July 22, 2011: For the first time in a quarter century, the UN has declared a famine in Africa, with nearly four million people in danger of starving to death before the end of the year. The water, and food, shortage is worst in southern Somalia, with eastern Ethiopia and northern Kenya suffering to a somewhat lesser extent. About 11 million people are in the worst hit areas, but only the Somalis cannot easily be reached by food aid.
There is a another major problem here, in that most of the worst drought areas in Somalia are controlled, or contested, by Islamic radical group al Shabaab. Over the last two years, al Shabaab has chased most foreign aid groups out of the area, mainly by demanding that the aid organizations pay a large "tax" for the right to operate in areas that al Shabaab controlled (or could threaten). In addition, al Shabaab felt entitled to take as much food aid as they wanted. But now al Shabaab says it wants the aid organizations, and their free food, to return. At the same time, al Shabaab condemns the UN for calling the situation a famine, accusing the foreigners of trying to make the Islamic radicals look bad. What al Shabaab really fears is a lot of the food is arriving by air and ship at Mogadishu. There, the TNG (Transitional National Government) claims to control 85 percent of the city. TNG troops, with the help of 9,000 AU (African Union) peacekeepers, can use the famine relief food as an incentive for some clans and warlords to start shooting at al Shabaab.
While al Shabaab is described as "controlling" southern Somalia, they don't, at least not in the traditional sense. There are dozens of clan militias in the south, but rarely do these clans gather a lot of their armed men for action. Al Shabaab, on the other hand, derives its power because it has a few thousand armed men on duty full time. They sustain themselves via extortion, theft and foreign donations (from hard core Islamic terrorism supporters). Thus al Shabaab can intimidate the more numerous clan gunmen with the threat of quick (before the clan get their armed men mobilized) visits by a large force of ill-tempered Islamic radicals. The drought has changed this.
The drought is also a major problem for al Shabaab because there is less to steal, and the clans are desperate enough to gather their armed men and take on the al Shabaab gunmen, despite the risk of some heavy combat losses. Actually, this has been a growing problem for over a year, largely because the Sufi (a milder sect of Islam) clans have mobilized to oppose religious oppression by the conservative Sunni (who consider Sufis heretics) al Shabaab. In the last few months, the Sufi militias have been defeating the al Shabaab gunmen sent to destroy them. Added to that is the growing strength of the TNG forces (trained outside the country) and the AU peacekeepers (who have shifted into more aggressive peacemaking mode). Al Shabaab has lost control of the large parts of Mogadishu they had occupied for over a year. With the TNG offering free food aid to the starving clans in the area, al Shabaab faces a widespread rebellion. This would confront al Shabaab with more gunmen than they can handle. As a result, some of the al Shabaab factions have agreed to let the aid groups in, without interference, as long as food aid came as well. But some al Shabaab leaders are not so flexible.
The U.S. is refusing to supply food to Somalia if there is any chance of al Shabaab being involved. That's because there is a U.S. law forbidding sending aid that is at risk of being used by terrorists. Al Shabaab has been notorious about its support for terrorism, and for stealing foreign aid. The American law has been waived in cases (like in Sudan) where the local government was able to get nearly all the food to the people it was intended for. The United States has been supplying most of the food aid to Somalia over the last two decades. But that aid has been cut back in the last few years as al Shabaab took control of access routes to more people in southern Somalia. Lots of U.S. food aid still goes to northern Somalia (Puntland and Somaliland) and the growing TNG controlled areas. The Sufi militias have taken control of some areas along the Kenyan border, meaning they can get food as well.
This drought is so bad that over 80 percent of the livestock in southern Somalia has died. The nearly ten million sheep, cattle and other animals normally found in the south, are a major part of the economy. Now, the families that rely on animal husbandry, will need help to rebuild. The help will only come if there is some degree of peace.
Many Somalis in al Shabaab controlled areas are just leaving, usually in the night, and walking to the Kenyan border, where there are refugee camps, and food. Over half a million Somalis are in those Kenyan camps now, and where nearly 1,500 emaciated people are arriving every day. There would be more, but an increasing number of these travelers die along the way. More food aid is being sent to Kenya, not only to help hungry Kenyans, but also for the refugee camps full of Somalis.
July 21, 2011: Al Shabaab kidnapped Asha Osman Aqiil, the TNG Minister For Women And Family Affairs, and the only woman in the new cabinet. Aqiil was sworn in yesterday and was seized in Balad, a town north of the capital Mogadishu that is usually free of al Shabaab. But in Somalia, convoys of trucks and cars carrying armed men can go just about anywhere and, for a while (until local gunmen can gather) do whatever they want. In this case, the Islamic terrorists are expressing their displeasure with the TNG allowing a woman to be a government minister. Moreover, Aqiil has long been an advocate for woman's rights. Al Shabaab is particularly hostile to this. Aqiil is a 32 year old widow and her family and clan are trying to negotiate her release.
July 18, 2011: The UN has begun airlifting famine relief food into Mogadishu. Some aid was also shipped to the al Shabaab controlled port of Baidoa, where the local Islamic radicals promised not to steal all, or most, of it.
July 16, 2011: Somali pirates, holding four South Korean sailors (taken in May) are demanding that the South Korean government pay them an undisclosed sum of "compensation" for eight pirates killed during a South Korean commando operation in February. In addition, the pirates also want South Korea to free five Somali pirates it has imprisoned. This is the second time the pirates have tried this tactic. Three months ago, similar threats were made against India, and the Indians folded. The South Korean government has not responded yet.