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New study claims over 250,000 died from 2011 Somalia famine,
U.S.-Al Shabaab savagery to blame

May 11, 2013
Stephen Roblin
"Powerful people have that privilege of denying reality," the Somali scholar, Abdi Samatar, stated when explaining the causes of Somalia's 2011 famine as it was laying waste to the population.
The famine was one of history's rare socio-natural calamities in that it was predicted almost a year in advance, providing sufficient time to avert it and at minimal costs for the rich nations. Thus, it will likely go down as one of the most easily preventable calamities in modern history.
It will also go down as one of the most devastating.
According to a mortality study released last week, close to 260,000 people may have died in southern and central Somalia as a result of the 2011 food crisis and famine, 133,000 of whom were children under the age of five.[1] And these were only the "excess deaths."
The study claims more than 290,000 deaths "would have occurred irrespective of the emergency," given the normal state of humanitarian catastrophe in the region, bringing the overall death toll to some 595,000 from October 2010 to April 2012.
For perspective, the "excess" death toll alone is more than three times higher than the number of deaths from Syria's civil war, according to the figure circulating in the western press. And it took much less time for the mountain of corpses to pile up in Somalia.
Given the scale of the horror and, more importantly, the cast of culprits, it's imperative that blame be attributed in a politicized rather than truthful manner.
Commenting on the significance of the study, Philippe Lazzarini, the chief U.N. humanitarian coordinator for Somalia, called the famine a near "silent drama of tragedy." His assessment, however, is only partially correct.
Not powerful enough to deny reality to the world, Al Shabaab has been widely condemned in the harshest terms for its barbaric and criminal acts of denying humanitarian access to areas under its control and preventing civilians from migrating to regions where relief could be accessed.
For the other major culprit, it's a different story.
The "silent" part of the tragedy, at least in the West, has been the United States' responsibility for a famine that resulted in a virtually genocidal outcome.[2]
Speaking to an Al Jazeera reporter in November 2011, Samatar went on to say how the United States and others "partner[ed] in a very bizarre way with Shabaab in punishing the local population."
Echoing Samatar's comments five months later, Ken Menkhaus, a professor of political science at Davidson College and former political advisor for the UN in Somalia, explained that the "suspension of food aid into southern Somalia was the only thing that the U.S. government and Al-Shabaab could agree on, to the detriment of (millions) of Somalis."
Indeed, Washington's partnership with Al Shabaab achieved the near total dismantling of the humanitarian relief system in south-central Somalia several years before the 2011 famine. And Washington took the lead in this cruel and sordid enterprise.
Before Al Shabaab began expelling western humanitarian organizations, the Bush administration effectively criminalized humanitarian relief in south-central Somalia by designating Al Shabaab as a foreign terrorist organization in February 2008. Organizations receiving U.S. funding could then face prosecution if their efforts were deemed as providing "material support" (a totalitarian legal device that now includes speech) to militants, irrespective of intent.[3]
Despite U.S. aid restrictions themselves violating international law and the near-famine conditions in Somalia, the Obama administration zealously carried forward its predecessor's effective criminalization of humanitarian relief after taking office.[4]
In November 2009, the World Food Program declared, "The food supply line to Somalia is effectively broken." This statement came two months before Al Shabaab barred the WFP.
The Obama administration broke the food supply line by pulling millions of dollars of food contributions and funding as a means of coercing humanitarian agencies into agreeing to stifling aid-conditions. This resulted in aid agencies drastically scaling back operations and pulling out of the region altogether at a time when Somalia was on the "brink of famine."
U.S. cables released by Wikileaks reveal that the administration knew well in advance that its policies would break programs directly funded by Washington and "the broader humanitarian system."
According to a July 2009 cable from the U.S. embassy in Nairobi, "The continued delay of humanitarian assistance funds is likely to have a devastating and long-lasting impact on humanitarian operations in Somalia and on the 3.2 million Somalis in need of life-saving assistance." The cable adds, "a continued delay in funding would likely result in the rapid scaling down of critical humanitarian activities."[5]
This is exactly what happened.
From 2008 to 2011, U.S. aid to Somalia plummetted. The combination of the funding decline, U.S. aid restrictions, and Al Shabaab's increasingly hostile stance towards western aid agencies took the population off life-support.[6]
Somalia went over the brink in the spring of 2011 when the Horn of Africa was hit with its worst drought in 60 years.
It's worth pausing for a moment to note that scientists are linking the drought which sparked the famine to climate change. This should serve as another reminder of the "cruel irony of the climate crisis," that the "countries least responsible for producing greenhouse gases... are the countries now at greatest risk of death and human suffering because of climate change," a global threat to which Washington has blocked any meaning international response.[7]
According to the new study, between May and October 2011 there were more than 20,000 famine deaths per month in south-central Somalia. The UN finally declared an official famine in July 2011.
In the midst of the horror, one sensible idea was put forth from inside Washington. Congressperson Christopher Smith (Rep) reportedly sent a letter to the Obama administration that called for direct negotiations with Al Shabaab in order to establish a humanitarian corridor.
But rather than rank the plight of starving Somalis over perceived strategic interests, the administration resorted to terror and maintained the obstacles blocking humanitarian relief until it was no longer politically tenable.
Washington reportedly performed drone strikes near the port city of Kismayo on June 23 and three more strikes on July 6.[8] The following day it was reported that Al Shabaab announced it would lift its ban on international aid organizations. Evidently Al Shabaab leaders were divided over the issue. But later that month, the militant group's leadership denied lifting the ban.
One wonders the effect of Washington's terror strikes at this critical moment.[9]
In the face of international pressure, U.S. officials denied the disastrous impacts of its aid policy. When lying to world was no longer politically tenable, in August president Obama gave only a verbal assurance to humanitarian agencies that they would not face prosecution.
The assurance came after some 29,000 were claimed to have died (mainly children) according the U.S. government's own estimate at the time. New York Times editors referred to the U.S. response as "acting in advance to ameliorate the effects" of the famine, a humanitarian gesture for which the "Obama administration deserves credit."
Washington's regional clients also acted in advance to save starving Somalis.
Kenya, Ethiopia and their proxy Somali militias waged a military offensive inside Somalia's southern border during the first half of 2011 - crimes that dramatically worsened the humanitarian crisis in these regions.
As a symbol of Kenya's humanitarian concern, its military shelled a community hospital in a Somali border town, an act Human Rights Watch suspects was deliberate.
Then in October Nairobi outdid itself by launching a full-scale invasion against Al Shabaab. Washington and other western powers provided swift diplomatic and military support to their ally, while officials from humanitarian relief organizations decried the invasion for preventing humanitarian access to countless starving civilians in the border regions.
Always eager to punish its historic enemy's civilian population, Ethiopia sent its forces in to help "ameliorate the effects." For their part, militias affiliated with the western-backed transitional government, which controlled Mogadishu at the time, committed large-scale theft of food aid.
U.S. officials are aware of the devastating outcomes of their Somalia policies. Hence, responsibility for the human tragedy cannot be assessed honestly. Political expedience demands that reality be denied.
Menkhaus noted the political imperative of denying reality: "There are plenty of western countries, including my own government, who would like to see the conversation stop right there and say it was all Al-Shabaab's fault."
We might add that it's also convenient to ignore how the terrorist group rose to power.
As Jeremy Scahill documents in his new book, Dirty Wars: The World Is A Battlefield, Al Shabaab was catapulted to dominance as a result of the U.S.-sponsored Ethiopian invasion and occupation that began in 2006. Prior to this, the CIA triggered a "full-scale dirty war" on the streets of Mogadishu by hiring Somalia's notorious warlords to carry out assassinations and renditions.
Though these crimes "may seem [like] unpalatable choices," an embassy cables describes, they were "the only means . . . available," and therefore justified. Much like dismantling the humanitarian relief system can be justified on grounds that it was "the only means" to avoid paying "a terrorism tax to al Shabaab."
And as evidently justified, there's no need for the American public to know when the noble pursuit of "strategic interests" demands resort to savagery.
While it is true that the powerful often have the privilege of denying reality, it's a privilege we grant when we reduce ourselves to passive recipients of lies.
[1] The study was commissioned by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the USAID-funded Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET). USAID and donors through FAO funded the study.
[2] The common figure cited as the death toll in the 1994 Rwandan genocide is 800,000 out of a total population of 7 million at the time, which constituted close to 12 percent of the population. According to the famine mortality study, an estimated 10.1 percent of children under 5 years old and 4.6 percent of the overall population died in central and southern Somalia due to the famine. It should be emphasized that these percentages pertain only to the "excess deaths" caused by the famine. They are not percentages for the overall death toll (595,000) during the study period (October 2010 to April 2012). Given the massive death toll and the causes of the famine, the use of "genocidal politics" as a characterization of the local and geopolitical dynamics responsible for the atrocity is arguably warranted.
[3] For analysis of the legal and practical implications of U.S. counter-terrorism legislation on humanitarian agencies, see Sara Pantuliano, Kate Mckintosh and Samir Elhawary with Victoria Metcalfe, "Counter-terrorism and humanitarian action: Tensions, impact and ways forward," Humanitarian Policy Group, HPG Policy Brief 43, October 2011; Sarah Margon, "Unintended Roadblocks: How U.S. Terrorism Restrictions Make It Harder to Save Lives," Center for American Progress, November 2011; "Safeguarding Humanitarianism in Armed Conflict: A Call for Reconciling International Legal Obligations and Counterterrorism Measures in the United States," Charity & Security Network, June 2012; and Kasturi Sen and Tim Morris, Civil Society and the War on Terror, International NGO Training and Research Centre, 2008.
[4] I say "effective criminalization" recognizing that U.S. counter-terrorism restrictions themselves contravened international law. Even if aid agencies disregarded U.S. counter-terrorism restrictions, they arguably faced a real threat of U.S. prosecution, despite this threat being based on entirely fraudulent legal grounds.
[5] It's worth noting that the cable also predicted that a collapse in U.S. funding would aid in Al Shabaab's recruitment efforts. Discussing the "the real impact of program closure on local staff and immediate family members," the cable warns, "The resulting unemployment will increase the probability of relapse into harmful activities by youth through recruitment into piracy, Al-Shabaab, and other groups due to lack of meaningful ventures to apply their skills," adding that "staff layoffs may cause small household economies that are now sprouting to fall into recession and possibly destitution. In addition, resource-based conflict may increase resulting in further displacement of communities." The cable also predicted that "Delayed funding to USAID food aid partners would have a devastating impact on the 2.7 million people currently benefiting from food distributions leaving them susceptible not only to hunger, malnutrition, and further displacement, but also to manipulation and recruitment by extremist groups" (my emphasis).
[6] Describing the impact of Washington's humanitarian aid policy towards Somalia at the time of the famine, policy director with Mercy Corps, Jeremy Konyndyk, said "While poor access limited the humanitarian community's ability to address needs in the south, the broader collapse in US humanitarian support to the whole of Somalia since 2009 has undermined humanitarian response and preparedness across the entire country." On August 3, 2011, Konyndyk gave a statement to the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Africa that provides a brief account of the U.S. aid policy in the years leading up to the famine.
[7] Graciela Chichilnisky and Kristen A. Sheeran, Saving Kyoto (London: New Holland Publishers, 2009), 18.
[8] In a moment that elicited absolutely no scandal, on the sidelines of the February 2012 London conference on Somalia, former Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton, denied the U.S. strikes in Somalia. When asked whether she supports the U.S. conducting airstrikes in Al-Shabaab-controlled areas, she responded by saying, "we have absolutely no reason to believe anyone - certainly not the United States . . . is considering that." It is revealing to compare the non-response to Clinton's fabrication with the scandal sparked by UN ambassador Susan Rice over her alleged lies about the 2012 Benghazi attack that killed U.S. ambassador Christopher Stevens. If instead of Stevens a host of North African civilians were slaughtered, then Rice would probably have been promoted to Secretary of State, not John Kerry. Clinton, on the other hand, is poised for the presidency. The highest office is not threatened by lies that involve dead Somalis.
[9] The same month the Guardian reported that "[t]he drought and famine have deepened discord among al-Shabaab leaders that has been apparent for some time." The report goes on to say how some Al Shabaab leaders "have supported a lifting of the ban on operations of international aid agencies, while others, such as its top commander, Ahmed Cabdi Godane, reportedly opposed the move on the grounds that NGOs might provide intelligence for US drone air strikes."
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