It is not by accident that southern Somalia is now suffering from its
second major famine and has had several smaller-scale famines in the
last twenty years. Whether it is twenty years ago, or today, the
creation of the conditions for mass-starvation of certain population
segments and clans has become a deliberate and accepted practice in
Twenty years ago, the famine occurred because some of the most
productive agricultural lands in the south became battle grounds between
the militias of Aidid and Siyad Barre, and as a result farmers could not
plant or cultivate and were reduced to starvation.
Twenty years later, farmers in Somalia’s most fertile lands are facing a
replay of the same situation. Only this time, they are victims of the
conflict between al-Shabaab and Sheikh Sharif (the former head of the
Islamic Courts, the organization that created al-Shabaab).
Today, as twenty years ago, rather than helping famine victims,
al-Shabaab and Sheikh Sharif are busy extracting maximum benefits from
the catastrophe by diverting, selling and appropriating the food aid
that was sent to the starving people in areas under their control.
Today, as twenty years ago, the international community feels that there
is little it can do about the situation, and are just hoping that some
of the aid will get through and reach the victims after al-Shabaab and
Sheikh Sharif get their cuts.
In disgust over the cut-throat behavior of southern Somalia’s leaders
and their export of almost every scrap of metal in southern Somalia to
sell in Dubai, the doyen of Somali studies, I.M. Lewis, dubbed southern
leaders as “scrap merchants”. Elaborating on this point in a piercing
article entitled “Recycling Somalia from the Scrap Merchants of
Mogadishu”, I. M Lewis wrote, “These scrap merchant warlords have
appropriated profitable public and private resources, and turned the
dwindling tree and bush cover around Mogadishu into charcoal for export
to Arab countries, as well as producing drugs on stolen farmland.”
Twenty years later, things have not changed much. Southern leaders are
not only still using scrap as merchandise, they are still seeking money
and power by starving their compatriots to death, and the almost
predictable regularity with which this is happening indicates that this
abominable practice has become part of southern Somalia’s political
culture. Simply put, famine has become big business and a source of
profits for southern Somalia’s leaders, which means they will continue
to create famine situation every few years. This is the cold-blooded
reality in south Somalia. And although some southerners were offended by
I.M. Lewis’s characterization of their leaders, he was actually being
charitable. Their leaders deserve worse epithets.