There is a ‘good’ side to famine and war deaths in Eastern Africa

Wednesday August 03 2011

Charles Onyango Obbo Managing Editor, Convergence & New Products

Large areas of Somalia, Ethiopia, South Sudan, and Kenya are being battered by one of the worst droughts in 60 years.

In all, approximately 11 million people are affected, which has forced the UN to declare the first famine in the region in 25 years.

In Somalia, it is estimated that over 10,000 people have died for far, while another three million need food assistance.

More than 800,000 Somalis have crossed into Kenya and turned already crowded refugee camps like Dadaab into something out of an apocalypse movie.

Mother Nature, as Nobel Prize economist Amartya Sen noted, causes droughts. Governments, though, cause famine.

People don’t die because of drought but because governments fail to plan for water storage, irrigation, strategic food stocks, and to invest in food distribution infrastructure.


The wider East Africa is no stranger to famines. And these famines, together with war, have also done something else beside kill people – they are the two forces that have most shaped the architecture of countries and politics in the region.

In 1992, Somalia experienced a severe famine as the country plunged into madness after the overthrow of dictator Siad Barre. Since then, every two or so years, the country has been plagued by smaller droughts and mini-famines – all made worse by civil war.

Ethiopia experienced a severe famine in 1973 that led a military coup against Emperor Haile Selassie.

It faced another horrid famine in 1984 – one of the world’s most televised and discussed. That famine so undermined the military junta of Mengistu Haile Mariam which was then fighting Tigrayan rebels, that the regime lost the stomach for further conflict.

In 1991, the rebels, led by the current Prime Minister Meles Zenawi overran the Mengistu regime and took power.

Every famine leads to the conclusion that the central government far off in the capital is too detached. We, therefore, tend to see greater demand for devolution of power and the formation of relatively strong regional governments.

Countries that have gone war or into conflict over things like disputed elections in which there is ethnic cleansing as happened in Kenya in 2008, tend to have a greater demand for devolution.

This is because the communities in the affected regions come to believe that if their own boys and girls (from the same ethnic community, religion, or region) were in charge, they would not let them die from a drought or in conflict.

For Somalia, this means the future is more Puntlands and Somalilands, not fewer.

Because Ethiopia had the most extreme forms of both war and famine, it has the region’s most devolved government structure. It is actually a federal state as it calls itself.

The high demand for devolution that we saw from northern Kenya was also borne out of the sense of alienation that drought-prone areas usually feel.

What closed it for Kenya, though, were the post-election violence and ethnic cleansing. They led to the adoption of the county system with its governors and regional assemblies in the new Constitution.

Uganda, which went through 25 years of war, also devolved, although nowhere near what Ethiopia and Kenya have done – in part because it doesn’t suffer the same level of food insecurity.

Uganda has also the highest number of special ministries for both districts and regions. The Luwero ministry is for the district in central Uganda where President Museveni based the five-year guerrilla war that brought him to power in 1986.

Then there is a ministry for war-wracked northern Uganda, and another for drought, famine, and war-troubled Karamoja region.

There is a new ministry for peaceful Bunyoro. This region has oil and it is getting very strident in demanding a cut of future revenues.

Rwanda, whose war climaxed in 1994 with the genocide in which over one million power were killed, also has powerful governors.

Tanzania has the least devolved government structure; it is the only country that has not had its war or extreme famine.

Looking beyond the tragedy of the thousands of deaths caused by war and famine in East Africa, one cannot help admire the powerful state-building abilities of these two evils.

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