Post-US, Somalia Finds Many Cash In on Chaos

Lawlessness attracts foreign opportunists

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

It's just after noon at the port in Bossaso, and there has been another shooting by a militiaman of a rival sub-sub-clan member. Now a major point of entry for goods into Somalia, Bossaso has been targeted by the United Nations as a place worth cleaning up because it's the region's biggest potential source of income.

The disorder that ensues is typical of a place where there is no law, and no police to enforce it. But one afternoon's tumult is just a blip compared with the lawlessness that is exploited by those who have managed to capitalize on what may be the world's most unregulated economy.

Since the UN left in 1995, a year after American troops pulled out, the civil war has dwindled to battles among rival warlords in the capital, Mogadishu.

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The beneficiaries of Somalia's stateless state include local players as well as foreign looters. Some here argue that what most hampers efforts toward peace and the re-formation of a central government in Somalia - which collapsed in 1991 - are those who profit from the chaos.

Domestically, there are a number of Somalis who have an interest in maintaining the status quo. These include militia members who get paid to provide security, khat importers who don't have to pay duties on the narcotic leaf, and various other businessmen who are happy to operate without regulations and without taxes.

In fact, in the free-for-all atmosphere, the private sector has boomed. Independent businesses, nationalized during the 1970s by the former Socialist regime of President Mohamed Siad Barre, have sprouted up again.

In Bossaso, many services that were public before the war again exist, but only for those who can afford them. During the civil war's height, for example, looters stripped phone lines for the copper and left the nation out of order. Now, entrepreneurs have opened a communications center.

But this tax-free environment is not exactly a supply-sider's dream. Virtually nothing trickles down to the overwhelming majority living in slums, where goats feed on garbage heaps that no one is paid to clean up. Clinics, schools, and even a post office are in operation, but cost so much that the most basic services are available only to people of means.

Yet, in a way almost unimaginable to Westerners, Somalia functions even in its statelessness. The marketplace here in Bossaso does a brisk business. Sectors such as fishing and livestock have grown throughout the relatively stable northeast. Before the war, there was one aviation firm with three aircraft; now there are 14 companies with 62 airplanes.

Some might consider this to be an impressive example of the survivalism that has played itself out in other war-torn African states, where the traditional trade filled many of the functions of an official economy. In Somalia, there was almost no history of state institutions before Siad Barre seized power in 1969.

"They have a society based on clan lineages, and the government was never really imposing itself on Somali society," says Hagai Erlich, an expert in East African politics at Israel's Tel Aviv University. Somalis are "much more individualistic and less tribalistic, and in paradoxical way, that may help fuel a free economy," he says.

But can a society be too free to be fair? Roland Marchal, a researcher from Paris's Center d'tudes et de Rcherches Internationales, says that Somalia's "free" economy often means that traders from weaker clans are prohibited from competing with traders from the strongest clans.

The fact that many Somalis remember Siad Barre's regime as thoroughly corrupt may further hinder attempts to recreate a central government. "Many new traders have little knowledge about [corruption in] the 1960s, 1970s, or 1980s; nevertheless, they may legitimately fear the development of a state apparatus that will bring new regulations, taxation, and patronage," Mr. Marchal wrote in a recent report for the UN. "So the antistate culture is very strong amongst the new business people...."

Even if many Somalis are managing to feed their children and eke out a living, anarchy has other consequences. The world knows that there is still no one in charge in Somalia, and most importantly, no one guarding its coastline. Somalis and UN officials say ships from places such as China and Taiwan have been dumping toxic waste in the unprotected waters off the coast. Ships from around the world also have been illegally fishing the seafood-rich waters. "This is one of the five best fishing areas in the world according to World Bank studies, but it's being looted by pirates who are taking advantage of our national tragedy because we can't protect our coastline," says Gen. Mohammed Abshir, a top official in the Somali Salvation Democratic Front (SSDF), the leading political faction here.

UN officials verify ships from China, the Philippines, Spain, and Russia have been heavily fishing the area. Somali leaders in the northeast region say that 300 to 500 vessels appear along their 800-mile section of coast during a season, and that the fleets also include trawlers from other European countries, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Yemen, and Pakistan.

"That's a pretty barren coast, there's 2,000 miles of it, and someone can get away with it pretty easily," says a security official in charge of UN operations here. "You can see them fishing when you fly over the country."

The UN, the International Maritime Organization, and the Food and Agriculture Organization are beginning a fisheries project to measure the extent of the problem and help Somalis protect and make use of the resource.

Included in the environmental pillaging, large tracts of land in Somalia have been burned and made into charcoal. SSDF leaders say that during the last two years, at least a million bags of charcoal have been made and shipped off to the Arab Gulf states, though the faction has begun to crack down on such activities.

Somalis say they know the lawlessness keeps the international community away. But without its assistance, says port manager Said Jibril Aris, there isn't enough money to do what's necessary: "We cannot build a watch tower. We need a hand from the donor community, otherwise things will remain as they are."

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