This week, Somalia’s Banadir government and al-Shabaab held what appeared to be rival public relations stunts–or public health interventions depending on the interpretation.
Authorities in Mogadishu said they seized expired aid imported by the World Food Programme during inspections at its warehouses.
In addition, 14 tonnes of expired rations and medicines were burned in a bonfire to showcase the government’s efforts not just to track down al-Shabaab militants and more recently “warlords” but to hunt humanitarian threats as well.
Not to be outdone, al-Shabaab released pictures from its stronghold of Barawe showing its most recent confiscation of illegal goods, including seven bags of hashish and expired food and medicine.
Al-Shabaab officials criticized farmers–especially those in government-controlled areas–for growing hashish instead of vegetables, emphasizing that this contributed to increasing food prices in the region.
Al-Shabaab has previously claimed that its own agricultural work and humanitarian services are more beneficial to Somalis compared to the foreign aid agencies that it banned from its areas during a famine in 2011.
This controversial move came after al-Shabaab considered aid agencies to be “subversive” and “against Islam,” but also because they claimed NGOs did not dispose of expired rations and chose to import food aid rather than sourcing it locally.
In response, the Somali government and international community have worked together to increase sourcing of food aid from within the country.
Another Public Health Intervention: the Blockade
Al-Shabaab’s detractors also point out that the group has been blockading local food and assistance from reaching areas where it has lost control as part of a strategy to force locals to flee into its areas and to delegitimize the capacity of the local government to provide basic services.
How does the al-Shabaab do this in towns it does not control?
In places like Bulo Burde in Hiiraan region, the group still controls roads and areas outside the town and maintains influence over traders (by threatening them), which enables al-Shabaab to carry out this intimidation tactic.
Consequently, the blockades have resulted in the starvation or death of men, women, and children who cannot receive assistance during a time in which there are serious threats of famine again.
Consequences of a Military Offensive
Al-Shabaab is clearly willing to take extreme measures to influence the humanitarian environment even in cities it does not control, and this should be strongly considered as AMISOM and the Somali National Army consider re-starting an offensive against the group that could increase displacement and exacerbate food insecurity.
Al-Shabaab’s ability to implement blockades means that simply “liberating” towns is not enough to provide stability and prosperity in cities taken from the group.
More broadly, during the last famine in Somalia from 2011-12, an estimated 260,000 people died and all parties–including the Somali government, aid agencies, al-Shabaab, and the international community–shared responsibility for the slow, ineffective, and inadequate response to the crisis.
Sadly enough, Somalia is on the precipice of famine once again, and a more serious public health intervention is needed.