In the first interview with a western news organisation since the UN declared famine in Somalia, a spokesman for the al-Shabaab Islamist group tells Channel 4 News there is no famine, only drought.
Drought caused by the failure of the last two expected periods of rain, combined with the country’s 20-year civil war, has produced a catastrophic situation in southern Somalia. An estimated 3 million people are affected, and the UN says one in three children is suffering from malnutrition.
The situation is further complicated by the fact that al-Shabaab, which controls most of Somalia, is a proscribed terrorist organisation in the United States, and it was deemed unlawful for western organisations to provide aid to them. The US has softened its position on this, indicating it would not prosecute those providing aid.
In July the United Nations declared that the Bakool and Lower Shabelle regions of Somalia were officially in famine, and said tens of thousands may have already died. Mark Bowden, UN humanitarian co-ordinator for Somalia, warned that without immediate action, “famine will spread to all eight regions of southern Somalia within two months”.
Unicef defines famine as a mortality rate of more than two people per 10,000 per day, and wasting rates of above 30 per cent in children under five years old across an entire region.
But despite the international concern, al-Shabaab spokesman Sheik Ali Dhere has told Channel 4 News there is no famine in the Bakool and Lower Shabelle region.
In the organisation’s first interview with a western news organisation since the UN’s drought declaration, Sheik Dhere said: “The famine has been averted due to support and aid from business, the Somali communities and the Muslim community. And even though there was a drought, people have received widespread relief and support from outside communities.
“So there is no famine – but there is a drought.”
He dismissed the UN declaration of a famine in Bakool and Lower Shabelle, stating: “They have not been to these places and do not know what is going on in these towns. Their proof is based on rumours.
“But I can say that we are here on the ground. We live with the people and we are working with them… The problem these people face is a decline in amounts of food and their livelihood incomes.”
Read more from Channel 4 News on the humanitarian disaster in Somalia
Sheik Dhere went on to deny that his organisation harassed staff working for aid agencies on the ground. Aid agencies have claimed they have had to pay large registration fees to al-Shabaab.
“Here there is peace and stability,” he told Channel 4 News, “and there are many people who work for aid agencies. There is no place which does not have aid agencies present, and so if we had problems with aid agencies they would not be able to work here.”
He nonetheless acknowledged that there were “two types of aid agencies which we have had conflict with”. The first category included “political” aid groups such as the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and USAID, which he dismissed as “not agencies for relief but militarised agencies with political agendas”.
In the second category were agencies whose work undermined the country’s ability to become self-sufficient, with the World Food Programme (WFP) singled out for particular criticism because it had “destroyed this country’s economy”.
According to Sheik Dhere, the WFP was itself responsible in part for current drought because it “had made people dependent on the crops which it provided for free, which prevented farmers from growing crops”.
Somalian self-reliance was a constant theme. “In Islam we do not like that people are always weak and dependent on other people,” Sheik Dhere said.
“We prefer that people return to their farms and their lands and support them in becoming independent and subsistent… What we want is the development of the country and not that we are always dependent.”
Towards the end of the interview he states that Somalia is a “land of abundance” and that western countries and the Africa Union are determined to destroy Somalia’s people.
He urges Somalis living abroad to return home, open businesses and generate employment. “What we really want is for the people to become self-reliant and independent. So for anyone who wants to come to the country and invest, we welcome – and the land is available to them.”