Al-Qaeda, through its Al-Shabab affiliate, has had a strong presence in Somalia for some time, but this month’s attack on the Hayat Hotel in Mogadishu, in which 21 people died and 117 were wounded, was the most brazen in the capital for years. The attack, according to a claim by the terror group, was a message to new Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, who took office in May vowing to fight the extremist group and end its presence in the country, thus reversing earlier policies of avoiding confrontation with it.
Experts believe that Al-Shabab has become the most lethal extremist group in Africa and the most serious regional security threat. It was forced out of Mogadishu in 2011 but has recently seized more territory in other parts of Somalia. It is taking advantage of regional rivalries, but also of the deteriorating humanitarian and economic situation in the Horn of Africa.
The enduring appeal of this terrorist group highlights the nexus between security and economic hardship. The Horn of Africa, but especially Somalia, is experiencing its worst drought in four decades, leading to about an 80 percent drop in crop production in 2021 and a massive loss of cattle. This year may get worse. Food has become scarcer, incomes have plummeted and outside aid has dwindled, as donors have diverted some of their attention to Ukraine.
Somalia imports about 90 percent of its food needs. Before the Ukraine war, Somalia was almost entirely dependent on Ukraine (70 percent) and Russia (30 percent) for its wheat imports. It is now struggling to meet its needs from elsewhere, with the cost of food having skyrocketed.
The security situation has made it difficult to get supplies to some of the affected areas. When food is available, the price has risen multifold, making it beyond the reach of the increasing number of poor Somalis, whose children are going hungry. According to the UN Assistance Mission in Somalia, malnutrition rates there are among the highest in the world. In the first six months of 2022, the number of children receiving treatment for malnutrition surged 300 percent.
This year’s drought, economic and political instability, and the Ukraine war have complicated already volatile food supply chains. With local crop failures, international supply chains became the only lifeline, but those were devastated first by COVID-19 and then by the Ukraine crisis. Acute food shortages became inevitable and famine is not far behind. Terrorist groups such as Al-Shabab take advantage of the chaos by manipulating food distribution and providing employment and sustenance to young recruits on the theory that a man with a gun never goes hungry.
During the 2010-12 famine, about 250,000 people died due to food shortages and disease. That catastrophe was made worse by internal strife and terrorism, largely by the same Al-Shabab group. Humanitarian organizations are now issuing consistent warnings of a repeat this year or next.
Humanitarian organizations are focused on short-term measures, such as providing food and emergency healthcare to the affected areas in Somalia. This is urgently important to avert famine, but there is also a need to address four complicating factors: Terrorism and organized crime, political instability, weak economic conditions, and broken food supply chains — all in parallel with providing emergency aid.
Fixing food supply chains is necessary to bring in more food at affordable prices. Global food prices have grown dramatically since the disruptions of COVID-19, but especially after the Ukraine war. In Somalia, the situation is much worse and deserves special attention as the Russia-Ukraine agreement to resume food exports from Black Sea ports comes into effect. The UN should give priority to food-vulnerable Somalia to benefit from the deal.
It is clear after decades — the exact number is in dispute — of civil war that this ongoing internal conflict has made it impossible to avert recurrent humanitarian crises such as the one Somalia is experiencing today. Thus, ensuring political stability is an essential requisite in dealing with all other factors. The new government should be empowered to deal with terrorism, organized crime and corruption — three scourges that are closely linked in Somalia, but their activities affect other countries too, especially in areas such as human trafficking and drugs and arms smuggling. International organizations and friendly nations need to scale up the government’s capacity to combat this unholy alliance.
The new government should be empowered to deal with terrorism, organized crime and corruption. Dr. Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg
The improvement of economic conditions needs to be prioritized by Somalia’s friends. In a recent report, the World Bank called for “interventions” to improve the investment climate and encourage the formalization of businesses to attract more private investment. It suggested reforms focused on reducing the cost of electricity and improving its reliability, leveling the playing field among private firms, reducing red tape, and broadening financial inclusion. In addition to these suggestions, it is important to revive Somalia’s fishing industry and animal breeding, two traditionally successful economic activities in the country.
These short to mid-term security, political and economic interventions are necessary to help Somalis help themselves and wean the country away from being ever-reliant on unpredictable outside help. There is a chance now as the new government consolidates its power. Terrorist attacks such as the one that took place this month should not be allowed to achieve their stated goal of derailing the return to security and stability.
Dr. Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg is the GCC assistant secretary-general for political affairs and negotiation, and a columnist for Arab News. The views expressed in this piece are personal and do not necessarily represent GCC views. Twitter: @abuhamad1