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Post-US, Somalia Finds Many Cash In on Chaos

Lawlessness attracts foreign opportunists

By Ilene R. PrusherSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / October 20, 1997


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.

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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.

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.