Somalia has long been one of the most dangerous places in the world for UN-affiliated aid workers. Beyond the general lawlessness of the place is the fact that one of the main insurgent groups, al Shabaab, has specificily targeted aid workers and UN agencies as enemies.
What is striking about al Shabaab’s campaign against aid workers was that, until recently, the group displayed a relatively nuanced approach to its violence. They differentiated between aid agencies should be allowed to work in al-Shabaab held territory and which should be targeted for violence. For example, in a July 27, 2009 press release, al Shabaab decreed that the UN Development Program (UNDP), UN Political Office for Somalia (UNOPS), and the UN Department of Safety and Security (UNDOSS) can be considered “enemies of Islam” for supporting the Somali government and must cease their operations. Al Shabaab accused these agencies of “working against the benefits of the Somali Muslim population and against the establishment of an Islamic State in Somalia.” The release further accused the these organizations of financially supporting the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) to “continue their mission of oppression and massacre of the Somali Muslim people.”
Not included in the list of agencies non-grata were strictly humanitarian agencies, like the World Food Program. As opposed to UNDP and UNPOS, the WFP has no political agenda. Their role is simply to deliver food and aid to vulnerable populations. As such, al Shabaab permitted WFP to operate in Shabaab controlled territory where the WFP kept ordinary Somalis fed. That changed toward the end of last year, however, when al Shabaab apparently tried to shakedown the WFP for cash. The group delivered an ultimatum that by January 1, the World Food Program to either purchase food locally (read: from al Shabaab) or cease its operations. Via Bloomberg the WFP says that al Shabaab demanded $20,000 payments every six months to allow the WFP to continue its operations in Shabaab-controlled territory. This, predictably, has forced the World Food Program to cease its operations in southern and central Somalia, where al Shabaab has a foothold.
I do worry, though, that the WFP will soon become a declared al Shabaab target elsewhere in Somalia, where it continues its operations. This has brought pretty devastating consequences to agencies like the UNDP, which was the target of a suicide bomb attack in northern Somalia, and the AMISOM, which lost 9 peacekeepers, including the deputy force commander, in a suicide attack on its base in September. It is also worth noting that a top Somali WFP official was assassinated by unknown assailants in October 2008.
The bottom line is: Somalia was already a perilous place to conduct humanitarian operations. But these developments may presage a new era of violence directed against the only lifeline for hundreds of thousands of Somalis. Now, more than ever, the WFP deserves our support.