New Internationalist

How do you solve a problem like Somalia?

If international leaders are to help Somalia, they first need to acknowledge their role in its tragedy, say Mark Bradbury and Laura Hammond.

Forty heads of state convene in London this week for a conference on Africa’s biggest headache: Somalia. For Britain and the other countries represented at the conference, Somalia is a security problem, a ‘failed state’, a haven for terrorists and pirates, a threat to the well-being of the Global North. But the main threat that misgovernment in Somalia represents is to Somalis themselves, constantly at risk of famine and displacement.

Although Britain responded generously to the famine that ravaged Somalia last year, there was no mention of the humanitarian crisis when the Prime Minister announced the conference, which is focused purely on the political question of the country as a ‘failed state’. (Discussion of the humanitarian crisis affecting Somalis is relegated to an oddly-named ‘humanitarian breakfast’.)

But if Somalia is a failed state, the failure is not just a Somali failure. It is a failure also of those who have been intervening in Somalia for the past two decades. It is unlikely that the big players attending the conference will acknowledge the role that their own policies have played in creating the conditions that led to a famine in 2011 which cost 50,000 to 100,000 lives.

Somalis collect drinking water

Photo: DFID under a CC Licence

The return of famine was the result not only of a lack of internal governance, and of the conflict between the so-called Transitional National Government (TFG) and the Islamist al-Shabaab. It was a failure of global governance. Since the Somali state collapsed in 1991, international policy in Somalia has revolved around, on the one hand, the provision of humanitarian assistance to meet recurrent humanitarian need and, on the other, the establishment of a government that could restore internal order and address international security concerns.  

But these objectives have often been in opposition. After years of neglect in the 1990s, international interest in Somalia was revived after 9/11, when it became seen as a source of transnational terrorism. The restoration of a Somali government became part of a counterterrorism strategy, rather than a way to deal with the root causes of state collapse and conflict. In defending the TFG and the peace agreement that created it, the UN and donor governments themselves became belligerents in a war that created the most severe humanitarian crisis in recent Somali history

One tragedy of the past two decades has been the manipulation by the international donor community of famine relief and other humanitarian aid to meet political goals in Somalia. Aid has been used as a carrot to reward areas of the country that have established peace and kept violent extremists at bay. However, it is also used to punish people living in areas under the rule of al-Shabaab.

Al-Shabaab did not help by expelling the World Food Programme and several non-governmental organizations receiving US assistance from the areas of southern and central Somali under its control. But the US and many European countries had already turned their back on many of these areas. Legal restrictions prevented direct access negotiations with al-Shabaab, which was proscribed as a terrorist organization in 2008, and aid agencies were banned from providing assistance in areas where supplies or money might end up in the hands of al-Shabaab operatives. This effectively created a vacuum where both sides neglected the people of southern Somalia.

It was only when the situation had spiralled out of control that the US and European countries informally relaxed their restrictions on dealing with al-Shabaab. However, the legislation remains binding and can be enforced at any time. The expulsion by al-Shabaab last month of the Red Cross from areas it controls and its defiant public announcement this week that it is renewing its ties with al-Qaeda could see restrictions re-established.

Ongoing danger

Earlier this month the UN announced that the famine was at an end, but the danger is not over. Conditions for 2.4 million people remain critical. Donors may now become complacent and stop providing life-saving support. And humanitarian assistance may once again become a tool to be used to bring about the donors’ vision of what a stable Somali government may look like.

An internationally backed expansion of military operations by the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), Kenya and Ethiopia in south central Somalia is placing civilians in danger and affecting humanitarian access. Since December, thousands have fled their homes to escape fighting and air strikes. The expansion of military operations is compounding the problems caused by the expulsion of humanitarian agencies in 2011. While the behaviour of AMISOM forces towards the people of the areas it controls has improved in recent months, the shelling of populated urban areas continues and displaced camps have been subject to attacks by warring factions.

When the international community gathers in London this week to develop a new approach to working with Somalia, they must make a clear statement that humanitarian relief is not to be used to bring about political change. They must commit themselves to respecting humanitarian organizations’ impartiality, neutrality and independence. This may mean engaging in dialogue with local leaders in al-Shabaab controlled areas, where such counterparts are willing to work to assist the people under their control.

Failure to respect humanitarian principles and engage in dialogue with those from across the political spectrum will prevent both political and humanitarian objectives from being met. A political state for Somalia cannot be built using life-saving aid as a reward for good behaviour, nor can a famine be stopped by only working with one’s allies.

In view of the expansion of regional military forces in Somalia and the conflagration of the conflict, it is also essential that participants in the London conference prioritize the protection of civilians and clearly state that all parties in the conflict will be held accountable under international human rights and humanitarian law. In the absence of a government with the capability to provide such protection, Somalis deserve nothing less from the international community.

Mark Bradbury is a Fellow of the Rift Valley Institute (RVI); Laura Hammond is a Lecturer on the RVI Horn of Africa Course and Senior Lecturer in Development Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London.

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