Famine as a crime against humanity

Drought does not necessarily lead to famine: The catastrophe in Somalia was man-made.

UN downgrades famine in some zones in Somalia
Powerful human actors are responsible for the famine in Somalia [GALLO/GETTY]

Minneapolis, Minnesota – Several months ago, I wrote an essay entitled “Genocidal Politics and the Somali Famine”. It appears that the coordinator of the UN’s Monitoring Committee for Somalia agrees with the essay’s proposition that nature is not to blame and that powerful human actors are responsible for the catastrophe.

The coordinator of the Monitoring Group recently published an article in which he claimed that the Somali famine is not only a catastrophe, but that identifiable individuals and groups engaged in the production of the famine and therefore have committed crimes against humanity. This bold statement by the coordinator of the Monitoring Group demands careful assessment.  

It has been common wisdom for decades that droughts do not by themselves lead to famines, and the cause of the latter is the failure by national and international authorities to take action long before people run out of food. There have been 10 major droughts over the last 50 years in the Horn of Africa in general, and in Somalia in particular.

The evidence gleaned from this climatic record show that most droughts did not produce famine.

For instance, the first famine in Somalia since independence occurred in 1991/2, when roaming gangs destroyed or looted peasant harvests and then warlords used food as a weapon against hapless people. Today’s famine is similarly a consequence of the (in)actions of several Somali and international actors.

I partly agree with the coordinator’s assessment that this is a man-made famine and, therefore, that those responsible have committed crimes against humanity. However, my disagreement with his claim is that he only offers a partial list of the perpetrators by ignoring some of the major culprits, while accusing others who had nothing to do with the making of the famine.

There is a general agreement that something went horribly wrong in southern Somalia for thousands of people to die of starvation and for hundreds of thousands to be in grave risk of perishing. The coordinator of the Monitoring Group points his finger at the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and al-Shabaab as the principle culprits that precipitated the famine. Consequently, he recommends that these two Somali actors should be hauled to the International Criminal Court (ICC) to account for “their crimes against humanity”.

Who’s to blame?

Given the gravity of the accusation levelled by the Monitoring Group’s coordinator against these organisations and individuals, it is vital to examine the evidence he provided to arrive at such a categorical conclusion. The TFG is accused of corruption, and that some of its militias have in some instances looted food destined for the famine refuges in Mogadishu and killed several of the indigent people.

There is little doubt that the TFG is corrupt, but the level of its malfeasance cannot be equated with crimes against humanity unless other governments in the region are treated likewise. The TFG is not only corrupt, but also frighteningly incompetent. Ineptness contributed to the world’s lack of awareness of the creeping famine, but such stupidity cannot be equated with crimes against humanity.

In addition, the coordinator provided no evidence that the key leaders of the TGF instructed their militias to rob and murder the indigent. Therefore, one can certainly accuse the regime for what it did not do “bring the blight of the population to the world’s attention”, but beyond that, the coordinator provides no evidence.

In contrast, the claim that al-Shabaab has willfully denied many humanitarian agencies to deliver food to the people who live in the areas they controlled is uncontested. What is disputed is what precipitated al-Shabaab’s action, since the latter did not ban most of the humanitarian agencies, including the big ones such as the WFP, from serving the population before spring 2010.

Despite the politics which pushed al-Shabaab to do the unthinkable, we concur that this group is liable to the accusation levelled against it, but they are not alone in this regard.

The US withdrew its support for WFP Somalia following a media scandal [GALLO/GETTY]

Apart from these Somali actors, the Monitoring Group’s coordinator conveniently ignored more powerful actors deeply implicated in the famine. First, he ignores the fact that some of the famine victims are the people who were displaced by the Ethiopian occupation of southern Somalia during 2006-08. That occupation exacerbated conflict in the country which subsequently denied that population to return home and rebuild their lives. As such, the invaders are as guilty of crimes against humanity as al-Shabaab.

Second, the United States government has been the most important provider of food aid to the World Food Programme (WFP), which enabled the latter to sustain many of the displaced and dislocated people. The US withdrew its support for WFP programme in southern Somalia as a result of two parallel accusations made in the Spring 2010 Report of the UN Monitoring Group, which claimed that WFP transport contractors were diverting food aid to the black market as well as supporting al-Shabaab.

WFP media scandal

The report was leaked to the press before it was officially sanctioned by the Security Council. The unofficial report was widely quoted by global media networks, and WFP and the contractors accused were completely surprised by the allegation.

WFP and the contractors tried separately to debunk the claims, but the damage to their reputations was already done before they could systematically respond to the report. Thereafter, the US government withdrew its support for WFP Somalia. WFP engaged in damage control and immediately dropped the accused transport contractors from future contracts without finding out what the facts were.

In addition to the impact which the report had on WFP, several other NGOs became worried about the possibility of being accused of providing material support for terrorists and consequently, withdrew their staff and services from regions al-Shabaab controlled. Subsequently, al-Shabaab banned many NGOs, including WFP, from working in those regions, because they suspected them of working for Western intelligence. The shenanigans surrounding WFP brought food shipment to halt as the support for the agency – to the tune of $300m – disappeared.

While such political manoeuvers were taking place, the capacity of the population in several regions in southern Somalia had critically deteriorated, and the UN humanitarian coordinators for Somalia and other individuals warned against the unfolding catastrophe, but those who held the key to life did not heed the alarm.

The WFP reacted to the accusation by re-examining its record to ensure that its Somali transport contractors did not miss a beat in delivering the supplies to the intended recipients. One of the key accusations made in the Monitoring Report against one of the contractors posited that he staged food robberies in and around Suuqa Xoolaha (a neighbourhood in Mogadishu). According to the Monitoring Report of March 2010, this particular contractor then sold the food on the black market.

Despite the circulation of this rumour, WFP reported that this claim made no sense since the contractor had deposited a $400,000 bond with WFP, a deposit that ensured the latter did not lose any money. Furthermore, the head of the Union of Islamic Courts in Mogadishu confirmed that this shipment of food was looted by their troops. WFP did not stop here, but appointed an independent investigative commission headed by the former Auditor General of the government of India.  

This independent investigation was unable to validate a single allegation made in the Monitoring Report. By strange coincidence, the coordinator of the Monitoring Group, in his July 2011 report had to retract the most damaging allegations pertaining to food diversion.  

Al-Shabaab tightens control

In the absence of any credible evidence that validates any of the major accusations made in the 2010 Monitoring Groups, we need to examine the effects the report had on the delivery of humanitarian aid since March 2010, and then assess the politics of the Monitoring Group Report writing. 

First, the WFP lost some $300m in overall donor funds for Somalia, mostly devoted to food security. This destroyed WFP’s capacity to provide for routine food support for the indigent, but more critically, to the growing food insecurity of large number of people in the major conflict zones in Somalia. The funds lost to Somalia because of this report have never been recovered as part of the funding envelope for Somalia.

As a result, slowly the malnutrition rates increased, and the population’s ability to weather the storm diminished significantly. Alarm rang among knowledgeable agencies and individuals, as a small stream of malnourished and deeply destitute people began to show up in cities like Mogadishu.

Second, as a result of the new pressure induced by the March 2010 Report, al-Shabaab tightened its control of its area. Meanwhile, a number of humanitarian agencies withdrew, fearing that they could not operate in those per Shabaab’s new restriction, and not wanting to be accused of materially aiding a terrorist organisation.   

To understand the politics of the Somali famine in order to identify those who were responsible for the calamity, we need to recognise the confluence of forces that transformed the drought into a mass killer. First, WFP has been financially teetering on the brink, and would have been incapable of responding to the current famine even if there were no al-Shabaab edict against them. WFP’s position had become so tenuous that it has seriously considered withdrawing from Somalia all together. Therefore, WFP is as much a victim of global political agendas as are the devastated people.

Second, al-Shabaab is clearly responsible for its willful decision to deny genuine humanitarian agencies from providing relief to the destitute population, despite the culpability of others as well.

Third, the Ethiopian Government is equally responsible for the tragedy as its occupation displaced a million people, many of whom have succumbed to starvation in the bush.

Read more from Abdi Ismail Samatar:

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Fourth, while the coordinator has blamed al-Shabaab for denying access to agencies like WFP, the timeline of events appear to point the blame on the Monitoring Group’s tabloid-like research and report writing. We think that al-Shabaab is guilty of condemning people to starvation, but those who used the United Nations Monitoring Group as the vehicle to deliver unfounded half-truths also played a vital role in inducing the calamity by illegitimately damaging the credibility of WFP, which directly contributed to the dearth of food deliveries to the population.

The gossip-based report also indirectly precipitated al-Shabaab’s cruel decision and appears to coincide with the US’ decision to withdraw support for WFP. Fifth, those engaged in the war on terror have been blinded by the ideology of this enterprise that they lost their human sensibilities and failed to separate fiction from fact as they heed unsubstantiated claims made in reports such as the 2010 UN Monitoring Report. 

Finally, international policy towards Somalia has been hijacked by pseudo-experts who use the cover and credibility of international institutions to dish out reports that lead to flawed policies, bringing more misery and disempowerment to the population.

It is high time that those individuals be brought to justice, just like others who use naked violence to cower the people. 

Abdi Ismail Samatar is a Professor of Geography at the University of Minnesota and a research fellow at the University of Pretoria.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.