Somalia: Dark Clouds and Silver-lining
The painfully haunting pictures of severely malnourished children on the verge of death, transmitted through all forms of media tell a horrific tale of human misery. The scope and the level of urgency is abundantly clear to all those who have compassion and heart.
However, with the darkest clouds hanging over Somalia there still shines through a silver-lining. Three seemingly unthinkable developments have already come to pass, with another is underway. Some of these, ironically, had direct roles in creating the current situation.
First, Al-Shabaab started to allow access of the international food aid, and subsequently pulled their forces out of Mogadishu. Second, the US government decided to ease at least one aspect of its "global war on terror" policies, namely compliance with the regulations of OFAC (Office of Foreign Assets Control) which forced many humanitarian workers and organizations to choose the path of the least resistance- stop delivering food and services to any areas controlled by Al-Shabaab in order to avoid being accused of aiding and abetting terrorist individuals and organization. Third, the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) put the humanitarian issue on the top of its agenda. And currently, the Somali people and organizations in the Diaspora--many with diverging priorities--have been setting their differences aside and spontaneously forming coalitions and collaborative efforts to save lives.
That said; it would be nave at best to think that these developments are all that is needed to untangle the web of political, security, and now humanitarian challenges that crippled the Somali state for the past twenty years.
Without dwelling on the blame game, some clarification is necessary in order to have the right context and understanding to move forward.
The culprits often cited by the media, drought, Al-Shabaab, and lack of good governance, are legitimate, but to claim that they are the 'only ones' is disingenuous, to say the least. Just like everything else in Somalia, the famine has internal and external factors. Routinely, the former get all the attention; the latter, seldom. For the past several months as the situation was rapidly worsening, there was a fierce inter-agency debate (influenced by certain elements within the international community) on whether or not the UN should declare the condition in Somalia a famine. Even as certain organizations threatened to go public with their criticism, the stalemate continued to the last minute before a consensus was finally reached on July 19, 2011.
In reference to the aforementioned developments, there are many factors that compelled Al-Shabaab to take these counterintuitive measures.
Al-Shabaab, through their draconian rule, has squandered any local support they may have gained during the Ethiopian occupation of 2007-2009 at which point they were the fiercest element within the insurgency. At the same time, the African Union forces, AMISOM, have recently changed their ill-advised strategy of blind firing of heavy artilleries in response to Al-Shabaab provocations which routinely caused indiscriminate killings of mostly civilians, and consequently boosting Al-Shabaab's appeal.
Furthermore, in recent months, Al-Shabaab came under sustained military pressure from the Somali National Army and AMISOM joint operation that proved unbearable. They were drastically loosing momentum and were at risk of suffering a decisive defeat. Equally important, the government succeeded in flushing out Al-Shabaab's human intelligence out of the unregulated national telecom industry, and disrupted or shutoff their propaganda radio stations. The government also opened a safe house and setup a de-radicalization program for defectors of Al-Shabaab that is proven successful.
Of course, this is not the time to let guards down. Al-Shabaab's action could be a tactical retreat.
The August 6, 2011 Al-Shabaab evacuation out of Mogadishu marked the first time in the past twenty years that Somalia's capital city has been ruled by a single authority; and the TFG is not taking this fact for granted. Already, in collaboration with AMISOM forces, though hardly with adequate expedience, the government has been setting up security apparatuses in key areas vacated by Al-Shabaab, and are in the process of setting up check points in all strategic entry points of Mogadishu.
Simultaneously, in a gesture of goodwill, the government has extended "an open amnesty" to all those Al-Shabaab members willing to put down their guns. Furthermore, the government has started to impose strict laws in dealing with those who rob, steal, or misappropriate food aid. Last week, two soldiers found guilty of stealing two gallons of cooking oil and a cell phone were sentenced to five years in prison each.
Meanwhile, the US, mindful of the public relations tsunami that could result from its withholding food aid contribution for almost 2 years, started to ease its restrictions. Up to 90% of its donated foods in storages in the region are being diverted to Somalia. The White House, State Department, and USAID have been convening meetings and setting up teleconferences to highlight US contributions and to encourage NGOs to accelerate their delivery services.
Somali Diaspora community organizers, organizational leaders in various parts of the US have been participating in these meetings.
One of the most persistent concerns was the excessive overhead costs of some of the most well known international NGOs contracted to feed and provide other essential services to the starving people.
The Somali community has now formed a grassroots multi-organizational coalition as a humanitarian taskforce. Their priority is to pull their resources together, to hold joint fundraising events, and to empower Somali organizations that are legally registered in the US that have tax exempt status under the IRS 501(c)(3). Many of these organizations charge maximum of 10% overhead costs to setup feeding centers in the affected areas. This trend does not only have the potential to deliver direly needed services more expediently, less costly, and more effectively than their more bureaucratic and more costly counterparts, but has the potential to pave the way for reconciliation of this war-fatigued nation.
Make no mistake; the current dire situation in which Somali children, mothers, and elders are dying at alarming rates compels individuals, groups and governments of goodwill to set their differences aside and to work together in alleviating the suffering. This is the time to work together in opening delivery routes, feeding centers, and health clinics. This is the time to mobilize all human and financial resources to deliver direly needed services.
However, in order to sustain security and ensure the safe delivery of food, marshal international resources, provide the necessary logistics to deliver food to remote areas, and to protect these aid monies and food from exploitation, policy overhaul on the part of TFG, US, and international community is a must.
As Al-Shabaab is not monolithic, the TFG ought to find a way to directly engage that entity, and to set up a genuine Somali-owned reconciliation process free of any foreign interference. The US, on its part, ought to thoroughly review and reverse its Dual-Track Policy. The said policy deliberately engages any and all Somali non-state actors and militia groups as sovereign states of their own, and as such, is considered the undisputed most influential policy that fragmented the Somali state. And lastly, the international community ought to reconsider its role as an uncritical facilitator, and some may argue, implementer of the Dual-Track Policy.
The current human catastrophe only highlights the importance of supporting the resuscitation process of the dying Somali state.
Abukar Arman is Somalia's Special Envoy to the United States.