Africa

Somalia's total meltdown

Simon Tisdall

Humanitarian crisis on an unimaginable scale looms in lawless state. Simon Tisdall reports.

The search for a government—any kind of government—to bring order to Somalia is growing increasingly desperate as warring Islamist factions, tribal clans and bandit gangs exploit a power vacuum created by last week’s Ethiopian troop withdrawal. Just when it seemed the plight of Somali civilians could not get any worse, it did. Aid workers and human rights groups are not mincing words: catastrophe is just around the corner.

Hopes of staving off complete political collapse are pinned on United Nations-brokered talks in Djibouti on forming a national unity government.

In the short term any new government will lack effective, reliable security forces and it is unclear how it could regain a foothold inside the country, let alone reunite and rule it.

As the country faces disintegration, the West’s failure to support the under-resourced African Union peacekeeping mission, Amisom, its effective refusal to deploy a UN force, its long-running efforts to gloss over the western-backed transitional federal government’s weakness and corruption and its lack of a cohesive overall policy could combine to create an epic policy disaster.

It’s no mystery who will pay the highest and most immediate price. “The human rights and humanitarian catastrophe facing Somalia today threatens the lives and livelihoods of millions on a scale not witnessed since the early 1990s,” Human Rights Watch’s latest report warns. UN agencies say 3,25-million Somalis are dependent on food aid; 1,3-million are internally displaced, including two-thirds of the population of Mogadishu. Beset by conflict and drought, thousands more are fleeing each month in all directions—to north-eastern Kenya (already home to 220 000 Somalis), Ethiopia, Eritrea and, risking the perilous passage across the Gulf of Aden, to Yemen. This exodus is likely to grow significantly if the political impasse and related insecurity intensify.

The World Food Programme said earlier this month that it might have to suspend food distribution after two of its employees were murdered.

Andrea Pattison, of Oxfam Novib, said fighting and lawlessness made it impossible for western aid workers to function safely in Somalia. “The biggest problem for Oxfam and other agencies is that we can’t really access these people. Nearly 40 aid workers have been killed in the past year. There have been countless abductions and at least 150 of what are called security-related incidents.”

All the same, Oxfam is providing water pumping and sanitation services in the Afgooye corridor, where many of Mogadishu’s residents are camped out, and helping distribute 60000 hot meals each day in the capital itself. But much more help is needed, Pattison said. “International action to end [Somali] piracy came very fast. Now it’s time to show the same urgency about alleviating the suffering of millions of people.”

Foreign donors targeted
Human rights activists have accused the Ethiopian government of tightening its grip on power through a new law on charity funding that they claim will criminalise human rights work and clamp down on political debate ahead of next year’s elections.

At the core of the charities and societies proclamation (CSO law) that came into force this month is a provision stating that any organisation receiving more than 10% of its funding from abroad is a “foreign NGO”.

Once designated as “foreign” an organisation is not allowed to engage in activities concerning democratic and human rights, conflict resolution or criminal justice.

Ostensibly, the law is designed to ensure that those who engage in Ethiopian politics are Ethiopian nationals. However, not even the largest human rights groups in Ethiopia can raise enough money domestically in what is one of the world’s poorest countries.

Ethiopian officials say the law is simply in line with the Constitution, which forbids foreigners from taking part in domestic political activities.

But human rights groups and Ethiopians abroad view the law as a draconian act by an increasingly authoritarian government, especially since the contested elections of 2005.

Organisations such as the Ethiopian Human Rights Council, the main group carrying out human rights monitoring, and the Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association, a women’s advocacy group, depend overwhelmingly—as much as 90%—on foreign money.—Mark Tran

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