The World's Most Dangerous Place: Inside the Outlaw State of Somalia - James Fergusson (2013)


Chapter 7. The famine

Badbaado refugee camp, Dharkenley district, June–July 2011

In the first week of June 2011, in the al-Shabaab-controlled southern regions of Gedo and Lower Juba, six nomads were attacked and eaten by hungry lions. Local media pounced on this horror story, noting that lions generally only attacked humans in extremis. For six people to be eaten within a week was almost unheard of. What could it portend?

A month later, the UN’s humanitarian coordinator for Somalia, Mark Bowden,* announced that two al-Shabaab-controlled districts were in the grip of an official famine: an apocalyptic term seldom used by aid officials, and which had not been heard in Somalia since 1992. Yet Bowden made clear that, this time, it was potentially just the beginning. Like some Old Testament prophet of doom, he warned that without immediate foreign intervention the famine would spread to all eight regions of southern Somalia within two months.

I had seen the effects of famine before, in northern Haiti in the early 1990s, when I witnessed an entire village scrabbling in the dust for the remnants of the contents of an upturned porridge pot. But the scale of this disaster was of a different order. The underlying drought in the region was said to be the worst for sixty years. By late July, 3.7 million Somalis were in need of food aid, almost half of the country’s total population. Across the Horn of Africa, over 12 million people were in need of humanitarian assistance. The very young suffered worst of all. Between May and July, according to American officials, the famine claimed the lives of an estimated 29,000 Somali children under the age of five.

I had come to Mogadishu to report on the war against al-Shabaab, but with the city now at the centre of a major international news story I had little choice but to switch horses. Over the course of June and July, an estimated 100,000 refugees arrived in the capital, spontaneously setting up camp among the ruins in over a hundred different locations. AMISOM’s rudimentary press facilities were swamped as the A-List media and their camera crews poured in: the stars of CNN and CBS and NBC, along with the chiefs of what seemed like every aid organization in the world.

This famine story wasn’t just as big as the one of 1992, when an estimated 300,000 Somalis died. It had the potential to be another 1984, the year of Bob Geldof, Band Aid and Live Aid, when Westerners focused as never before on the suffering of East Africa. An estimated 900,000 Ethiopians died in that famine. On the other hand, the enormous sums of charity raised are said today to have saved the lives of 6 million. This once-in-a-generation moment of solidarity between the First and Third Worlds was sparked, famously, by a single news report by the BBC’s Michael Buerk and the Kenyan photojournalist Mo Amin. It was no surprise, therefore, when spare seats in the armoured vehicles became harder than ever to secure, nor that the only places the convoys now seemed to visit were the refugee camps.

The progress of the war was relegated almost to a sideshow, as if it were mere background colour to the new disaster that the world wanted to read and hear about, although in reality they could not be separated in this way. War and famine were two horsemen of the same apocalypse, after all, especially in a country as impoverished as Somalia, where political power has always rested on the control of scant resources.

Al-Shabaab understood this principle absolutely. They also calculated that a famine that only affected parts of Somalia that they controlled was not going to make them look good. Their solution, however, was crazed even by their standards: they simply denied the famine’s existence.

‘To the latest report by the so-called United Nations about the existence of famine in Somalia, we say it is a 100 per cent lie and propaganda,’ Sheikh Rage announced in Mogadishu. ‘Yes, there is drought in Somalia, but not to the extent the infidel UN men put it. That is politically motivated and with an ulterior motive.’1

The militants had expelled the large humanitarian agencies from their territory in 2009 on the grounds that they were ‘anti-Islamic’. Sheikh Rage now made it clear that nothing had changed, and that the ban would remain in place. The international agencies predicted disaster. There was no practical possibility of their ignoring the ban: one of them, the World Food Programme, had had fourteen employees murdered in the south in the last three years. By late July, according to UNOCHA, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, aid agencies were able to reach just 20 per cent of the millions of people in urgent need of food aid in southern Somalia.

It seemed that many Somalis agreed with the internationals’ assessment, among them my Rahanweyn friend Aden, who came back to see me one day at the AMISOM OPD.

‘Al-Shabaab are 100 per cent responsible for this famine,’ he said.

He wasn’t the only Somali that summer who noted that the al-Shabaab leader Godane was from one of the Isaaq clans of Somaliland, and not therefore predisposed to care what happened to the Rahanweyn peoples of the south.

Aden recalled a visit in 2008 to Wajid in the southern region of Bakool. That small town, he recollected with something like fondness, had in those days played host to all the main relief agencies: Care, World Vision, USAID, WFP. Bakool was now at the very centre of the famine zone, yet not one of the international aid agencies was operating there any more.

‘The foreigners were all driven out and their offices were looted. Al-Shabaab said that anyone who worked for them was a spy and would be killed. They were paranoid. Crazy.’

Al-Shabaab was responsible for the disaster in other ways. Although they could not be blamed for the lack of rainfall, they were rightly accused by the TFG of the long-term mismanagement of water resources in the areas they controlled. In other words, the drought underlying the famine was partly man-made. Al-Shabaab failed to regulate the use of wells, or to maintain the decrepit canal systems that once irrigated swathes of the intra-riverine south. Nor did they try to repair the damage done during the civil war, when 95 per cent of bore holes were destroyed by rival clans who filled up each other’s wells with rocks.2

Meanwhile, deforestation had accelerated dramatically in their territory, leading to a rapid increase in the spread of desertification. This was another ecological disaster that al-Shabaab were disinclined to try to stem, because their insurgency was funded to a significant degree by the trade in charcoal, a minor local industry that had consequently boomed under their tenure. When interviewed, the Gedo villagers being hunted by lions specifically blamed their plight on ‘drought and deforestation’ in the beasts’ usual savannah hunting grounds.

The continuing ban on the foreign agencies that might have helped Gedo was bad enough. As the summer progressed, however, it became clear that the militants intended to go further: they also forbade starving southerners from travelling beyond al-Shabaab territory to seek help. This was the logical extension of al-Shabaab’s insistence that there was no famine, and they didn’t mean it rhetorically. Reports began to come in that would-be refugees were being stopped on the roads, and ordered to return home with instructions to pray for the rains. Allah would provide if he willed it. Aden regarded this piety as the height of hypocrisy.

‘Al-Shabaab are like children: they don’t want to be left on their own,’ he snorted. ‘They need the people to steal from. A fish can’t live without water.’

Banning drought victims from travelling was a risky strategy. Moving on when the environment can no longer sustain life is the whole point of nomadism. Roaming is considered an absolute right in Somalia not out of high-minded philosophy, but because it is the only way to survive in an unforgiving land. Nomadism is also a tradition that goes to the heart of the Somali psyche, celebrated for centuries in countless songs and poems. To challenge or remove the right to roam therefore risked alienating millions. I later met an old nomad refugee who had spent all his life in the desert, far from any city. The first time he had even heard of al-Shabaab, he said, was when all his camels died, and a bunch of gunmen in keffiyehs tried to turn back the city-bound truck he had boarded in his quest for help.

‘Who are these young men,’ he wanted to know, ‘that they should treat me so?’

The paradox was that it was not the hated foreigners who were now guilty of ‘anti-Islamic’ behaviour, but al-Shabaab themselves. Even the term ‘Sharia’, the system of law that they were so intent on imposing on the country, literally means, in its secondary sense, ‘the approach to a water hole’.*

It was not the first time that al-Shabaab had ignored the public mood. This time, though, they had created a backlash that even they were struggling to suppress. In Ruun-Nirgood in Middle Shabelle, villagers were in open rebellion after the militants ordered them to hand over at least one son to join their fight against the TFG, or else to contribute two camels to the cause.

‘They asked for the impossible,’ said Yahye Alasow, a 57-year-old grandmother. ‘If you lock a cat in a room and start to beat her, then in the end she will try to defend herself. We are like that. Al-Shabaab did everything to us, but we will not accept it anymore.’3 Was the war about to turn against the militants? It seemed increasingly likely. In Mogadishu, however, the foreign journalists seemed too fixated on the famine to even ask the question.

The surrounding media circus was nothing if not entertaining. That autumn the UNHCR’s goodwill ambassador, the actress Angelina Jolie, announced at an award ceremony in Geneva that her experiences among Somali refugees had made her ‘a better person, a better mother . . . They’ve inspired me by showing me the unbreakable strength of the human spirit.’4 The same week, the Jolie-Pitt Foundation donated $340,000 to one of the better Somali NGOs working in the camps. Slightly less useful, perhaps, was the contribution of the American rapper Curtis Jackson, better known as 50 Cent, who tweeted: ‘So I just got back from Somalia, it was crazy out there. I have never seen anything like it. I’m going to feed a billion people Street King.’ The reference was to a brand of energy drink he owned, available in two flavours, orange-mango or grape. ‘Fiddy’ was offering to pass on a percentage of his sales to the World Food Programme, under the slogan ‘1 shot = 1 meal for a child’.5

Just as controversial, at least in the UK, was a decision by the London Mail on Sunday to dispatch their writer Liz Jones to the famine zone. Jones, according to the outraged Guardian newspaper, was ‘a narcissistic fashion journalist, a lifelong anorexic, a person who just spent £13,500 on a facelift, and a confessional columnist who charts her obsessions every week in the Mail on Sunday’s YOU magazine . . . Could there be anything worse than the simple fact of sending such an inappropriate journalist to cover a famine?’6

In the end, the Guardian’s fury was misplaced. Even Liz Jones’s critics acknowledged that the reports she eventually filed were appropriately horror-struck and that she had left her alleged self-obsession at home. The truth was that reporting this story made every Western journalist feel uncomfortable when they stopped to think about it for long enough – particularly if, like me, they happened to be commuting from the famine back to the comforts of the Bancroft Hotel each day. The Bancroft’s owners spent $250,000 a year on diesel, mostly just to power its dozens and dozens of ceaselessly whirring air-conditioners. The canteen, anxious to please all those beefy, braai-addicted South African contractors, got through as much as three tons of meat each month. Indeed the diet in the cool, clean dining area was so meat-oriented, chops and steaks and sausages and stews for every meal, that the Europeans actually complained about it, although to no avail. A man-sized fridge in the corner was always full of ice-cold bottled water that anyone could help themselves to at any time. As a pleasant hydrating alternative, blissfully chilled orangeade was available on tap, 24 hours a day. One mentally left Somalia behind at the entrance to the Bancroft, a facility barred, for security reasons, to all ‘indigenous personnel’, as the US Marines called the locals during Operation Restore Hope. With less political correctness, but perhaps more honesty and certainly more accuracy, the Bancroft contractors tended to refer to Somalis as ‘Skinnies’.

There were other reasons to feel cynical as the giant international aid machine rumbled into action. For aid workers, famine was a technical term used when more than 30 per cent of a given population were suffering from acute malnutrition, and when the mortality rate had surpassed two people per 10,000 per day. It was merely another notch on the NGO world’s sliding scale of suffering, a step up from a food ‘emergency’ and two steps up from a food ‘crisis’. Much of East Africa had been in emergency or crisis for the last two years, teetering on the edge of the present disaster. And yet, during that period, the West had shown no especial sympathy or desire to help the millions in need. UN agencies had received only half of the $1.6bn they said was required for their relief programmes in the region. Oxfam had gone so far as to accuse several European governments of ‘wilful neglect’.7 In a jaded world, it seemed that it took the juju of a full-blown ‘famine’, with all the biblical overtones of that word, to stimulate anything close to the appropriate response.

I spent a day trailing Jerry Rawlings, the African Union’s Special Envoy to Somalia, on his first official visit to Mogadishu. A big, barrel-chested man of sixty-four, and the former speaker of Ghana, Rawlings cut an unorthodox figure in his baggy embroidered shirt and Polaroid sunglasses. Most visiting dignitaries wore suits; this one presented himself as a man of the people. The son of a Scottish chemist father and a Ghanaian mother, he had joined the air force in the 1960s, mutinied at the social injustice he saw in his country, taken power in a coup in 1979 and remained in the top job, off and on, for the next twenty years. This classic African career trajectory had drawn him to the attention of Jean Ping, the Gabonese chairman of the African Union, who thought him ideal for the task of ‘mobilizing the continent’ to assume its responsibilities towards Somalia. This did not prevent Rawlings from considering the African Union a bunch of dilatory bureaucrats.

‘Why aren’t AU governments doing more?’ he growled, during a rare moment of down-time in a Portakabin office on the AMISOM base. ‘I’ll tell you why. Because they are all too busy holding their fucking arses on to their chairs! When I was speaker, I was too busy to sit down!’

And he stood up and crabwalked across the office floor, a white plastic chair comically wedged on to his behind.

Rawlings’ armoured cavalcade took in the force commander’s office, a UN office, the hospital, the parliament. The meetings he was forced to hold in these places were obviously not his forte, and his conversations grew ever more stilted as the day wore on. I wondered if he was out of his depth. At one point I heard him turn to an aide for a reminder of what AMISOM stood for, an admission of ignorance that would have made Jean Ping wince. Rawlings had been the AU’s top Somalia representative for over eight months.

The AU was supposed to be his continent’s answer to the European Union. It was one of Africa’s most conspicuous symbols of a better future: independent, self-reliant, modern, a world away from the old clichés of post-colonial despotism. AMISOM’s military success against al-Shabaab was arguably its greatest achievement so far, an impressive advertisement of what could be done when African nations spoke and acted in concert. Rawlings’ apparent lack of interest in the institution jarred. On the other hand, he undoubtedly had charisma; and when the armoured cars stopped at Badbaado refugee camp, he at last began to put it to use.

Badbaado, in Dharkenley on the western outskirts of Mogadishu, was the fastest-growing refugee camp in the city, and already the size of a small town. It stood on land that in June had been derelict and empty; by September it would be home to 35,000 people. Dome-shaped tents stretched away from the road as far as the eye could see. In the desert, nomads constructed this traditional shelter, an aqal soomaali, by covering a collapsible frame of thorns with woven mats or animal hides. Here they had used anything they could lay their hands on, even bits of old shirt and plastic bags. The luckier ones had been issued with waterproof orange sheeting, but none of their tents looked like they offered adequate protection from the intense heat.

The camp, we had been briefed, was far from being a safe place to visit. Al-Shabaab were assumed to have infiltrated it thoroughly. The atmosphere here was volatile even without them. A fortnight after our visit, seven people were killed and several wounded following a gunfight that began when a gang of militiamen, possibly members of the TFG army, tried to loot a newly arrived consignment of food aid.8 Rawlings, showily rejecting the body armour he had been offered, strode purposefully towards a feeding centre in the middle of the camp, leaving a trail of aides, journalists and UN officials in his wake, and even his Ugandan security detail cursing and struggling to keep up.

The feeding centre was a shed in a ring of barbed wire, which a sign announced had been set up and paid for by an NGO called Qatar Charity. Sacks of rice and cans of cooking oil from Pakistan had been laid out in neat lines in preparation for the crowds mobbing the entrance. The refugees, many of them sporting empty food bowls on their heads to ward off the sun, were all women and children. Half a dozen men armed with sjambok-style switches stood on sentry before the gate, but at the foreigners’ approach the crowd surged forward, ignoring the flailing guards. Rawlings disappeared in a roiling sea of brightly coloured headscarves, but quickly bobbed to the surface on a pile of rice sacks, his bearded face shining, beatific.

‘I hear you,’ he shouted in a voice both gravelly and trembling with feeling, ‘I have seen your pain! Let me assure you: we, the international community, will never abandon you. Never!’

His eyes glistened as he clenched his fists across his chest in a sign of pan-African solidarity. This was what he had come to Somalia for.

That evening, back at the AMISOM base, I watched in awe as he wept for the refugees on live television. Since there was no studio on the base, the press office had set up a feed camera in the abandoned garden of a once fabulous seaside villa, a building now filled with goat droppings, even upstairs on the second floor. As the sun went down and bats flitted in and out of the glassless windows, each of four, back-to-back evening news programmes received the benefit of his perfect dramatic timing: Al Jazeera, Channel 4, and two channels of the BBC.

‘It was a truly sorrowful sight in the camps today,’ he intoned, leaning like a rock star on his microphone stand. ‘I’m . . . I’m . . .’ (and here his eyes would well up again, his voice blipping with unsuppressed emotion) ‘I’m not sure how many of them will even be alive in two or three weeks’ time. What we need is a miracle! Not from the Good Lord, but from the governments of countries with money!’

It was a masterclass in manipulation. Even his watching aides, who had seen the show before, were wowed by the performance. It was as if the old man kept an onion in his pocket.

The reality of the Badbaado visit was that we didn’t get a chance to see many truly sorrowful sights. The Rawlings party attracted a lot of attention, and the AMISOM organizers were understandably nervous about staying longer than necessary, which to them meant the time it took to take a photograph. An impromptu visit to a refugee camp a few days later in a ruined residential district of Hawl Wadaag provided an entirely different experience.

I and two other journalists were hiking back from another visit to the front line with a platoon of Ugandans when we chanced upon a man digging a tiny grave at the edge of the sandy path.

‘My grandson,’ he said expressionlessly, barely looking up from his spadework. ‘He died of diarrhoea this morning.’

Around the corner we came across a large zareba of newly cut acacia thorns protecting hundreds of tents fashioned from white plastic sheeting marked with the logo of the Danish Refugee Council. This detail aside, I could have been standing at the gates of any desert encampment in Somalia. It was a remarkable sight here in urban Hawl Wadaag, less than half a mile from the national parliament, in a part of the city that until very recently had been a no-man’s-land raked by mortars and machinegun fire.

We were greeted by the district commissioner, Jaffar, who was passing by in a Toyota Landcruiser. He told us that 2,000 refugees had arrived in this part of Hawl Wadaag in the last four days, most of them from Bakool and Lower Shabelle.

‘It has been twenty years since this district had so many residents,’ Jaffar observed wryly, ‘and now we don’t have enough to feed our guests. The Turks brought some food this morning, and the Kuwaitis are promising more. But I do not think they will bring enough.’

I began to work my way around the camp and soon saw what he meant. The children didn’t run up to beg here but sat about in listless heaps, showing their hunger by stroking an index finger up and down their throats. The signs of malnutrition were all around: the skeletal limbs, the huge staring eyes, the orange hair falling out in clumps. The stifling interiors of the aqals smelled of ripe cheese. In each one I put my head into there seemed to be another motionless child or two, their eyes white against the darkness, fixed on the ceiling, seeing nothing. They had heads like footballs and sticks for arms, too weak to move and beyond caring anyway about the filth and the flies.

I picked my way over to a party of around thirty women and children who were squatting together along a partially destroyed wall, a classic African tableau in their brightly coloured saris and flower-print shawls. They gazed back at me with the punctured look of the utterly exhausted, and explained that they were Rahanweyn herders who had just arrived from a village near Bardere, 300 kilometres to the west in Gedo. The drought, they said, had killed all their cattle, forcing them to move. Travelling sometimes by truck, sometimes on foot, avoiding the main roads wherever possible and always at night, it had taken them four difficult days to reach Mogadishu. Among their number when they left their village was a sick three-month-old girl, who hadn’t survived the journey. Someone pointed out the mother, a young woman crouching silently at the back of the group, who had buried her infant at the side of the desert road. I shook my head in commiseration, which she acknowledged with the faintest of nods, although her expression was inscrutable.

The group had made two attempts to flee. At first they had set out for the Kenyan border, 100 kilometres to the west and much nearer than Mogadishu, but they had been turned back by al-Shabaab at a checkpoint on the road.

‘They ordered us to go back to wait for the rains, but there is no food where we lived,’ said one woman, Fatima Mohamed. ‘Everything is finished. We explained that to go back was to die, but they said, “It’s better to die than to accept the help of the gaalo.” Al-Shabaab just wanted us to die. They are godless. They have no heart. They were worse than the drought.’

As elsewhere in the camp, there were hardly any men among them: just one old-timer with no teeth. Fatima explained that they had left their young men behind, partly to trick al-Shabaab into thinking they weren’t leaving while the women and children slipped out the back, but mainly for fear of the press gangs who would surely have abducted them on the long journey to Mogadishu. There was no doubt in their minds that the militants were directly killing them all with their agenda.

‘We are the fortunate ones,’ Fatima went on. ‘There was another group from Bardere behind us but they were stopped by al-Shabaab, even though many of their children were dying. They are not being Muslims. There is not one Muslim among them. They are only there to mislead us, to lie.’

There were worse horrors in another compound, a hundred yards up the lane. In the shadow of a shot-up minaret, a white-coated doctor and two orderlies, all Somalis, stood Canute-like in a tide of despairing humanity. Starvation, diarrhoea and dehydration were the commonest causes of death in a famine but by no means the only ones. The medics, who were all wearing surgical masks, had seen cases of typhoid, cholera, malaria and dengue fever. Measles was also spreading fast. The doctor explained that the appearance of this disease, a respiratory virus of little consequence in the developed world but a frequent killer when the patient’s immune system is weakened by malnutrition, was also partly the fault of al-Shabaab, who for almost three years had rebuffed all vaccination programmes in the territory they controlled.

The southerners dealt with the symptoms of measles in the traditional way, by trying to burn them out with a firebrand. The doctor led me to his tented field clinic where I photographed a tiny boy with two lines of deep, coin-sized wounds scored across his chest, like the number-six face of a dice. The most recent of these wounds was still open and glistening; my camera caught a fly busying itself at its ragged wet edge like some beast drinking from a water hole.

‘These are tough desert people,’ the doctor said. ‘They are used to going for days without water. Imagine how bad it must be for them to have to come here.’

He said that two dozen children had died in the camp in the last three days, nine of them under the age of five.

As we were speaking a small saloon car arrived, bumping to a halt in a cloud of dust, and a stocky man stepped out, wearing a delicately embroidered kufi cap and an expensive-looking diving watch. He turned out to be Osman Ibrahim, the recently fired Deputy Minister of Health. Known as Libah, or Lion, he was a well-known figure in Mogadishu, whose business interests, principally in shipping, were said to have thrived during the civil war. I watched as he retrieved two bottles of Dettol from the boot of his car. Then he marched across to the blue-painted latrine block that stood in the centre of the compound and began to douse the structure, inside and out, with both bottles at once, like an enthusiastic arsonist spreading petrol.

‘At least he’s doing something,’ said the doctor approvingly. ‘He is a good man. He probably paid for that Dettol himself.’

Libah was a member of one of the minority Jerer tribes, the negroid Bantu people historically discriminated against by the Arab-descended majority, and whose traditional homeland was in precisely those areas now afflicted by famine. Was he acting out of clan loyalty, or was his altruism blind? As so often in Somalia, it was difficult to tell. Perhaps he was driven by some confused mixture of the two. But whatever Libah’s motive, splashing some Dettol around was no substitute for a proper government strategy for dealing with this crisis.

Al-Shabaab’s shortcomings represented a unique opportunity for the TFG, a chance to show southern Somalia what a well-organized central government could do for them. A convincing demonstration of administrative efficiency could deal a deathblow to the insurgency. Yet here in Hawl Wadaag, away from the showboating ambassadors and the set-piece press visits, the authorities were very evidently struggling to cope. Libah’s gesture seemed even more futile when, five minutes later and 50 yards away, I observed a woman with a chest like a washboard trying to buy a heap of offal from a rickety butcher’s stall, where the wares were so covered with flies that you could barely see the colour of the meat. It was food for thought as we returned for our own surreal banquet of a lunch at the Bancroft Hotel.

The AMISOM base was a good place from which to monitor the increasing pace of the international relief effort. The aid flights had been pouring in for weeks, many of them carrying tons of ‘Plumpysup’, the sweet, French-invented, peanut-butter-based substance the relief agencies used in food emergencies. I’d also seen a couple of tons of rice rations at Badbaado. But was enough of it getting through to where it was needed – and where was all the Plumpysup going?

According to one UN estimate, up to half of all food aid delivered in 2010 was still being diverted to corrupt contractors, or even directly to al-Shabaab.9 One of the South African employees of SKA, the Dubai-based logistics firm that ran Mogadishu’s ports on behalf of the TFG, told me that 20 per cent of the Plumpysup landed by ship went missing before it was delivered to the city’s emergency feeding centres – a distance in some cases of less than two kilometres. The trucks that were supposed to deliver the rations were operated by local contractors, who naturally had all the usual clan connections. The thieves hardly bothered to conceal this racket. The SKA man recalled how he once caught a dock-worker on his lunch break eating some Plumpy he had spent the morning unloading. When challenged, the worker explained that he had bought it in a local shop.

‘I don’t understand why they don’t just get SKA to deliver the goods to the distribution centres,’ the logistics man said.

Matters were not as bad as in the early 1990s, when up to 80 per cent of international relief aid was stolen. Regaining control of the aid supply chain was one of the main justifications for the US-led military intervention of 1993. There was no suggestion that the US Army were about to return, but it was nonetheless clear that the lawlessness of that era, when arriving aircraft were sometimes looted before the pilots had switched off their engines, had yet to be eradicated. The concern was that responsibility for the delivery of aid ultimately rested with the government. The hoods who ran the trucking contracts could not operate without top-level TFG protection. Was Sheikh Sharif going to let the political opportunity the famine represented slip through his fingers after all? Senior UN officials were privately worried that he might. At a time of deep national crisis, the worst drought for sixty years, almost none of the new cabinet had any experience of government. In retrospect, the timing of Sheikh Sharif’s decision to replace Farmaajo and his ministers could hardly have been worse.

I spent a day following another visiting official around the city, the UN’s Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs, a veteran American diplomat called Lynn Pascoe, who went to visit the president at the Villa Somalia. This in itself was a moment of some significance. AMISOM’s latest offensive had pushed al-Shabaab out of effective mortar range of the presidential complex. It was the first time in years that it was judged safe enough for someone as senior as Pascoe.

Sheikh Sharif’s state office had mirrored doors and marble floors and smelled strongly of patchouli. The press were herded in for the photo opp. Sharif was wearing the same blue suit and embroidered kufi cap he wore in a framed photograph of himself that hung above the presidential desk. He and Pascoe sat stiff-backed in leather armchairs, grinning furiously at each other across a glass coffee table bearing a small flagpole with the Somali national colours waving from it. The tabletop itself appeared to be supported by a large jar of gobstoppers, which seemed an odd choice for an office that depended as much as Sharif’s did on the ability to make small talk. The conversation that ensued was, in fact, desperately stilted.

‘So . . . how are you?’ Pascoe began. ‘It’s so lovely to see you again . . .’

Sheikh Sharif nodded and clasped his hands and hoped the Under-Secretary-General had had a pleasant flight to Mogadishu.

‘Yeesss!’ Pascoe nodded back. ‘It’s good to see the airport looking so busy!’

There was something about the way they bobbed their heads at each other that reminded me of the courtship ritual of iguanas. They were still nodding in this way as the press pack was chivvied from the room.

Pascoe’s formal statement for the cameras afterwards was just as bland. Flanked by the president and the prime minister as well as the speaker, three dark Somalis in three dark blue suits, he spoke of international solidarity and a shared clear vision and of helping Somalia to move forward in the family of nations. It was not until later, as he prepared to board his plane back to Nairobi at the end of a long day, and the mask of smiles was starting to slip in the debilitating heat, that I learned what Pascoe really thought of Sheikh Sharif and the TFG.

‘It would be good if there was some evidence of them doing their jobs,’ he growled, irritably running a finger beneath his shirt collar. Quite remarkably, this had remained buttoned to the top all day long, and his tie was still pulled up tight. What, I asked, would the UN do if the government failed to meet the latest deadline for drawing up a constitution and holding elections?

‘I suppose we’ll have to see where we are,’ he shrugged. ‘If there’s no change, we’ll just have to start again.’

It was no doubt fortunate for the TFG that, however inadequate their response to the famine, al-Shabaab’s was incomparably worse. Godane and his faction simply refused to take the crisis seriously. I met one experienced Somali official, an employee of the UN children’s agency UNICEF, who had spent many months trying to persuade al-Shabaab’s so-called ‘humanitarian committee’ to allow at least some emergency food aid through. His job was dangerous as well as difficult: he would only speak to me on condition that I withheld his name.

‘I used to have a contact in Shabaab-controlled Mogadishu whom I would go to meet in secret,’ he recalled. ‘He would take written messages from UNICEF to their humanitarian committee. But one day he just wasn’t there any more. I eventually found a new phone number for him. It was a number in Kismayo. I had to beg him to let me email my latest message from UNICEF, but he was so paranoid. He created a new email account especially for my message. One hour after I’d sent it, the account was defunct again.’

Godane’s faction in the end simply wasn’t interested in co-operating with the foreigners, not even by back channels. On one occasion, while trying to negotiate a delivery to Lower Shabelle, a region in the heart of the famine zone with a population of almost a million, the UNICEF official was told by the militants that he should negotiate exclusively with their ‘regional humanitarian coordinator’. This important-sounding officer turned out to be a foot soldier of just sixteen years old.

‘The leadership were faceless – pathetic,’ he said. ‘There was a famine, yet no senior people had been put in charge of relief operations. They only had messengers.’

The hardliners may have been a lost cause, but UNICEF had better success when they approached Mukhtar Robow. On 13 July, two planes carrying five tons of emergency food and medicine were permitted to land at Baidoa. It was the first international airlift to the region for two years. Robow, who was born in nearby Berdaale, was not prepared to see his fellow Rahanweyn clansmen starve to death for reasons of half-baked ideology – and half-baked it undoubtedly still was. Just south of Mogadishu in Afgoye, on the cusp of the fasting month of Ramadan, al-Shabaab was reported to have banned the consumption of samosas, on the grounds that their triangular shape was too similar to the symbol for the Christian Holy Trinity.10

Catalysed by the famine, the rift within al-Shabaab’s leadership was becoming significant. Aden’s aunt, who was in Baidoa at the time of the UNICEF airlift, described to her nephew how Robow had dispatched fifty technicals to secure the airport ahead of the arrival of the planes. No one would normally try to challenge such an impressive array of firepower, yet on this occasion a rival al-Shabaab leader, a known Godane loyalist, also sent fifty technicals to the airport. The day ended in a tense Mexican standoff, and with UNICEF unlikely to want to repeat their bold experiment.

The argument between Robow and Godane over famine policy rumbled on, but the row was soon eclipsed by developments on the Mogadishu front line. Throughout July, the city had been bracing itself for another offensive over Ramadan, which this year began on 1 August. For this reason, in the last week of July, the Ugandans launched their own pre-emptive strike in Bondhere district in the right-centre of the line. It was another resounding success.

‘We heard they’d brought seven hundred reinforcements – all new recruits,’ one Ugandan infantry captain told me. ‘That was good news for us. It was a walk in the park.’

AMISOM’s advance had become relentless. The captain described how his men had laughed as they killed a fighter who had popped up next to one of their T55s and opened fire with a Kalashnikov, the bullets bouncing off the tank’s hull in all directions. The Ugandans had every reason to be confident. Their opposition were children. One day, waiting at the base convoy point for another ride up to the front, I came across three recently captured al-Shabaab fighters, the oldest of whom was seventeen, the youngest fifteen. They were slumped along the wall of an administrative Portakabin awaiting transport to who knew where, their hands cuffed behind their backs, dirty and dejected, a look of shock in their eyes. They were volunteers, they said, who had put their hands up when an al-Shabaab recruiter came to their school. This had happened just fifteen days ago. They had decided to surrender when they became separated from their unit and ran out of bullets. Why, I asked, had they put their hands up in the first place? The boys all looked at each other.

‘We were given a piece of fruit every day,’ said one of them.

For al-Shabaab, the famine was the most convincing recruiting sergeant of all.

Reinforcements of this calibre were almost useless, and turned out to be al-Shabaab’s final throw of the dice in their bid to hold on to the capital. On 6 August, the city woke up to discover that, overnight, the militants had withdrawn from eleven of the city’s districts, including the Bakara Market. For the first time in four years, the TFG and their AMISOM allies were in charge of the capital. Only the northern suburb of Dayniile remained in al-Shabaab hands. The militants were also reported to have pulled back from a number of other key positions, notably in the Galgadud region in central Somalia. Their military spokesman, Sheikh Abdi-aziz Abu Mus’ab, told the al-Shabaab-run radio station Radio Andalus that the retreat was a tactical one, and that it was only a matter of time before the ‘mujahideen’ returned to Mogadishu to ‘drag their [enemies’] bodies along the streets’. Sheikh Rage echoed him, explaining that the leadership had merely chosen to switch strategy to ‘hit and run’ guerrilla tactics that would ‘break the back’ of AMISOM.

Was Rage bluffing? Mogadishu’s residents were not dancing in the street quite yet.

‘I saw three al-Shabaab fighters throw down their guns and change into civilian dress,’ a Dayniile resident known as Casho told SomaliaReport.

Aden seemed ominously downbeat when I called him. Al-Shabaab might have retreated from their trench line, he said, but the Amniyat’s spies were still everywhere in the city. It was still highly dangerous to speak out openly against the militants.

Two months later, as if in confirmation of Sheikh Rage’s promise of a ‘back-breaking’ guerrilla campaign, an al-Shabaab suicide bomber drove an enormous truck bomb into a complex of government buildings near the junction at K4, killing 139 people and injuring ninety-three. Body parts were flung for hundreds of metres. Among those murdered were several students who had been queuing for exam results at the education ministry, hoping to gain a scholarship to study in Turkey.11 The famine, combined with their disastrous handling of it, had forced a major tactical reverse for the hardliners. But, as Aden gloomily foretold, they were not yet defeated. The poverty and ignorance of the young which fuelled the insurgency were genuine grievances, and had yet to be addressed. The wider war for control of Somalia was far from over yet.

* Not to be confused with Mark Robert Bowden, US journalist and author of Black Hawk Down.

* The three-letter root  (Sh Ra I’en) means to go, to enter or to start; leading to the noun Shaaira, a street; which then has the implication of the ‘Right Path’ and hence Al Shar, the Revelation. Sharia law (or more properly, in Arabic, Shari’ah) metaphorically offers a path through the dusty wilderness to the cool oasis of salvation: Islam. It is only one of many modern Arabic words that have their roots in the pre-Islamic desert.