The Leveller

Ben Ehrenreich on famine in East Africa

In Haro Sheikh the journalists kneeled to photograph a tortoise. It was nearly a metre long, with short, spikily scaled legs tucked beneath its shell. A black liquid stained the dry red earth around it. Beside it was the carcass of a donkey, white bone showing beneath what little flesh remained. A few metres away a warthog lay rotting, and beyond that a camel. For miles outside the village – and outside every village I passed through in Somaliland, the self-proclaimed but unrecognised state that comprises the northern part of Somalia – thousands of sheep and goats lay strewn in varying states of decay. The contents of their stomachs, it was easy to see, were mainly colourful shreds of plastic ingested in the absence of natural pasture. I asked a group of men in Haro Sheikh if more camels, the most valuable livestock in the local pastoral economy, had died. They all began pointing at once. ‘Behind that tree,’ one said. ‘And another there.’ ‘And there.’

I had left Hargeisa, Somaliland’s nominal capital, early that morning in a small convoy of 4x4s belonging to Save the Children, the charity leading the drought response here. We drove east for hours through the open plains. Termite mounds rose like fingers from the earth, some of them as tall as the thorn trees that were among the only signs of life. Under normal circumstances, rain falls here in two wet seasons a year: the short, autumn deyr rains and the longer, spring gu rains that last from March to June. Last year, the gu rains were sparse and the deyr never came. Animals began to die in January. Although the landscape seemed barren, it would take only a little moisture for it to burst into life. One good rain and the grass seeds would germinate: overnight, a low fuzz of green would spread across the earth. Another few showers and the grass would grow tall, providing grazing for gazelle and antelope, and the domesticated ungulates on which the local economy almost entirely depends. But spring brought no relief; by mid-May there was still no sign of the gu rains. The grass never grew and the animals starved. Here and there, outside a cluster of patchwork tents, we passed a field that had been tilled. The earth had been turned and perhaps planted – even meagre rains can be sufficient for a single harvest of sorghum or maize – but nothing had grown.

There had been no sign of government aid in Haro Sheikh since March, the villagers told me. What little help they received from relatives in the diaspora, mainly in the US, had by now run dry. Nearly half the village came out, plastic jerry cans in hand, to greet the two water tankers that Save the Children had brought in to fill a covered reservoir. The women wore headscarves in purple, blue and green. Droughts are nothing new here. Under normal circumstances, the rains fail every few years, and shepherds can expect to lose perhaps 5 per cent of their flocks, and to replenish them when the rains return. But the failure of three wet seasons out of four was almost unheard of. Not even the oldest people in the village with whom I spoke – sunken-cheeked men with beards hennaed orange – could remember anything comparable.

Somaliland claims the same borders as the old imperial protectorate of British Somaliland, which united with the former Italian Somaliland to form the Somali Republic in 1960. The dictator Siad Barre, who took power in a coup in 1969, would for decades exclude the country’s northern clans from any share in government, or its spoils. When they rebelled in the late 1980s, Barre subjected the region to a punishing counterinsurgency campaign, flattening most of the cities of Hargeisa and Burao, and displacing as much as half the population. After his fall in 1991, the north was quick to declare independence. Chaos overtook the south, where inter-clan warfare filled the vacuum left by central government. Famine followed. Local warlords blocked the flow of humanitarian aid to their enemies, using hunger as a weapon of war. Nearly 300,000 Somalis died. Before the millennium was out, Puntland in the centre of Somalia had become an autonomous state, nominally in federation with the rump of the Federal Republic of Somalia, governed from Mogadishu. (The republic enjoys international recognition but little authority in the territories over which it claims to hold sway.) Somaliland has remained politically stable, with a more responsive government than many in the region, but is nonetheless trapped by the violence that continues to overwhelm its neighbours to the south. Its independence is acknowledged by no other nation and is unlikely to win recognition until the fighting in Somalia’s south comes to an end. Somaliland receives next to no direct foreign aid. Last year, its entire budget of £225 million was slightly less than half what the London borough of Camden spent on council services.

Pastoralism accounts for around 70 per cent of Somaliland’s economy and employs about the same proportion of its population of around 4.5 million. Goats and sheep are the primary form of capital, and fundamental to the culture: not just a source of milk and meat, but of autonomy, pride and the freedom to live as one chooses. Animals can be sold for cash or exchanged for rice, flour, medicine, water, transport, clothes. A sheep or goat fetches around £75, a camel more than £500. The Berbera blackhead is a prized breed throughout the Arabian peninsula and millions of sheep are shipped each year across the Gulf of Aden. A family with ten camels and a few hundred goats possesses real wealth, and access to the global economy, even if they are living in a dirt-floor hut roofed with branches and a quilt of stitched rags. But all this has changed. Haro Sheikh’s 750 households, the village’s deputy mayor, Mohamed Abdi, told me, have lost 90 per cent of their livestock. Nearly everyone I spoke to in the region testified to similar levels of loss. About a third of the villagers had left, Abdi said, travelling as far as Djibouti and Ethiopia in a futile hunt for pasture. ‘Now they are coming back,’ Abdi said. Their animals had died, and they had nothing.

People were calling this drought sima, ‘the leveller’. Previous droughts have affected some areas and some clans more than others, but this one stretched into Ethiopia to the west and Kenya to the south. A crowd had gathered around us, listening. When I asked Abdi what the land here would normally look like at this time of year, a young man shoved a cellphone into my hand to show me a photo of himself reclining in a field of tall green grass. He pointed to a patch of bare earth behind him, where the photo had been taken, and laughed. War rarely feels far away. The wrecks of Siad Barre’s tanks and armoured personnel carriers still rust on the edge of Burao. As we drove east out of the city, we passed lines of stones painted blue to indicate the boundaries of a mine-clearing project. In the village of Fiqi Ayuub, our destination that day, two girls, aged five and ten, had been badly injured when a mine blew up in their hands. We drove all morning to get there, crossing three wide riverbeds, all of them dry.

Nestled at the base of the Golis Mountains, Fiqi Ayuub might under other circumstances have seemed idyllic. The hills, sharp and jagged, stretched off into the distance beneath a mercilessly bright sky. One of Save the Children’s emergency health teams had already set up shop under the eaves of a long, red-roofed building, and a couple of hundred women and children were waiting in the shade to be examined at the improvised clinic. Some had walked for hours from areas even more remote.

The women’s stories were almost all the same, differing only in the age and number of children sick, the number of animals they had lost and the number that survived. Hodan Ismail had lost everything. She left her husband’s village to bring her children here, where her mother lived, ‘to save them,’ she said. ‘When I got here, I saw that she had nothing either.’ The river and streams, their usual source of drinking water, had gone dry and they had no option but to drink from a shallow well at the edge of town. The water was making all the children sick.

The clinic that day identified 30 new cases of malnutrition, nearly half of them severe, and diagnosed 24 people with ‘acute watery diarrhoea’, or AWD. Everyone knew it was cholera, but the aid workers couldn’t call it by its name without permission from the Ministry of Health. Admitting an outbreak means risking restrictions on travel and trade, so governments take shelter in euphemism. In southern Somalia, where the central government is weak to non-existent, cholera is spreading; just across the border in the stabler states of Kenya and Ethiopia, the disease is officially transformed into the innocuous-sounding but no less deadly AWD. In Fiqi Ayuub it had already killed five children and one old man.

The well, a circular stone shaft on the bank of the dry river, was a short walk from the clinic. Just above it, a goat lay decomposing in the shade of an acacia tree. The water, about three metres down, was black. I didn’t taste it, but everyone agreed that it was salty, and would only get saltier as the dry season wore on. A man I had met in the village, Chama Ali, walked down with his daughter and a camel on a lead. The camel was clearly starving. Its ribs were protruding, and it barely had a hump. Ali had already lost forty others, and more than two hundred goats. The animals he had left, he said, were weak. If the rains came now, the cold and damp would kill them. He dropped a jerry can into the well, poured the water into a stainless steel bowl, and placed the bowl on a stone for the camel to drink. It drank, slowly, but when he refilled the bowl, it pulled its head away. ‘He’s hungry,’ Ali said, and led the camel off.

*

In March, Stephen O’Brien, head of the UN’s Office for the Co-Ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, just back from Yemen, Somalia, South Sudan and northern Kenya, announced to the Security Council that twenty million people are facing death from starvation or hunger-related disease. All the areas O’Brien visited fall on what the Israeli theorist Eyal Weizman calls the ‘conflict shoreline’, an expanding band of climate change-induced desertification that stretches through the Sahel and across the continent before leaping the Gulf of Aden to Yemen.[*] This vast territory, once the site of fierce resistance to colonial incursions, is now paying a heavy price for the greenhouse gas emissions of the industrialised north. As the deserts spread south, fresh conflicts erupt along their arid margins. Over the last decade, nearly all the regions currently facing famine have also become fronts in another, adumbrating conflict, the US-led war on terror. One of the impressive achievements of counterterrorism rhetoric has been to cast these conflicts over scarce resources, in which international players are invariably involved, as battlegrounds in a worldwide ideological struggle.

The consequences of climate change on one hand and conflict on the other have become increasingly difficult to distinguish, especially in Somalia. One UN aid official I spoke to after she had returned from south-central Somalia assured me that the massive level of displacement she had observed was entirely the result of the drought. But she also mentioned that she’d been obliged to travel in a convoy of armoured personnel carriers, at times preceded by mine-clearance vehicles. Somalia is familiar with military intervention, from the RAF’s bombing in 1920 of the rebel ‘Dervish state’, in the heart of British Somaliland, to Bush Sr’s intervention in 1992. The famine was already winding down when he dispatched tens of thousands of troops to Somalia as part of Operation Restore Hope, the first ‘humanitarian intervention’ of the post-Cold War era. They were tasked with ‘creating a secure environment for the delivery of humanitarian aid’, but the mission ended in humiliating failure, with the deaths of hundreds, probably thousands of Somali civilians and the hasty withdrawal of US and allied troops early in 1994.

In the years that followed, humanitarian relief would continue to play a major role in the violence. A UN study in 2010 found that half the food aid destined for Somalia was diverted by contractors, ‘some of whom channel their profits, or the aid itself, directly to armed opposition groups’. Conflict drove a demand for humanitarian aid, which in turn fuelled the conflict. By then, the invasion in 2006 of US-backed Ethiopian troops had helped propel the rise of the Mujahideen Youth Movement, better known as al-Shabaab, and Somalia had become an active front in the war on terror. When drought returned in 2010, armed hostilities – this time between the fighters of al-Shabaab and US-backed Somali and African Union forces – again turned crisis into catastrophe: 258,000 Somalis died in the resulting famine. Barack Obama would soon make Somalia the prototype for a low-visibility and low-risk approach to waging war through drone strikes and targeted raids by Special Operations forces.

In his last year in office, Obama began accelerating that campaign, and Donald Trump appears determined to expand it. In March, Trump issued an order declaring parts of Somalia an ‘area of active hostilities’, giving US commanders greater autonomy to order attacks and allowing for more civilian deaths than the Obama administration had been willing to tolerate. In April, aid groups working in Somalia received a letter from the US government requesting that they submit the geographical co-ordinates of their operations, which would be shared with the military for purposes of ‘deconfliction’. General Thomas Waldhauser, who heads the US Africa Command, explained that the US has not yet escalated its assaults because the many thousands of civilians travelling in search of pasture have made it difficult to track and target al-Shabaab.

Somaliland, though not a direct party to this conflict, remains its hostage. So do the people of north-east Kenya, the vast majority of whom are ethnic Somalis and, like their northern neighbours, pastoralists. In Wajir county, bordering on Somalia, I found circumstances similar to those I had seen in Somaliland, though the drought had not been as severe. Twenty per cent of the children screened by the clinic I visited there had been diagnosed with malnutrition (the rate in Fiqi Ayuub, where I had been ten days earlier, was more than 70 per cent). The pastoralists I interviewed in Wajir had lost a fifth of their livestock (in Fiqi Ayuub they had lost almost all of it). The only people I encountered in Wajir who looked reasonably well fed were the soldiers manning checkpoints in every village I passed. In the middle of the last drought, in 2011, Kenya had responded to al-Shabaab kidnappings on its territory by deploying thousands of troops in Somalia. Al-Shabaab has not let up since then: 67 killed in a Nairobi shopping mall in 2013, 48 killed in the coastal town of Mpeketoni in 2014, 147 massacred at a university in the north-eastern city of Garissa in 2015. That year, the US budget for counterterrorism assistance to Kenya leaped by 163 per cent, helping the government in Nairobi wage a dirty war in the neglected north-east of the country, where dozens of ethnic Somalis have been disappeared or murdered by security forces since 2013.

The counterterrorist rhetoric may be new, but the oppression is not. Throughout the colonial period, Britain regarded what was then called the Northern Frontier District as a valueless waste inhabited by ‘hostile tribes’. With independence in 1963, Kenya inherited a war to suppress a Somali separatist movement in the north-east. Thousands were killed. That conflict ended in 1967, but the bloodshed persisted. In 1980, Kenyan security forces killed as many as 3000 ethnic Somali civilians in a single incident in Garissa; four years later, Kenyan soldiers executed nearly 5000 at an airstrip outside Wajir. The US military recently helped rebuild the Wajir airbase, where it maintains a presence, but the Kenyan central government’s neglect of the north-east has been nearly absolute. There are 24 kilometres of tarmac roads in all of Wajir county’s 56,600 square kilometres. Life expectancy is lower by twenty years than in Nairobi. Since the drought began, malnutrition in the region has nearly doubled and emergency food supplies have nearly run out. If they aren’t replenished soon, one aid official told me, ‘we are very sure we will be dealing with deaths.’ If they occur, the drought will not be the only culprit.

As in Somalia, Kenyan pastoralists are on the move. Everywhere I went in Wajir, I saw families travelling with what was left of their herds, their possessions piled high on donkey carts. Should current climate trends continue, pastoralism in the Horn of Africa, a way of living that has persevered for at least five thousand years, will no longer be sustainable. Shukri Haji Ismail, Somaliland’s minister for the Environment and Rural Development, doesn’t see any easy way to mitigate the effects of climate change on the population that currently depends on pastoralism. ‘I believe in going forward always,’ she told me when we spoke in Hargeisa. ‘We have to look to the sea.’ Somaliland has hundreds of miles of undeveloped coast, and little commercial fishing. Herders whose lives and culture are tied to the rhythms of the land, she suggested, will have no choice but to learn to fish. ‘It will take a long time. Everything will change.’

In Late Victorian Holocausts, Mike Davis argued that the massive famines which struck the global south in the late 19th century – he estimates a combined death toll of between thirty and sixty million in India, China and Brazil alone – effectively integrated ‘the great non-European peasantries’ into the global economy, breaking once resilient social arrangements and forging in their place the structures of exploitation that gave birth to what we would later call the Third World. It isn’t clear if the current crisis will result in a catastrophe of comparable scale, but given the pace of climate change it would be odd if it didn’t. In Africa and the Middle East, it is already creating a vast surplus population that is no longer able to survive in the economy as it stands. Those who have sufficient resources to make the journey are migrating north to Europe and west to North America. Those without keep moving until there is nowhere left to go.

[*] Naomi Klein wrote about the conflict shoreline in the LRB of 2 June 2016.