|Home | Contact us | Links | Archives|
Business And Islam: Allies Against Anarchy In Somalia
Jehad Nga for the New York Times
MOGADISHU, Somalia, September 18, 2006 — In this sandy wasteland of palm trees and wrecked seaside villas, there are warlords and then there are moneylords.
Yusuf Muhammad is a moneylord, a shipping magnate who threw his weight — and men and money — behind the Islamic militias and helped bring them to power in June.
“The cost of doing business had simply become unacceptable,” Mr. Muhammad said of the days of anarchy before the Islamists took control. “So we made a move.”
The move was initially celebrated by Mogadishu’s people who, for the first time in 15 years of unrelenting clan warfare, enjoyed a modicum of peace. But three months into the new Islamic fiefdom, things are changing. While the millionaires of Mogadishu (and at 14,000 Somali shillings to the dollar, there are quite a few) continue to bankroll the Islamists, poorer people here are increasingly ambivalent. They describe a harsh and brazen government, whose troops bullwhip women for not wearing veils and summarily execute political enemies.
The much appreciated stability may be cracking. On Sunday, an Italian nun was gunned down in front of a Mogadishu hospital where she had served for years. There was speculation that the nun, Leonella Rose Sgorbati, 65, might have been shot by Islamic gunmen in revenge for Pope Benedict XVI’s recent remarks on Islam, but the motive for the attack remained unclear.
Mogadishu is still an edgy place, where machine guns and bazookas are sold openly in the market, and the signs of war are everywhere.
Razor-straight avenues mapped out by the Italians decades ago are corridors of ruin, with crumbling, bombed-out houses lining the streets and giant cactus plants exploding from the ground floor windows. White plaster storefronts are freckled by bullet holes. Junked pickup trucks lie half-buried in sand. It is as if every single inch of this city of two million people, the country’s capital when there was a functioning government, was at some point violently contested.
“That,” said a truck driver, pointing to a pile of scorched white blocks sitting on top of a hill, “is the old Parliament.”
The new parliament, as it were, is the Shura Council, 91 sheiks from the major clans who have sworn their allegiance to the Council of Islamic Somali Courts, the new name of the Islamic government. They meet in a red-brick building.
In a way, this is a watershed for Somali politics. Somalia is a thoroughly clannish society, split by rivalries that go back to the days when the clans roamed the deserts and fought over pasture land. The Hawiye clan, Mogadishu’s most powerful, dominates the Shura Council, but the Islamists seem to have done a better job than any previous government of uniting the major clans and subclans. Almost all Somalis are Sunni Muslims, and several business leaders said religion might prove to be the Somalis’ elusive connective tissue.
“This is the one thing we all trust,” said Muhammad Abdi Ali, chairman of the Mogadishu chapter of the Somali Business Union, as he tapped a copy of the Koran.
Somalis are legendary businesspeople, and even during the darkest days of civil war, they managed to turn a profit. The central government officially collapsed in 1991, and Mogadishu soon became the ultimate example of deregulation. Gutsy entrepreneurs, including some women, opened their own hospitals, schools (typically $10 a month per student), telephone companies, power plants and ports. There was even privatized mail delivery. Those risk-takers became the new class of moneylords.
But doing business in anarchy has its drawbacks, like having to pay off a different pack of thugs every block or two. Ismail Goni, who owns an import-export business in Mogadishu, said that each time a shipment arrived, he had to hire dozens of his own gunmen to guard the cargo.
“And we still lost 10 percent,” he said.
This January, the moneylords decided enough was enough. When a group of clan-based warlords attacked El Maan port, north of Mogadishu, business leaders teamed up with Islamic forces who had been present for years, though mostly in the background as social service organizations.
“The business community gave us their money and their lives,” said the Islamic Courts information minister, Abdulrahim Ali Modei. That alliance led to the defeat in June of the warlords, who had lost much popular support because of their banditry.
As a thank you to the business leaders, one of the first actions the Islamists took was to reopen Mogadishu’s port and airport. On Sunday, as planes skidded to a stop on a runway near the beach, hundreds of workers at the port unloaded sacks of flour from the belly of cargo ship.
But it is not all smooth sailing. One complication is the Transitional Federal Government, based in the inland town of Baidoa and internationally recognized. Despite two rounds of peace talks, the two sides have yet to figure out a way to share power.
Another problem is the mixed feelings toward the Islamists in Mogadishu. Several people said that they appreciated the order the Islamists have brought but that they were worried about the future. On Sunday, Islamist gunmen, trying to close down a movie theater showing a soccer match, shot and killed a 13-year-old youth, Agence France-Presse reported, quoting witnesses. The Islamists recently shut down a radio station for playing music and unveiled a strict religious code that bans women from politics.
Idil Farah, a mother who runs an orphanage, does not like the sound of that. “But what can I do about it?” she said. “I don’t have any power.”
Inside Somalia and out, the Islamic Courts have been likened to the Taliban, who rose to power in Afghanistan by bringing order, then turned to repression and terrorism.
It is a comparison that the Islamic leaders do not necessarily mind.
“The Taliban are our brethren,” Mr. Modei said.
The business leaders, though, have a different view.
“People here are free, freer than they have been for years,” said Mr. Muhammad, the shipping magnate.
He said he had faith that the Islamists would continue to deliver peace — and prosperity.
Source: New York Times