Somalia Overview: From a land of famine to an investment destination?
Is Somalia a famished failed state in perpetuity or a potential post-war economic miracle waiting to happen in Africa? This article outlines the root causes of recurring famine in Somalia and the Horn of Africa, arguing that famine in Somalia results more from man-made factors than from natural disasters. It concludes that if Somalis and other Africans can creatively evolve African solutions for this gargantuan African problem to stabilize the economy and bring peace to Somalia, foreign direct investment from emerging economies can easily transform this troubled land into a booming post-war African economy.
Somalia, a country of 10 million people that gained independence in 1960 from British and Italian colonial rule, is one of four countries (the others being Ethiopia, Eritrea and Djibouti) in a region of Africa known as the Horn of Africa. This is the region of Africa, along with East African countries like Kenya, that provides the world with some of the best and most accomplished long distance runners. It is also an important region for Africa in the sense that the African Union (AU)'s headquarters is situated in this region, specifically in Addis Ababa, capital of Ethiopia, Africa's third most populous nation after Nigeria and Egypt.
But Somalia and the Horn of Africa, as a whole, are not in the news because of these positive and important facts; the average citizen of the world knows of Somalia because of, at least, two catastrophic events of global dimensions: piracy along the Gulf of Aden which borders Somalia, and famine, which is a perennially recurring humanitarian disaster case not just only in Somalia but in most of the Horn of Africa.
2. Famine: Natural or man-made?
What are the root causes of famine in Somalia, and what solutions can we put in place to prevent this humanitarian disaster situation, and to give children a fighting chance to grow into responsible citizens that would develop their country and Africa?
First, what at all is a famine? Many of us have never really witnessed a situation of famine, even though we may have read about it in the media. It is important to stress that famine is not just simply an occasional lack of food in a society but a serious case of severe shortage of food, water and other nutrients. This can lead perilously to malnutrition, starvation and ultimately death for large segments of a society.
Famine can be caused by two important groups of factors: natural hazards and man-made errors. In some situations it is one or the other; in the case of Somalia, it is both. But I want to argue here that famine in Somalia is more of a man-made disaster than a case of natural hazards.
Admittedly, natural hazards have contributed in no small measure to famine in Somalia. Even though Somalia has a beautiful Coastline along the Gulf of Aden and thus lies in a strategically important sea route location in the world near the Red Sea and the Suez Canal, most of this country of more than 600 000 square kilometers is of a dry hot desert climate. The country and the region as a whole are beset with recurring drought, frequent dust storms, and, rather ironically, destructive floods during the rainy season that cause serious soil erosion, leaving the country with an arable land mass of just below 5%. In this unkind environmental scenario it is not possible to grow crops and graze animals to get enough food to feed 10 million Somalis.
However, Somalia is not the only part of the world with a hot desert climate and recurring drought. Many parts of the world such as California, West Asia, Australia, and even regions within Africa have unkind desert climates, yet have been able to grow viable economies and even prosperous and highly developed ones at that.
On the contrary, the root causes of famine in Somalia are mostly man-made errors rather than poor natural climatic endowments. Here is why. First, Somalia fits neatly - and sadly - into the category of countries often considered by many western analysts to be "failed states": ever since its last functioning government led by Mohammed Siad Barre was overthrown in 1991 Somalia has never had a functioning government (i.e. for 20 years running!). Even though this is a country of one major ethnicity, about 90% of the population being ethnic Somalis speaking one main indigenous language - Somali - along with major colonial languages such as Italian and English, but also Arabic, spoken by the vast majority of its massively sunni Moslem population, Somalia is engulfed in a massive, unending civil war, the result of competition for resources between various rival clans. In this kind of environment it is virtually impossible to grow crops and graze livestock that can feed hungry mouths and stomachs.
Second, even if there were no civil war, thus providing Somali farmers and cattle rearers with the much needed law and order to ply their trade, primitive, out-moded methods of farming and using the land have not helped. The vast majority of Somali farmers and cattle rearers still use age-old nomadic and semi-pastoralist methods of keeping livestock. These methods result in deforestation, over-grazing, desertification and the use of contaminated water, triggering diseases. These kinds of unsustainable ways of managing the natural environment by man creates low crop yields, poor cattle rearing and ultimately lead to headline famine.
Third, Somalia is a hotbed of terrorism. Al Shabab, a presumed al Qaeda linked terrorist organization is operating in most parts of the country. The internationally recognized Transitional Federal Government (TFG) only controls the capital, Mogadishu, thus allowing the terrorists a free range to attack, kill, and maim Somalis, including farmers, and even workers of foreign aid organizations bringing humanitarian relief to the disaster-stricken country.
It is therefore clear that these three and many more mad-made errors and mishaps are not only the root causes of famine but also the various causes preventing the search for viable solutions to this undesirable situation in Somalia.
3. African Solutions for African problems
What can we do to save four million people, nearly half the population of Somalia, most of them women and children, from dying of famine?
First, this famine disaster, along with an endemic civil war and terrorist acts, has created a refugee situation of massive proportions that is not only threatening Somalia but also its neighbours like Kenya, Ethiopia and Djibouti. Every country, weather rich or poor, needs disaster relief at critical stages of its history when a disaster of national proportions occurs. Such is the case with Somalia. So Somalia deserves the world's attention for relief. Governments and non-governmental organizations must commit resources to fund relief operations, so as to sustain large, sprawling refugee camps in Somalia and neighbouring regions like Kenya.
Second, in the long-run though, it is Somalis and Africans themselves who must find lasting solutions to this recurrent famine in Somalia and the entire Horn of Africa. We need African solutions for African problems. To begin with, Africans themselves must fight terrorism and take back Somalia from terrorists, and secure the nation. The AU is already playing a key role by maintaining a massive peace mission in Somalia, especially the capital, but this must be expanded to include the entire country if the terrorists must be defeated by the TFG to improve the security situation in the country. No attempt should be made to introduce Western or other foreign troops, whether to bomb Somalia from the air, a la Libya, or even to invade the country by land or sea, in the guise of fighting terrorists. This will only lead to even more catastrophes, ending with the plunder of Somali resources. Once terrorism is defeated by Africans themselves, law and order and a functioning government can then take shape in the country by employing conflict mediation between the rival groups in the country, as was successfully done in Rwanda after its infamous 1994 civil war. This will lead to long-term growth of the economy, and thus long-term solutions to address this sad situation of food shortage and even perennial famine.
4. Somalia as a future investment paradise?
In conclusion, despite this grim scenario, necessitating heroic acts from Somalis and Africans themselves but also from benevolent, charitable outside individuals and organizations, all is not lost for Somalia. Rather surprisingly, Somalia has maintained a booming informal economy, in the circumstances, garnered mainly by remittances from Diasporan Somalis, livestock transactions, and telecommunications. Its Gross Domestic Prouct stands at approximately USD 6 billion, with a per capita income of about USD600 (CIA World Factbook), much better than even some relatively stable countries in Africa. In addition, Somalia is a country with substantial endowments of minerals such as uranium, iron ore, and natural gas that can be profitably mined in a post-conflict environment.
Given China's excellent track-record in taking risks with conflict and immediate post-conflict economies (Bodomo 2011), there is potential for Chinese involvement in mining Somali uranium, iron ore, and natural gas, among other minerals to turn Somalia into an investment paradise. In the early 1990s when most investors were abandoning war-torn Angola, just at about the time the end of its 27-year civil was in sight, China took risks, entered and invested in that country. China has now succeeded in developing a relatively prosperous oil-based economy in Angola to the extent that the country is China's largest trading partner in Africa, providing the Chinese economy with half a million barrels of oil a day.
Could a post-conflict Somalia be the next Angola for China and other investors?
Bodomo, A. 2011. The Globalization of Investment in Africa: Europe, China and India in Tandem" (Los Libros de la Catarata, Madrid, Spain).
CIA. 2011. World Fact Book:
https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/so.html (accessed September 17, 2011)
Adams Bodomo is Director of the University of Hong Kong (HKU)'s African Studies Programme and author of "The Globalization of Foreign Investment in Africa (Los Libros de la Catarata, Madrid, Spain, 2011). He is currently on leave from HKU as FSI-Humanities Scholar, Stanford University, California, in the 2011-12 academic year.
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