Uncrewed planes don't help: only diplomacy can save the Somalis

30 September 2011

Uncrewed planes don't help: only diplomacy can save the Somalis

The Dutch government must commit itself to a diplomatic offensive for Somalia. By doing so, they would not only be working toward a solution to the acute humanitarian crisis in the country, but possibly even toward a political solution in the longer term, argues Ewout Irrgang.

Ewout Irrgang is a Member of Parliament for the SP

Ewout IrrgangInternational interest seems once more to have ebbed away, but according to the UN some 750,000 people in East Africa continue to be threatened by starvation. The region is ravaged by drought. Thousands of people have already died of hunger and some thirteen million are in urgent need of emergency food aid. The UN says that $2.5 billion is needed in emergency aid, of which only $1.5 billion has been pledged and still less actually paid over.
People are tired of Africa, and especially of African famine. “All this development aid only goes straight into the wrong pockets and fuels the conflict,” is the popular wisdom. “These corrupt African leaders must be dealt with at last and called to account for these famines.” In much of this criticism there is a kernel of truth. In the areas where governments have taken action, there is now no famine, despite the drought. It’s no coincidence that it’s in anarchic Somalia where want is greatest. But this political mismanagement can be no excuse for the rest of the world to condemn hundreds of thousands of people to death.

According to Somalia specialist Ken Menkhaus, this isn’t at all necessary. In fact, by working in the short term towards a solution to the problem of access to emergency aid, it could even be that the beginnings of a longer-term political solution for Somalia may be found.

Menkhaus says that Somalia is in need of a strong diplomatic offensive. The West, Africa, but certainly also the Islamic world must, Menkhaus argues, bring leaders forward who are acceptable to all in order to put massive pressure on both the Western-backed Somali transitional government and the Islamic fundamentalists. This is similar to what happened in Kenya, when it threatened to slide into civil war following the dramatic election in 2008.

In this respect it is of enormous importance that pressure on both warring parties is equally great. Al-Shabaab must open the area which it controls to emergency aid. It speaks for itself that the Islamic world has the biggest role to play in this. This can be achieved by appealing to the fact that it is not Islamic to hold hundreds of thousands of fellow Muslims prisoner, and by strict monitoring of the emergency aid. Members of the Somali Transitional Federal Government (TFG) are also no saints. The International Crisis Group (ICG) has called the TFG ‘corrupt through and through’. The TFG and its affiliated parties are also involved in large-scale misappropriation of foodstuffs. In the area under their control more than 200,000 are threatened with starvation. Not for nothing did the UN decide on 20th September that it may impose new sanctions on Somali politicians. The West must leave the threat of a suspension of aid hanging over the heads of the TFG unless the transitional administration undergoes radical reform. Supporting functioning local authorities in other parts of Somalia is therefore a better alternative. The Netherlands Institute for International Relations, known as the Clingendael Institute, argued at the beginning of the year that it was time donors took a look at the more favourable option of a decentralised approached. Somalia has, after all, seen from a historical and cultural perspective, never had a centrally-led government.

The EU must equally ask itself how much sense it makes in the long term to give financial support to AMISOM, the African Union’s mission in Somalia. True, according to the ICG, Al-Shabaab’s withdrawal from Mogadishu can be credited to AMISOM, but it serves in reality more as a private army for a corrupt transitional government which enjoys little support or legitimacy among its own people. How desirable is that?

The Dutch government says that responsibility for solving the conflict lies primarily in Somalia itself. History has indeed shown that foreign, and especially Western military interference in Somalia has only exacerbated the conflict.

But why then are we financing, including via the EU, a corrupt transitional government and a questionable military mission? And why doesn’t the Dutch government call the Americans to account regarding their counter-terrorism programme in Somalia? Obama's plan to build new bases in the Horn of Africa for uncrewed drone planes armed with rockets is not only counterproductive, but also out of date. Al-Shabaab is itself doing its best to ensure its demise by making itself so unpopular amongst its own country’s population. Moreover, the US policy will once again lead to large numbers of civilian deaths. And isn’t this precisely what we wanted to prevent?

This article first appeared, in Dutch, in the national daily newspaper NRC-Next.

You are here