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Horn of Africa: culpable negligence.

Last month, Mohammed Sahnoun, the widely respected UN special envoy in charge of coordinating relief operations in Somalia, resigned in disgust after criticising the organisation's failure to respond to the scale of the Somali tragedy. Jonathan Derrick claims his complaints are justified, and wonders why the countries of the Arabian peninsula have been equally dilatory.

SAUDI ARABIA, at least among Middle Eastern countries, is trying to alleviate Somalia's catastrophic difficulties. Earlier this year the kingdom cancelled all Somalia's outstanding debt. In March it committed $10m in food and other humanitarian aid. Further relief was authorised in August and more funds, food and medical assistance have been promised. King Fahd has also set up a special committee to go to Kenya and arrange additional Saudi help for Somali refugees.

Yet the fact remains that the dreadful famine in Somalia - the worst seen for decades in Africa - has elicited a frankly inadequate response from the country's near neighbours in the Arabian peninsula who were well-placed to act sooner in order to stem the disaster. Questions asked with considerable justification about the way in which the UN has dithered over the Somali crisis might also be addressed to the wealthy states of the Gulf.

The issue does not only affect Somalia. Much of the rest of the Horn of Africa, including Sudan, is also suffering from famine due to drought and war. The United Nations launched a special appeal in July for urgent aid to six countries in the region. Some assistance is trickling across the Red Sea, but Arab (and Muslim) countries seem to be far more concerned about the plight of Bosnia's Muslims (The Middle East, October 1992) than conditions in Somalia where hundreds of thousands of people have already died and a quarter of the estimated population of 6m could soon be dead. Yet Somalia is a member of the Arab League.

Eritrea has received some relief from the Middle East, such as medical supplies worth $500m from Qatar. The head of the provisional government, Issaias Aferworki, toured the Gulf in June. A Saudi delegation has even visited Eritrea, something of a surprise since the kingdom was hardly friendly to the victorious Eritrean People's Liberation Front during the prolonged war with the Ethiopian central government.

Eritrea needs all the help it can get. It suffered a 75% crop loss last year due to drought; in June the World Food Programme said that Eritrea was on the "brink of disaster". Large areas of Ethiopia are similarly afflicted. In Sudan there are now grain surpluses in the north, hit by mass starvation two years ago, but endemic civil war in the south continues to wreak havoc.

War has aggravated the problems even of Djibouti, once a rare haven of peace in the Horn of Africa which has confronted a major rebellion since November 1991. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of Kenyans are destitute because of drought, to add to the burden of refugees pouring in from Somalia, Ethiopia and Sudan.

In all the countries named in the UN's July appeal some sort of government is in place to organise relief (even in Eritrea which has yet to be formally recognised) with the exception of Somalia. There, administration has collapsed completely with disastrous results. The results have been widely publicised by the Western media. But the worsening conditions were well-enough known in the Gulf states more than 18 months ago, not least because of the large numbers of Somalis (as well as Eritreans and Sudanese) working there.

Somalia's disintegration began long before the fall of President Siad Barre in January 1991. A country with one language, one culture and one religion fell victim to clan rivalries. The victors in the uprising against Siad Barre belonged to the Hawiye clan, but almost as soon as they had seized Mogadishu they fractured along the lines of two sub-clans, the Abgai led by the new president, Ali Mahdi Mohammed, and the Habir Gidir under General Mohammed Farah Aidid.

After bitter fighting which lasted from November 1991 to March 1992, the president finally drove Aidid's forces from the wrecked capital. Aidid, however, continues to rule much of southern Somalia along with three other factions which have united to form the Somali Liberation Army. Meanwhile, to contribute further to the prevailing anarchy, the north has broken away entirely to set up its own Somaliland Republic.

Drought has hit Somalia as well as war. The country has always been vulnerable to the failure of seasonal rains. The nomadic herdsmen who form the majority of the population suffered fearfully in the great drought of 1975. By last year it was also harbouring hundreds of thousands of refugees from Ethiopia, while comparable numbers of Somalis actually fled in the reverse direction.

Thus, Somalia, which was already receiving considerable emergency aid by early 1991, would have needed much more even without the generalised anarchy caused by civil war. As a result of conflict, over 300,000 Somalis have fled to Kenya, many more to Ethiopia and untold numbers have been displaced within the country.

The outside world has learnt only slowly of the situation in the interior, which far surpasses even the horrors of Mogadishu. Only now is it being "discovered" that the worst starvation is far inland.

The increased aid effort under way is, as all accounts agree, far too late for very many Somalis. But the situation was such that two United Nations resolutions of 1988 - 43/131 and 45/100 - could have been invoked long ago. These lay down the right of the international community to intervene to bring humanitarian aid to a country's people regardless, if necessary, of that country's government. That principle, many argue, has been strengthened by the practical precedent of the Kurdistan intervention. The resolutions seem obviously to cover Somalia where there is no government at all.

Following the Security Council resolution of 24 April allowing the sending of armed guards for relief supplies, and an agreement between Aidid and the UN in August (quite a delay) on 500 armed guards, the principle of imposing life-saving measures is being gradually applied. On 28 August the Security Council agreed on up to 3,500 more guards being sent. At first refusing to sanction their despatch, Aidid is now relenting.

But the UN was not obliged to bargain at leisure with Aidid - it could have marched a long while ago. Such UN actions depend on the political urgency attached to a crisis by its leading UN members and this, as Boutros Boutros Ghali, the UN secretary-general, has said, is notably absent in Somalia's case. The United States, in particular, paid little attention to the situation until it suddenly launched its Kenya airlift from 21 August. After all the publicity, the US operation first moved food only to Kenyan drought areas and refugee camps (badly affected, certainly, but not like Somalia proper), and then began to fly food into the Somalia interior at vast expense.
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Title Annotation:Current Affairs; famine and drought in Africa
Author:Derrick, Jonathan
Publication:The Middle East
Date:Dec 1, 1992
Previous Article:Yet another beginning.
Next Article:Refugees in limbo.

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