Courtesy Reuters

Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki on the Famine in Somalia

In the Crisis, There is an Opportunity for East Africa

East Africa and the Horn of Africa are experiencing a devastating drought -- the worst in 60 years. This emergency presents both a challenge and an opportunity. The United Nations estimates that 750,000 people in Somalia alone could die without assistance. Providing that aid is an opportunity to usher in a new day in Somalia, thus alleviating one of East Africa's most enduring problems.

Africa could be opening a new chapter. The economies of many African countries are growing, and investor interest in the continent is rising all the time. Many countries have implemented economic and political reforms to enhance openness and transparency. Last month, for example, Kenya celebrated the first anniversary of the adoption of its new constitution, which decentralized power, reformed the administrative bureaucracy, and improved governance.

Just a few months ago, the continent successfully witnessed the creation of a new country, South Sudan. African countries, including Kenya, played impressive diplomatic roles in the process and provided on-the-ground logistical assistance.(As of this writing, there are still thousands of Kenyan civil servants helping to build a new government in Juba.)

The same intense effort is now needed in Somalia. The famine is more than a natural disaster. It is a result of the inability of Somalia's principal political actors to end inaction, division, and war. This is a moment of inflection for the Transitional Federal Government (TFG), as it has a unique opportunity to prove to the international community its determination to ensure that better days await Somalia.

Of course, Somalia cannot succeed without the help of its neighbors. Together, African countries should develop a long-term strategy for stabilizing Somalia and the region. In addition, any dialogue should include important new players such as Turkey. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's August visit to Mogadishu was the first by a non-African head of government in years. The visit was powerfully symbolic and brought much-needed attention to the situation.

Four important activities could help push Somalia in the right direction. First, the 1991 Djibouti initiative for Somali reconciliation should be refreshed. It bore no fruit a decade ago but was an important first step toward lasting peace. A new round of talks should recognize that ethnic and tribal differences in Somalia are not easily bridgeable. Thus, efforts to support and reform the TFG must be accompanied by a determined effort to decentralize power to Somalia's different ethnicities and geographies.

Second, the African Union Mission in Somalia should be granted more troops. Ensuring stability in Somalia will require better security. The United Nations has already authorized an additional 3,000 troops to the region. Those troops are urgently needed but have yet to be deployed.

Somalia's current crisis has escalated because of decades of food insecurity. Delegates attending a recent international conference on food in Nairobi passed resolutions calling for the provision of money, expertise, materials, and know-how to revolutionize food production in Somalia within a decade. Third, José Graziano da Silva, the newly elected director-general of the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization, should continue making Somalia his foremost priority.

Finally, the international community must open refugee camps within Somalia's borders. By establishing a presence there, more people will be able to reach relief faster. Such camps would also reduce the dangers associated with large migrations. In recent months, the population of Kenya's Dadaab refugee camp has risen by 150,000. The camp, designed to hold 90,000, is now home to half a million, making it the largest refugee camp on Earth. Many of Somalia's famine-related deaths have occurred on the long trek toward Dadaab camp. 

The recent withdrawal by al Shabab from the Somali capital of Mogadishu presents a critical opportunity for the international community to renew its efforts. Having denied relief groups access to the affected regions of Somalia and jeopardizing millions of lives, al Shabaab is losing support fast. Of course, al Shabaab is not the root of the problem, but its absence will be helpful.

In Somalia, the world has an opportunity to do more than alleviate a human tragedy. Somalia's past has left a long legacy of frustration. The future can be different. Any plan that holistically addresses Somalia's problems may not, sadly, save every life in this famine. But it may give Somalia a better future than its past.

 

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