The election last week of Somalia’s new president, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed known as Farmajo came at the same time the country was in the news for being one of the seven affected by US President Donald Trump’s immigration ban. President Mohamed immediately promised a ‘new beginning’ for his country. He undoubtedly faces monumental political challenges in delivering this, but these may pale into insignificance against a looming famine which needs immediate action and international support if it is to be prevented.
There is nothing new about famine in Somalia. The last one in 2011, killed over a quarter of a million people and is the best-chronicled descent into mass starvation in history. Between the failure of the short rainy season in November 2010 and the declaration of famine in July 2011, the Famine Early-Warning Systems Network (FEWSNET) and the Food Security and Nutrition Analysis Unit (FSNAU) between them released more than 70 early warning bulletins and undertook a similar number of briefings with donor governments and humanitarian agencies in a desperate attempt to trigger a preventative response. But the warnings fell on deaf ears. Only when famine was declared was aid dispatched, and at this point it was too late.
Now the alarm has been raised again. Following a poor short rainy season at the end of 2016, FEWSNET has warned that famine could return if the long rainy season, due to begin in April, fail as they did in 2011. Current forecasts suggest they might.But things could be different this time around. Few humanitarians have forgotten the failure of 2011, which was followed by a period of intense soul-searching and painstaking evaluation. The result was a wealth of analysis on the lessons to be learned, and a grim determination to learn them.
Meanwhile, the situation in Somalia has improved in important respects. In 2011, Somalia was a country without a state, fought over by the Islamist militia al Shabab and African Union troops in a war that dramatically restricted the ability of humanitarian agencies to reach the worst affected populations. Today, the access of humanitarian agencies is better and Somalia has a federal government, though it is probably stretching things too far to claim it has a fully functioning state at its disposal.