated with the West to provide aid to the starving people. Al-Shabab expelled the U.N.’s World Food Programme, which had provided the bulk of the aid, from much of the country in January 2010, accusing it of being a U.S. proxy. Incredulously, some are blaming the U.S. for the famine, not al-Shabab.
For several years now the U.N. has described Somalia as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. 11.8 million people across Somalia, Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia and Djibouti - generally Africa’s eastern peninsula known as the “Horn of Africa” - have been affected. According to the U.N., one quarter of Somali’s 9.9 million people have been displaced. More than 3.7 million people are in need of food and water, including 1.25 million children. 63 percent of southern Somalia is starving or at risk of it, and the U.N. reports that only 20 percent are being reached by relief workers. Every day 1,500 Somalis escape across the border to refugee camps in Kenya.
The country is undergoing an all-out war between al-Shabab and the Federal Transitional Government (FTG), which is supported by the West and African Union troops. Al-Shabab, which translates loosely as “the youth,” operates like the Taliban, ruthlessly murdering anyone who gets in its way of taking over the country and enforcing Sharia law.
The dilemma facing the international community is whether to provide more humanitarian aid, because it may be perpetuating the fighting. Al-Shabab has been stealing the aid to feed its militants and is also selling it, enabling it to continue fighting.
The people are not dying because of the famine; they are dying because al-Shabab is preventing relief from getting to them. Al-Shabab’s leader Sheikh Muktar Abu Zubeir declared recently, "Aid agencies and some countries declared famine and pretend they want to help you. They do so for these reasons: for trade purposes, to convert you from your religion and to colonise you.”
Plenty of regions around the world suffer from drought, including the southern U.S., but are able to cope without ending up in famine.
The U.S. is in a catch-22 position when it comes to aiding the starving Somalians. But if the U.S. does not provide assistance, people will continue dying. The U.S. has provided more than $600 million in support, the most of any country. In 2008, the U.S. State Department designated al-Shabab a terrorist organization, making it illegal to provide humanitarian aid to the areas under control of al-Shabab. Two charities have been prohibited from drilling a bore hole for water since it could be used by al-Shabab.
With no end to the famine in sight, and critics blaming the U.S. for the crisis, the State Department is backing off and has stated it will relax enforcement against charities providing humanitarian aid. The U.S. Agency for International Development announced Thursday that it will provide an additional $23 million to the Horn of Africa, with $10 million designated for Somalia.
Somalia has been in turmoil since 1969. The country gained independence from western colonialists in 1960. In 1969, military dictator Mohamed Siad Barre seized control, bringing an element of Islamic rule into the government. His government collapsed in 1991 and there has not been any central government control since. The FTG controls only parts of Somalia; warlords ravage the rest of the country. A U.S. humanitarian effort in 1993 with the U.N. to provide aid during an earlier draught resulted in 18 troops killed by Osama bin Laden backed militants, documented in the movie Blackhawk Down. In 1998, Osama bin Laden’s Somalia-based operation blew up U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, killing 230 people. The U.S. found and killed a top al Qaeda operative behind the bombings in Somalia in 2009, Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan. Al-Shabab took over most of the southern part of Somalia in 2005, and by 2008 was colluding with Somali pirates to steal ransoms and bounties. The country is now in shambles, with infrastructure like schools and landline phones mostly wiped out.
Al-Shabab enforces one of the strictest versions of Sharia law in the world. In 2008, a 13-year old girl from Kismayo who told authorities she had been gang raped was buried up to her neck and stoned to death for adultery in front of 1000 onlookers. When some people watching tried to save her, the militia opened fire on the crowd.
Christians are under severe persecution in Somalia. There are fewer than 1000 in the entire country. Al-Shabab is committed to hunting them down, killing several every month. The umbrella organization over Somali Muslim religious groups issued a memorandum in 2003 stating that Somali Muslims who become Christians must be killed. It was signed by 14 sheikhs representing different major Somali clans.
Transparency International ranked Somalia in last place among countries on its 2010 annual Corruption Perceptions Index. The Institute for Economics and Peace also ranked Somalia in last place on its 2011 Global Peace Index.
Although there has been one positive development recently, recapturing Mogadishu back from al-Shabab last month, there are many hurdles left. Even if the TFG ultimately defeats al-Shabab, it has already conceded so much ground it may be too late to save the country from radical Islam. In March 2009, the TFG acceded to al-Shabab’s demands and adopted Sharia law as the nation’s official judicial system. Girls are no longer permitted to attend school, woman are required to wear veils, men are required to have beards, and music and television are banned.
What should be done about Somalia? The U.S should secretly go through back channels to provide aid to Somalia, so the aid is not turned away by al-Shabab. In addition, there needs to be closer monitoring of the aid to ensure that it goes to the people who really need it, not the warlords. This is about stopping al Qaeda and its associated organizations from terrorizing the world and causing genocide. This is not about drought and famine; those are just symptoms of the underlying disease of militant Islam. It may require several hundred million more dollars from the U.S., but if it is not stopped will spread to other countries and there will be more attacks on U.S. citizens. Islamic terrorism is possibly the biggest threat facing the world today, and once we start focusing on it as the root of the problem, a lot of other problems in the world will go away.