Somalia: kicking out WFP likely to backfire on al-Shabaab

Published: March 8, 2010

What on earth was al-Shabaab thinking? Kicking out the World Food Programme while four million Somalis are almost starving to death. According to Somali journalist Mahad Mussa, this may well be as big a blow for al-Shabaab, as it is to ordinary people.


Mussa, chief editor with Horseed, a Somali media organisation which operates from the Netherlands, Finland and Somalia, is especially concerned with the impact the ban might have on internally displaced Somalis (IDPs) living in the south. “They solely depend on the food they get from international organisations, and WFP is the main distributor. But with al-Shabaab controlling most of southern Somalia and the federal government having zero military muscle, access hasn’t exactly been easy in the past months.”
Al-Shabaab claim ‘ridiculous’
The United Nations says nearly four million people, about half the country’s population, need emergency food aid. Yet al-Shabaab argues that the large-scale food distribution was disadvantaging local farmers. A ‘ridiculous claim’, rejects Mussa. “Local farmers don’t have the capacity to provide enough food. Even if WFP bought all their food from local farmers, it wouldn’t be sufficient. At times even local farmers need food from abroad to get by.”
Nobody really understands what al-Shabaab wants to achieve by kicking out WFP. “It’s not a logical thing to do,” agrees Mussa. “But then again, al-Shabaab is a very radical organisation and they’ve been targeting the UN for a while now. They don’t see the UN as a humanitarian organisation, but as a foreign force that supports the federal government in Mogadishu and interferes with al-Shabaab’s ideology for Somalia.
For Ernst Jan Hogendoorn, Horn of Africa Project Director of the International Crisis Group, “the debate revolves around money. WFP is perhaps being punished for refusing to pay the twenty to thirty thousand dollars ‘tax’ that al-Shabaab is trying to impose on UN agencies and NGOs.”
Fearful obedience
Al-Shabaab has instructed all Somalis to stop working with or for WFP. Mussa reckons that most Somalis will follow this order, but not voluntarily. “If you protest against al-Shabaab, you risk being classified as a spy. Al-Shabaab has in the past executed several people in southern Somalia who were working for western organisations. There’s a lot of fear on the ground, which makes it difficult to know exactly how much popular support al-Shabaab can count on.”
Al-shabaab ‘losing support’
And this, in the longer term, may backfire on al-Shabaab, is Mussa’s educated guess. “There were already allegations that WFP rations meant for IDPs were sold on the local market, with the money going straight into the pockets of groups like al-Shabaab. I believe they might lose more support now that they’ve banned WFP altogether. Don’t forget that this is not just a political, but also a humanitarian issue. Millions of people are facing famine.”

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