BOSSASO is an exit point from the Horn of Africa and it is bursting. This port in northern Somalia already has 300,000 people, up from 50,000 in the 1990s. More arrive each day. It is a raw place: entrepreneurial, resilient, armed to the teeth. It is also diseased, inadequate and famished. The port’s champions reckon it could spread along the inky blue shore like a little Dubai, prospering on exports of livestock and frankincense. But such a future, which now looks a fantasy, depends on the stability of the Horn, which these days is looking only a little less fantastical.
Several thousand Ethiopians sleep rough in Bossaso’s dirt, like animals. They are sustained by Muslim alms: a free meal each day, paid for by Bossaso traders. Some of the Ethiopians arrive in town feral with hunger. They have to be beaten back with cudgels when the meal is served. The hope of all of them is to be illegally trafficked across the sea to Yemen. They slip out of town in the moonlight, cramming into metal skiffs that are death traps. Many drown in the crossing: the boat sinks or they are tossed overboard by traffickers when Yemeni patrols approach. Some of the men interviewed in Bossaso for this story have since drowned in this way. Refugee agencies say only a few of those who survive will find jobs in Saudi Arabia. The rest will drift, disappear or die young.
Then there are the destitute Somalis. Some 6,000 of them live in one slum the size of a football pitch. The number could grow to 10,000 within a year. If fighting breaks out in southern Somalia, it will be even more. It is a typical Horn of Africa slum. Only the air is free. Several families split the rent on a cardboard shack. Fires sometimes break out, fanned by sea breezes, often burning people alive. Wells are private: filthy water is a commodity for sale. There are few jobs for the men. Women venture out to sift through the rubbish that blooms and shines like armour in seemingly every open space in Bossaso. Islamists pass through the slums, looking for likely recruits. Disease is a bigger worry. A local doctor reckons that a new epidemic could easily break out: polio and typhoid are already on the prowl.
In this special report
* » The path to ruin «
* Sexual and reproductive health
* Health and fitness
* Birth control
* Al Qaeda
The Horn of Africa has long been haunted by hunger and by violence. The story of Bossaso is an early sign that these evils will continue, and worsen. Islamist expansionism in Somalia—and the armed resistance to it—plus uncontrolled population growth throughout the area could result in whole pockets of the Horn facing collapse. This would be a humanitarian disaster; it could also lead to a much wider conflict, involving several countries.
The assumption has been that the market will somehow find solutions for the dramatic increase in the Horn’s population numbers (see table). So it may, in well-watered bits of the region, where land use can be intensified. In arid areas there is little chance of this happening. There, nature and politics will play their part, and the results will be disastrous.
More regional fighting, for a start. The most immediate risk is of war breaking out between Somalia’s Islamists, based in the capital, Mogadishu, and the “secularist” Somali government holed up in Baidoa and backed by “Christian” Ethiopia and the United States—an alliance that no doubt helps Ethiopia’s prime minister, Meles Zenawi, to repair his relations with the West, which deteriorated sharply last year after a dodgy election and the shooting of scores of protesters.
The Islamist advance in Somalia was a response to political anarchy, not a symptom of population or environmental pressures. But UN relief agencies are sounding the alarm on these pressures. They are specially concerned about south Somalia and Ethiopia’s vast Ogaden desert, where malnutrition rates are far higher than the 15% which signals a humanitarian emergency (nutrition rates in the Horn generally are the lowest in the world). A drought last year resulted in massive loss of livestock in both regions. A Somali war involving Ethiopia would be fought asymmetrically, with Islamist guerrillas striking across Somalia and inside Ethiopia, raising the chances of catastrophic famine.
Cue for al-Qaeda’s entrance
It wouldn’t take much for famine to seize hold of the area. Humanitarian action has kept the starving alive, but it has not enabled them to recover their lives. The trend is an ever increasing need for food aid plus ever less money from donors to pay for it. The World Food Programme (WFP) is responsible for delivering most of the aid in the Horn. It says that the number of Ethiopians on its books has doubled since the 1990s, in bad years to as many as 10m. The situation is not much better elsewhere. Some 1.7m hungry people are reliant on food aid in south Somalia—when the WFP can get it to them. And 3m people in Kenya, mostly in the country’s arid north, will get some kind of food aid this year.
Al-Qaeda has been quick to see and exploit the fragility of the Horn. An audiotape, released in June and believed to be by Osama bin Laden himself, called on “every Muslim” in Somalia to resist the transitional government. It also promised to attack any country sending troops into Somalia. This was meant as a direct encouragement to the jihadists among the Islamists, some of whom trained in al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan. Some think Mr bin Laden harbours hopes of opening up a new jihadist front in the Horn, specifically in the arid borderlands of north Kenya, south Ethiopia and south Somalia.
These borderlands are politically marginalised, awash with small arms, and environmentally strained. Their inhabitants include large numbers of feisty but ill-educated Muslims, many of whom are skirmishing with their Christian and animist neighbours. The area is not much of a prize in itself, but prolonged instability there would severely restrict development in the larger region, as well as limiting trade between Ethiopia and Kenya.
The rise of the Islamists in Somalia has been swift. They took control of the capital in June, vanquishing the loathed Mogadishu warlords whom the CIA had misjudgedly backed. They are loosely grouped into an alliance of Islamic courts, each court pooling gunmen into a central militia. The first courts in south and west Mogadishu were set up in 1994, with the aim of arresting, prosecuting and punishing criminals. Sufi traditionalists and moderate Islamists, associated with the pacific wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, outnumber radicals in Mogadishu. But it is the radicals who control the court militias and are increasingly holding sway.
And it is to the radicals that al-Qaeda is looking for action. It is known that they have received several arms shipments from Eritrea, which would like to draw Ethiopian troops southwards, away from its own border. More weapons and explosives may now be coming in: Mogadishu port was reopened in late July.
The United States will not talk to the radical Islamists until they give up al-Qaeda suspects who may be sheltering in Mogadishu. One worry is that Somali jihadists, led by Ahmed Abdi Godane, an al-Qaeda graduate from Afghanistan, and supervised by Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, a former Somali army colonel who presides over the Islamist militia, may develop their own terrorist organisation. Already, Mr Aweys’s lieutenant, Aden Hashi Farah Ayro, is suspected of murdering foreign aid workers and freethinking Somalis, and desecrating a Christian cemetery. Mr Aweys considers Mr Ayro a “good man”.
Moderate Islamists want the Islamic courts to impose order, making it easier, among other things, to run a business. Radicals like Mr Aweys are working towards the establishment of an Islamic emirate of Somalia, taking in Somali-populated areas of Ethiopia and Kenya. In other words they want to push out into the borderlands. In Ethiopia this would mean taking the Ogaden by force, as Somalia tried and failed to do in 1977. The situation is less clear with regard to Kenya. Islamists have so far been careful to distinguish Nairobi from Addis Ababa. Some Islamists privately say they would like to push the borders of the emirate as far as Garissa, but only through peaceful negotiation.
Islamists on the rise
Since taking control of Mogadishu, the Islamists have fanned out across central Somalia, installing courts and securing strategic bridges and airstrips. In response, Ethiopia has sent hundreds—maybe more—soldiers into the country, including a troop placement in Baidoa, reinforcing Somalia’s feeble transitional government. Perhaps 25,000 Ethiopian troops are on the border. Some of the government’s former local allies are moving over to the Islamist side, judging this to be preferable to spurring another war. But the government itself is resisting, and its external supporters are not prepared to risk a radical Islamist Somalia. The Islamists, for their part, feel things are going their way and are unlikely to seek an accommodation with Ethiopia.
In this warlike context, the Horn’s uncontrolled population growth appears even more explosive. The borderlands have among the highest fertility rates in the world, particularly so among the Somalis. Women in these areas are likely to have six or seven children, against three in the cities. Over half the population is aged 15 or under. There has been little progress in family planning. In remote areas there is no provision for birth control at all. A recent study by the Ethiopian government, which is making tentative steps to reduce population growth, found that only 3% of Somali women in Ethiopia had access to contraception, compared with 45% of women in Addis Ababa.
Some parts of the borderlands already look like something out of “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed”, a study of environmentally ruined societies by Jared Diamond, an American academic. The Horn is among the most degraded ecosystems in the world, with only 5% of its original habitat remaining. According to Conservation International, an NGO, the main culprits in the borderlands are overgrazing and cutting down trees for fuel and charcoal.
Much of the region is a no-go area. Hardly a day goes by without a cattle raid, a retaliatory attack or a shoot-out over access to a watering hole or the distribution of food aid. “We used to spear each other in the past,” says a Kenyan Samburu warrior, “but nowadays we shoot each other.” This means that the dead now include women and children. “Since the guns came [in the early 1990s] there has been more killing. You don’t need to look your enemy in the eye any more. With a gun, a boy can kill a man.”
How many cows for a gun?
The Soviet Union and the United States dumped most of the small arms in the Horn during the cold war. They have kept on coming since. A good quality AK-47 machine-gun sells for three cows in the borderlands. An American M-16 goes for five cows. The price of a gun, and the prestige attached to getting one, explains why government disarmament campaigns in Kenya and Ethiopia have faltered. For every weapon that is handed over, others remain buried. Such disarmament as there is tends to fall more heavily on tribes with better relations with the government.
There is not much disarming of Somalis in northern Kenya. It is too dangerous. Somali arms dealers do most of the selling and buying, and it is the Somali cattle raiders the other tribes most fear. The Samburu, a mostly Roman Catholic and animist tribe living in a fairly prosperous bit of north Kenya, have joined with other tribes in recent years to fend off Somali raids.
Islamist militia guard MogadishuAFP
Last year’s drought heightened tensions. Some tribes in the borderlands are buying guns and ammunition in preparation for battles they expect to be fought in December, when the cattle will be strong enough, after the rains, to be marched off by raiders into enemy territory. There is concern that the raiders are gaining in strength—and will get stronger yet if, as in the case of the Somalis, they are reinforced and organised by the Islamists.
War in Somalia could ignite other wars. Most of these will probably be small tribal affairs, such as the battles in northern Kenya, which tribal elders say have claimed more than 100 lives this year. But an Ethiopian offensive in Somalia could result in Eritrea taking its chance to attack Ethiopia. A war between the two countries fizzled out in 2000, but with no resolution on their disputed border.
Even with the fear of greater bloodshed, the main problem in the borderlands remains the stark environmental fact that there are simply too many people and too many animals and not enough grass. Some experts, such as Lammert Zwaagstra, an adviser to the European Union, believe that without outside intervention whole stretches of the Horn will come to look as wretched as Darfur in Sudan, with its people fighting over water, grazing, firewood and other scarce natural resources.
Mr Zwaagstra has been studying the borderlands for decades. Not known as an alarmist, he is now pressing the red alert button. There are too many cattle for the capacity of the land, he says, but too few to sustain the community. Population growth is part of the problem; drought is another. The Horn appears to be drying up. This may or may not be a result of climate change, but experts give warning that if the predicted increase in temperatures does come about, if only by one or two degrees, the borderlands will become unsustainable.
Rainfall is even less predictable. The drought cycle has shrunk from once every eight years to once every three years, according to the American government’s Famine Early Warning System. “That means no recovery time for the cattle, for the land, for the people,” says Mr Zwaagstra. And the changes are happening at breakneck speed.
Even the WFP admits that their delivery of aid is no more than sticking plaster. Others are even more critical. Food aid is like “crack”, says one Nairobi-based aid chief: “It is addictive and creates an unhealthy dependency.” Well, maybe. But any attempt to swing the balance from humanitarian aid to development aid comes against the imperative of saving the starving today. The scale of potential misery is becoming clearer. Rough estimates of famine victims in the next few years range upwards from 10m.
The risk of whole areas of the Horn collapsing with famine and irreversible environmental damage, urged on by jihadist and tribal clashes, is clear cause for alarm. A first task, if Somalia is to be salvaged, is to support a moderate and competent government there. That will be hard, to put it at its mildest. The transitional government is moderate but inept: the Islamists well-organised but given to jihadist tendencies.
Another obvious step is to deter the cattle raiders by improving security in the arid borderlands. Disarming tribal warriors there is difficult; investing in local police and army units is not. However, the police are often ill equipped for the task. Kenya, for instance, has hardly any serviceable helicopters to track cattle raiders and other miscreants. Most of Ethiopia’s 7m pastoralists are Muslim and the parched lands they roam are particularly combustible. The Ogaden and Oromia regions of Ethiopia already have their own rebel groups but these, in some areas, could be pushed aside by Islamist guerrillas.
Some people have suggested that the area could end up looking like the tribal lands of Afghanistan. Maybe, but there is one saving factor. Unlike Afghanistan, which has opium (and Iraq which has oil), the Horn has little of economic value to fuel a war: its frontline, after all, can barely keep a cow alive.
The road from ruin
In the long run, the crucial target is to bring down population growth, to stop this barren area from being so dangerously over-exploited. This means that controlling growth must be on the political agenda. The messiness of the problem, and a certain queasiness on the part of diplomats, means that it is not. Indeed, the climate for family planning is in some ways more conservative today than it was in the 1970s when interventionist policies prevailed.
More family-planning clinics are needed, stocked with a greater variety of contraceptives, including injectables and pills, not just condoms (which Somali men don’t care for). More controversial is the possibility of providing very early-term abortions on request. Reform also calls for educating girls; the more education a girl has, the fewer children she is likely to have.
An equally urgent approach is to invest in the borderlands while helping pastoralists with no grass left to move to towns where they may find jobs and will almost certainly have fewer children. Without help, and with little education, the hopeless and redundant often end up in the most abject slums, like those in Bossaso.
Tony Blair’s report on Africa last year hardly mentioned population growth. “It’s the unmentionable,” says a well-placed ambassador in Nairobi. “It’s the elephant in the corner of the room,” says another. It is time to start talking about it now.