Somalia famine, climate and capitalism

September 18, 2011

The famine in the Horn of Africa is finally getting attention, though it has been years in the making, now that shocking pictures of starving Somali children have become a regular feature on the nightly news. So far tens of thousands of people have died, half of them children under the age of five.

The suffering of nearly 12 million people in the Horn who could starve without aid, and the flight of nearly one million Somalis to other countries, are not just products of climate change–let alone of just “nature”–but of the way the crumbling global capitalist order is responding to climate change.

The failure in the last two years of what used to be the region’s normal rains, bringing about the worst drought in six decades, coincides with rising food prices across the world. This is in a land that has suffered 20 years of war, and general neglect by the rich countries that have profited at the expense of Africans and others while pouring greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

Washington is pointing fingers at Al Shabab, the reactionary Islamist militia that controls southern Somalia, where the famine is worst. U.S. sanctions, coupled with threats from Al Shabab, have kept aid agencies out of that area.

For their part, Al Shabab cares more about their struggle for power than the people they lord over. While denying there is a famine, they blocked starving people from leaving their territory, on pain of death. They banned immunizations as a “Western plot,” increasing the threat of a measles epidemic that has now begun. Villagers report that Al Shabab has blocked rivers to divert their water to commercial farmers.


Nor does the U.S.-supported Transitional Federal Government (TFG) have clean hands. Up to half of aid deliveries are being stolen and resold in Mogadishu. Somali government troops have looted sacks of grain and killed several people in camps where fighting erupted as food was distributed.

An Aug. 14 Human Rights Watch report, “‘You Don’t Know Who to Blame,'” describes routine violations of civilians’ human rights by Somali troops, including indiscriminate shelling and summary killings. The report chronicles similar abuses by militias set up in Somalia by neighboring Ethiopia and Kenya and by the TFG’s Ugandan and Burundian allies, fighting under the African Union banner, as well as by Al Shabab.

Those starving people who survived Al Shabab threats and a trek through the desert to cross the border into Kenya have been herded into the area in and around the Dadaab refugee camp–over 400,000 people at a camp built for 90,000, where they are prey to rape by police and others, attacks by bandits, and spreading epidemics of cholera and measles. For months the Kenyan government has rejected urgent calls by aid agencies to allow them to expand the permanent infrastructure.

Humanitarian agencies have been making urgent appeals all this year, but assistance from the U.S. actually dropped by 90% since 2008. Instead, the U.S. has tried to have the UN take up climate change as a security matter.

That is the crux of the rulers’ approach to the growing damage from climate change. With great fanfare, fruitless negotiations are held and feckless measures pretend to limit greenhouse gas emissions, while the real action resides in quiet military planning to repel future waves of climate refugees and contain resource wars from impinging on strategic interests of the state and transnational capital.


This truth is obscured by the myth of U.S. fear of involvement in Somalia since its disastrous militarized “humanitarian” intervention of 1992-93–whose history was rewritten in the jingoistic movie Black Hawk Down. The U.S. is in fact heavily involved in current fighting there, orchestrating the outsourcing of the bulk of the TFG’s defense to private contractors and African Union troops, supplemented by drone attacks and Special Operations strikes.

As revealed by Jeremy Scahill in The Nation, the CIA is operating a secret prison in Mogadishu, complete with rendition, interrogation, torture, and the absence of any due process, court proceedings, representation by lawyers or visits by the Red Cross/Red Crescent. At the same time, the CIA is building and funding the Somali National Security Agency as a power base independent of the TFG.

In short, from the collision of the climate’s destabilization with social destabilization spills the plight of Somalia’s starving people. Six years ago, the militarization of New Orleans during and after Hurricane Katrina, the herding of the poor into the Superdome and the police murders of African Americans on the Danziger Bridge uncloaked capitalism’s stance toward climate disasters in the industrialized lands. Today the Horn of Africa hints at how much bloodier, how much crueler and more brutal it can become, if humanity does not replace it with a new way of life.

–Franklin Dmitryev

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