The United Nations has officially declared a famine in Somalia, the first since 1992. Half the population – 3.7 million – are said to be at risk, with another 7 million in Kenya and Ethiopia also in need of help.
As is so often the case in African famines, politics is playing a part. The Islamist militia, al-Shabab, which is affiliated to al-Qaeda, controls the area where the famine is raging, and two years ago it banned foreign aid agencies. Even now it is prepared to allow only limited access.
The stricken area had previously included the most fertile part of the country, and the UN says nearly £1 billion in aid is needed. The USA has said it will send help so long as al-Shahab does not interfere with it, or use it to raise money.
The great Ethiopian famines of the 1970’s and 80’s were also aggravated by politics. In the first, the Emperor Haile Selassie, responded lethargically (and was promptly deposed), while the second was exacerbated by President Mengistu’s scorched earth campaign against rebels, and his determination that the famine would not spoil a birthday celebration for his regime.