Matt Bryden has worked for more than 20 years on Somali affairs and is currently serving
as coordinator of the United Nations Somalia and Eritrea Monitoring Group. The views
expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of
the United Nations.
Before the end of this year tens of thousands of people in Somalia—possibly hundreds
of thousands—are going to die. Aid agencies say nearly 4 million people are in need of
assistance and 750,000 at risk of starvation. For many it is already too late, and regardless
of what we do, disease will claim many more lives during the imminent rainy season.
Decades of statelessness and civil war have set the stage, and severe drought has been
the trigger for the current crisis, but Somalia’s famine is less a symptom of conflict or
climate than of callous and criminal human conduct—including crimes against humanity
that demand consequences anchored in international justice.
Drought has gripped almost all of Somalia in recent years, but famine conditions in the
arid northern and central regions are mitigated by responsible local authorities who provide
a degree of security and are facilitating the delivery of humanitarian assistance. The
U.N. describes humanitarian access in those areas as generally “unrestricted.” Likewise,
USAID’s Famine Early Warning System rates humanitarian conditions in the northern and
central regions as better than conditions in the south, especially in and around Mogadishu.
It’s no coincidence that the famine zone corresponds broadly with those areas controlled
by the militant Islamist group al-Shabaab. Over the past two years, al-Shabaab
has terrorized people into submission, confiscated their produce and taxed them into
poverty in the name of ‘jihad.’ As they now starve, al-Shabaab denies them even the
opportunity to migrate in search of food. In late September, al-Shabaab ordered camps
in Baidoa forcibly broken up in order to put their inhabitants ‘back to work’ in their
fields, conveniently ensuring that the scale of their dying will also be hidden from view.