Little-known, dispersed and dying
Feb 26th 2009 NAIROBI
From The Economist print edition
No wonder no one knows for certain what should be done
HOW many people still live in Somalia? No one knows. The UN says around 10m. Just as Somalia’s problems of jihadism and piracy have gone global, so have its people. War has scattered Somalis across the world. But the diaspora is probably at least 1m-strong—favourite outposts include Cardiff, Dubai, Minneapolis and Stockholm—and plays a big part in the country’s politics. These figures exclude the 6m-plus ethnic Somalis who live in neighbouring Ethiopia, Kenya, Djibouti and Yemen. Many MPs carry foreign passports. Remittances from abroad are all that keep the economy afloat.
“We know less about [the country] today than at any time in the last 100 years,” says Ken Menkhaus of Davidson College in North Carolina. One reason is that it is too dangerous to visit. Many diplomats working on Somalia have never been there. Some experts have not been for years. The UN’s special envoy, Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, thinks some of the specialists on the country, who are often paid handsomely by international bodies and government agencies, are part of the problem. “The Somali peace agenda has been held hostage by so-called experts,” he says.
Dozens of aid workers, campaigners and journalists, most of them locals, have been killed in the past year or so. Hundreds more have been beaten, threatened or forced into exile. Many, including two freelance journalists from Australia and Canada, are still held hostage. Just as this correspondent was about to visit southern Somalia with people from the UN’s World Food Programme, the trip was cancelled when two of the agency’s workers were shot dead and a third died on an airstrip waiting for medical help. Intrepid charities such as Médecins Sans Frontières and the International Committee for the Red Cross rarely send in foreign staff. Businessmen in Mogadishu say they can no longer trust their hired gunmen to protect foreigners. Most analyses of Somalia, including this one, are written in Kenya, based on second-hand reports.
But one thing is indisputable: Somalia is one of the world’s most pressing humanitarian emergencies. With famine looming, food prices high and the local currency going down, the situation is worsening. Emergency feeding stations for children are packed. Some 3.2m Somalis now depend on food aid, at least two-thirds more than in 2007. Aid is shipped from the Kenyan port of Mombasa with a foreign naval escort to protect it from pirates. Less than a quarter of Somalia’s children go to school; Somalia may soon be Africa’s most illiterate country. Its maternal mortality rate may be the highest in the world.
Since the Ethiopians invaded at the end of 2006, at least 10,000 Somalis have been killed in fighting and more than 1m displaced. Despite a UN arms embargo, small arms still flow in. The newest AK-47s in Mogadishu’s Bakara market were made in Libya in 2006. It is reckoned there is almost one gun for every man, woman and child in the city.