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A nation must think before it acts.
In Somalia, 26 million people are expected to experience extreme hunger by February 2023, threatening hundreds of thousands of lives. Nearly half of Somalia’s population of 7.1 million people already face acute food insecurity. In the first six months of 2022, the number of children receiving treatment for malnutrition surged 300 percent. According to the United Nations Assistance Mission to Somalia, malnutrition rates are among the highest in the world.
A persistent drought, internal violence, economic instability, and the Russian invasion of Ukraine have contributed to the growing food crisis. Not only does food insecurity threaten fundamental human rights and longevity, but it also poses challenges to political stability and increases the risk of terrorism.
In the short term, swift action is necessary to avert the imminent humanitarian catastrophe and the political stability of the Horn of Africa. In the long term, the United States and its partners should support agricultural investment, import diversification, and anti-corruption efforts in the region to mitigate the consequences of future climate disasters and Somalia’s crisis of ineffective governance.
Impacts of Drought
The Horn of Africa is experiencing the driest conditions in four decades, resulting in crop failures, animal deaths, and millions of desperate Somalis. In some regions, it has not rained for years. Persistent arid conditions contribute to increasing food insecurity, heightened competition over resources, and internal displacement and emigration (primarily to neighboring countries, including Kenya and Ethiopia). Droughts are not uncommon in East Africa. As a result of climate change, however, the current dry spell is more extreme than in the past. In 2021, domestic crop production decreased by 80 percent. The upcoming rainy season will also likely fail, pushing the drought into 2023. More than three million animals died in the past year, resulting in decimated meat and milk production and increased malnutrition among young children, specifically in pastoral communities. Subsistence livestock losses place many Somalis at greater risk of starvation.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine exacerbated food insecurity across the world, with detrimental impacts on Somalia. Global price fluctuations and supply chain disruptions have increased commodity prices. In Somalia, where the poorest spend 60 to 80 percent of their income on food, soaring prices are life threatening. Half of all imported cereal in Somalia is for individual consumption. Further, Somalia is entirely dependent on Ukraine (70 percent) and Russia (30 percent) for wheat imports. The war in Ukraine has destroyed crops and stalled exports, severely threatening food access in Somalia as domestic production has suffered from mass drought-induced crop failure.
Unstable prices and halted imports threaten the lives of millions in the Horn of Africa. Since the late 1980s, Somalia has required consistent food aid even in the best of circumstances. Cash transfers, the World Food Programme’s main form of assistance, are highly vulnerable to fluctuating markets. Since March, the price of a kilo of potatoes has doubled in Somalia, and the price of a life saving peanut paste given to malnourished children is expected to increase by 16 percent. Since Russia invaded Ukraine this this year, food prices have increased by 160 percent in some regions. Somalia’s Save the Children director noted the government would be in a better position to provide for struggling Somalis if prices stabilized. Given the circumstances, direct cash transfers from aid agencies is not a viable solution. However, prior to the war, Ukraine supplied more than 50 percent of the wheat used by the World Food Programme. Thus, UN agencies were forced to roll back food aid efforts, even as insecurity increased globally.
International donors have pledged only 30 percent of the $1.5 billion needed to address the crisis in Somalia. In response, the World Food Programme’s regional director for East Africa asked G7 leaders for a “massive scaling-up” of aid and the head of the African Union appealed to President Vladimir Putin to allow the flow of Ukrainian grain exports. In late July, Ukraine and Russia signed trade agreements ensuring millions of tons of grain are exported from Black Sea ports. The following day, Russia bombed a port in Odessa. Mined trade routes, continued Russian bombing, and persistent tensions threaten sustained exports and the longevity of the deal (which is only in effect for 120 days before renewal is required). However, the first grain ship departed from Odessa on August 1, and fifteen others are expected to deliver grain to Africa, the Middle East and Asia in the coming weeks.
Risks of Violence and al-Shabaab
According to the most recent Global Terrorism Index report, sub-Saharan Africa is the global epicentre of terrorism, accounting for 48 percent of terrorism-related/caused deaths worldwide. Somalia ranks first in Africa and third globally as the most impacted by terrorism. Numerous groups in Somalia, including Islamic State-Somalia, Hizb al Islam, and Ahlu Sunna, could exploit the growing food crisis. However, al-Shabaab, Somalia’s largest terrorist threat (responsible for almost 90 percent of Somalia’s terror-related deaths in 2021), is the most worrisome.
Al-Shabaab, or “the youth” in Arabic, controls more than 20 percent of the country, primarily in the south and central regions (an area the size of Texas). An estimated 7,000 of al-Shabaab’s members govern rural areas, extort taxes, and provide health, educational, and judicial services, undermining the state government’s legitimacy and emboldening the group as a source of de facto authority. Throughout Somalia, al-Shabaab exploits businesses, real estate, and construction, as well as local schools, clinics, mobile courts, and police departments. According to one business owner who pays the militants $4,000 annually, “the Shabab are like a mafia group. You either have to obey them or close your business. There’s no freedom.”
Food and water inaccessibility and increased commodity prices are related to insurgent activity and the potential for a social uprising. In 2011, for example, food prices were related to the mobilization of farmers in Tunisia that ignited the Arab Spring. The drought in the Horn of Africa and subsequent drinking water shortages may increase competition and lead to communal violence. In turn, militant groups will have an opportunity to provide resources and further legitimize their intervention, undermining state actions (or lack thereof). Acute food insecurity may also increase social grievances and mobilize disaffected individuals to join terrorist organizations. In one study, the Network for Religious and Traditional Peacemakers found more than half of former al-Shabaab members cite economic factors as their primary motivation to join (see below). One recruit concluded, “all one had to do was carry around a gun and patrol the streets. It was an easy job compared to other jobs such as construction work.”
Disadvantaged Somalis may see al-Shabaab membership as a source of income. Recruits are offered a monthly salary and financial benefits. Given the current socio-economic status of many Somalis and the lack of economic opportunity in the agricultural sector, al-Shabaab may become more enticing for individuals with limited opportunities. Al-Shabaab recruits are as young as fourteen, and 70 percent are younger than 24 years old. In Somalia, where the median age is 17 years old, recruitment trends are a cause for concern.
According to the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, the Trump administration’s withdrawal of military forces from the country in December 2020 resulted in a 17 percent increase in al-Shabaab activity. To relieve concerns of a resurgence, President Joe Biden redeployed 500 troops in May 2022. However, the threat of terrorist activity and expansion largely remains. Last year, 1,200 children were recruited and another thousand were abducted by armed groups. In one year (2019 to 2020), sexual violence committed by al-Shabaab increased by 80 percent, a common trend where internal migration and militant insurgence are concerned.
In May 2022, the UN Refugee Agency reported a total of 2.97 million were displaced Somalis due to drought, food shortages, and violence. Mass internal migration has resulted in overcrowded refugee sites where many lack adequate shelter and water. Overcrowded sites can also be used as safe havens, as they are commonly isolated from authorities, allowing terrorists to operate undetected. Terrorist training networks are also common in refugee communities where displaced peoples are directly or involuntarily recruited. Worsening conditions force internally displaced peoples to turn to all sources of aid. Attacks and aid worker kidnappings deter agencies from reaching communities in occupied territories (some 900,000 Somalis). However, trained militants are able to exploit government grievances and impose order in disorganized camps. For al-Shabaab, control of camps is viable and demand for compensation and recruits is opportune.
Conversely, the Somali government’s inability to provide physical and economic security delegitimizes the political establishment, contributing to a vicious cycle of weak governance and militant influence and insurgence. Propaganda further legitimizes terrorist activity. Al-Shabaab argues international humanitarian aid weakens the country and results in dependency on “infidels.” News and radio outlets that distribute pro-al-Shabaab propaganda claim militants are the superior authority alternative to international intervention and failed state governance.
US Efforts to Avert the Crisis
The White House acknowledged the East African food crisis in a statement on June 28. The following month, the U.S. Agency for International Development pledged $1.2 billion in additional aid to Somalia, Ethiopia, and Kenya to combat the growing food crisis. While immediate international efforts are necessary to save hundreds of thousands of lives, long-term solutions must be implemented to mitigate the risks of climate change, global market fluctuations, political instability, and increased regional terrorism. Additional pressure from the international community on Russia to allow stable exports is also imperative to mitigate the current crisis. However, Somalia’s total reliance on Ukrainian and Russian wheat—countries with a history of political conflict and instability—increases geopolitical vulnerability.
Somalia needs to prioritize diversifying trade partners and appeal to regional sources of financial support. Long-term international efforts should focus on investing in domestic agricultural solutions in Somalia, like drought-resistant seeds and technologies, water preservation strategies, and community-based entrepreneurial initiatives in order to enhance Somalia’s productivity and self-sufficiency.
Ultimately, failures in governance are to blame for Somalia’s crisis. The inability to provide basic resources, secure border regions, and pursue a diverse economy create a breeding ground for terrorist activity. Because of the lack of Somali state presence, fewer US troops in the region may create a power vacuum that increases opportunities for terror organizations to expand their territory, increase the number and frequency of attacks, and ramp up recruitment efforts. However, sporadic US military intervention is an unsustainable solution for quelling insurgencies.
The new US strategy toward sub-Saharan Africa is an important step in emboldening democratic governance, pursuing long-term peace, and turning away from the mindset of perceiving African countries as geopolitical pawns in a broader power struggle. Implementing nationwide anti-corruption measures and strengthening democratic institutions, as difficult as that may be, could mitigate the risk of expanding terror networks as natural disasters become more frequent and extreme in the face of climate change. Developing community-centric counterinsurgency approaches could also provide economic opportunities for Somalis while increasing state legitimacy and mitigating grievances. However, tumultuous governance since the early 1990s has challenged the efficacy of counterterrorism efforts in the past. The low capacity of the state may make further efforts extremely difficult, if not impossible, to implement fully without continued support. The looming famine in Somalia is more than a humanitarian crisis, it is a terrorist threat and it requires immediate action.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.
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