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The Wages Of Chaos
Mogadishu, Somalia, May 31, 2006 – The guns of Mogadishu are seldom silent. Since Somalia's last functioning government fell in 1991, the sound of militiamen clearing their weapons by firing into the air has become as common as the muezzin's call to prayer.
This year, however, the bullets' trajectories have been horizontal rather than vertical. More than 300 people - mostly civilians, including women and children - have been killed during battles than have raged across the city.
More than 100 have died during the past week alone. Militiamen have taken over the hospital run by the Red Cross. The fledgling government is stuck in Baidoa, a town to the east of the capital, powerless to intervene.
It is the sort of scenario that normally acts like a magnet for foreign correspondents. Jet into the city, interview a few combatants, nip into the hospital to see a few wounded civilians, and you have a colorful piece ready to run alongside a picture of teen brandishing an AK-47. In this story, there is even the added spice of clandestine CIA involvement and ties to al-Qaida and the "war on terror".
Yet the number of western journalists that have been in Mogadishu this year could be counted on one hand - and that may be an overstatement. It is not due to a lack of interest from editors, but rather an accurate assessment of the risks for a foreigner in a city that is as unpredictable as it is inherently dangerous. (A BBC producer, Kate Peyton, was shot outside her hotel in Mogadishu in an apparently motiveless murder in early 2005). Instead, it is left to a brave few Somali journalists working for the wire services to chronicle the mayhem.
Given the paucity of independent on-the-ground analysis - humanitarian workers and African analysts have been as prudent as foreign journalists in avoiding the city - it should be of no surprise that various theories, conspiracy or otherwise, emerged as to why the fighting broke out. The most prominent of these is the clandestine involvement of the United States (a subject covered by Simon Tisdall in a recent World Briefing. Rumors have circulated for many months that the CIA was cooperating with warlords in southern Somalia. Agents handed over briefcases full of dollars, the theory went, and warlords handed over al-Qaida operatives.
What is known is that in February a group of warlords (including four government ministers) formed an coalition called Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism; a move that immediately sparked battles with militia allied to the Islamic courts.
The courts, which had brought some sense of law and order to Mogadishu and have backing from powerful businessmen, said the US was backing the warlords. The Alliance said the courts were harboring al-Qaida sympathizers.
The US government refused to confirm or deny the rumors, but admitted that it was doing counter-terrorism work with certain Somali groups - an approach that many analysts say risks creating jihadis rather than taming them. There has already been fallout over this strategy; Newsweek reported this week that a top official at the US embassy in Nairobi - which looks after Somalia - was transferred for opposing the policy of funding warlords.
But while it is tempting in this US-bashing age to blame the renewed fighting solely on Washington's foreign policy, it would also be far too simplistic. Somalia's problems are far deeper ingrained, involve many motivations and many more actors than the US alone.
An insight into the forces at work can be found in the latest report of the Monitoring Group on Somalia, presented to the UN security council on May 4. The biannual report, written by a group of independent consultants, chronicles arms-embargo violations and other matters related to current events in the country.
The US is not mentioned by name, although it is almost certainly the "third country" listed as having secret involvement in Somalia and providing financial support to the Alliance. Six other countries are named, however, for breaking the arms embargo by supplying weapons or other military-related support to various warlords and businessmen.
Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Italy, the former colonial master, are all fingered and all, as can be expected, deny the allegations. But if detail is taken a measure of veracity, the charges do not appear to have been plucked out the air.
"On 28 March 2006, 10 metric tons of arms including mortars, PKM machine guns, AK-47 assault rifles and RPG (anti-tank weapons) arrived in Jowhar from Ethiopia ..."
Even more illuminating is the detail about the economic activities of warlords and business syndicates, which help bankroll both of the current warring parties.
The report's authors state that three prominent business cartels that have huge monopolies - especially when it comes to winning contracts from the UN and aid agencies - and earn revenues of tens of millions of dollars a year in southern Somalia.
"The only regulations they [the cartels] abide by are self-imposed, and the only taxes and fees they pay are to each other, rather than to a central government ... The vast and complex web of economic web of economic vested interests ... represents huge financial gains for their owners, and therefore the intense urge to secure and maintain those interests is compelling and primary."
The report also shows that in a single year checkpoints run by a warlord in a medium-size town can earn him more than $4m (£2.1m).
There, in dollars and cents, lie the reasons that Somalia has remained a byword for anarchy for so long. Chaos equals cash for those with guns.
A functioning national government, which President Abdillahi Yusuf is trying to install, would spell financial disaster for the warlords and the cartels.
US funding and Islamic fundamentalism may well be a factor in the recent fighting, but the argument that it is a battle to consolidate territory, militia, and above all revenue sources at a time when the government is trying to establish itself seems equally persuasive.
Could it be a coincidence that many of the early bouts of fighting occurred around the main port and airfield, two of the most lucrative assets in Mogadishu?
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Source: Guardian, May 31, 2006