East Africa famine threatens lives of 12 million

The worst drought to hit the Horn of Africa in 60 years has caused a famine, putting the lives of more than 12 million people at risk. Pope Benedict XVI has addressed the issue, urging the world to show compassion and fraternal solidarity. 

“We must not be indifferent to the tragedy of the hungry and the thirsty,” the pope told pilgrims at his summer residence in Castel Gandolfo on July 31. “Many brothers and sisters in the Horn of Africa are suffering these days from the dramatic consequences of the famine, aggravated by war and the lack of stable institutions.” 

The Horn of Africa refers to the countries in northeast Africa. The famine has affected four countries: Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia and Djibouti. It arose after the rains that normally come in November and December failed to arrive last year. Thousands of animals have died and nothing can grow because of lack of water. 

A bleak situation

The worst-affected country is Somalia, whose situation is aggravated by the civil war that has been raging since 1991 when the government collapsed and several militias took control of various parts of the country. In the face of food shortage, Somalis have been leaving rural areas and going to Mogadishu, the country’s capital, where aid agencies operate. However, the aid agencies have become overwhelmed by the more than 1,000 people who come to them daily. 

The United Nations has declared a famine disaster in five regions of southern Somalia and called for urgent international intervention. According to the United Nations, some 2.2 million Somalis need food aid. A U.S. official has estimated that more than 29,000 Somali children under the age of 5 have died in about the last three months. 

The civil war in Somalia has, however, complicated efforts to avert disaster. Al-Shabab, a militia group that controls the famine-affected region, has denied aid agencies permission to give food to those who are starving. Al-Shabab has been classified as a terrorist organization by the United States government because of its links to al-Qaida. 

A spokesman for the group, Sheikh Ali Mohamud, said through the group’s radio station that Muslims in Somalia were capable of handling the situation and did not need assistance from an outside enemy or non-Muslims. 

“Those Somalis who are going to Ethiopia and Kenya are being lured there so that their Muslim faith can be destroyed,” Mohamud said. Kenya and Ethiopia are predominantly Christian. 

Forced to flee

With aid agencies being barred from the region, Somalis have been trekking hundreds of miles to seek refuge in neighboring Ethiopia, but mostly in Kenya. This has caused another crisis because Dadaab, the refugee camp in Kenya that has been hosting Somalis who escape from war in their country, has exceeded the number of people it can hold. The Kenyan government was reluctant to open another refugee camp, but it later relented after much pressure by aid agencies. The government feared that allowing more refugees would pose a security threat to the country. 

“We cannot allow uncontrolled influx of refugees from Somalia, because that will make us vulnerable to terrorist attacks by the al-Shabab,” Raila Odinga, Kenya’s prime minister, said. “It is a very risky situation.” 

The Kenyan government’s concern is not unfounded. Al-Shabab has declared that it will attack various East African countries for supporting the central government in Mogadishu.  

President Barack Obama has expressed solidarity with the suffering people in the region. At a meeting in the White House with the presidents of Benin, Guinea, Ivory Coast and Niger on July 29, the president said that the famine in eastern Africa has not gotten enough attention from the U.S., and that it needs an international response. 

Catholic Relief Services, which has operated in Kenya for many years, has stepped in to help the people. The agency is working with church partners and has been able to get some aid into Somalia. It is also helping the refugees at Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya, where 1,300 people arrive daily from Somalia. 

In Ethiopia, the CRS-led Joint Emergency Operations Plan is feeding 400,000 people and hopes to increase the number of people receiving the food aid to 1 million by the end of this month. 

In Kenya, the government has come under heavy criticism by civil society groups for its slow response to the famine and lack of forward planning. 

“It is a shame that 50 years after Kenya attained independence, we should be seeking international help to feed our people,” Red Cross secretary general Abbas Gullet said. “Thousands of children in northern Kenya are malnourished, which means the future will disappear before our eyes if we do not stand up to the situation.” 

Political stability is vital

The Kenyan government has defended itself against the accusations. Vice President Kalonzo Musyoka said the government is committed to resolving the current problem and is working on an intervention policy to ensure it doesn’t recur.The government has mobilized the army to deliver food to the affected areas using military trucks and planes. 

Even as the international community steps in to help, the sad reality is that the long-term solution to the problem of famine in the Horn of Africa will be determined not by the availability of rain, but by the region’s political situation. 

In Somalia, it’s likely that not much will be done in terms of long-term planning because the government controls only a portion of the country and spends nearly all its resources trying to establish itself against a sustained onslaught by al-Shabab. The long-term solution to famine in the country ultimately lies in achieving political stability. 

For Djibouti, Ethiopia and Kenya, the situation can more easily be remedied because the three countries have stable governments. All that is required is for the leaders in those countries to come up with policies that will promote large-scale irrigation agriculture. 

David Karanja writes from Kenya.