Tax collectors are hardly welcomed with warm smiles in most countries. But here in Somalia, when the government's fledgling tax collection system goes to work, it's accompanied by some 150 armed men and a couple of pickups mounted with antiaircraft guns.
Ramshackle trucks, carrying everything from imported plastic sandals to slabs of meat, stop at the flimsy rope barrier on the dusty road from the port north of the capital. Their drivers visit the man with the rubber stamp and receipt book, sitting in the shade of a thorn tree. Somali shillings are exchanged for a stamped square of paper, while the armed contingent eyes the surrounding barren hills.
Through this low-tech method, the government has collected about 100 million shillings ($4,000) a day here since it began the process three months ago. It's a small amount, but the fact that a government of any sort is managing to collect any tax in this country, battered by 10 years of civil war, is a sign of progress.
"Before the government, there were a lot of checkpoints run by militia," says driver Abdullahi Hussein as he waits in a truck filled with stones for construction. "Wherever you'd go, they'd say: 'You have to pay 5,000, you have to pay 10,000.' " He says the government is providing a measure of security in exchange for the tax, while the old militia checkpoints were nothing more than extortion.
That was the kind of change promised by the Somali transitional national government (TNG), inaugurated with a flurry of hope a little over a year ago after a lengthy peace conference in neighboring Djibouti.
Some successes came quickly. The government reduced the number of rogue militiamen wandering Mogadishu's streets by remobilizing some 18,000 men into the police and Army. It persuaded a couple of former warlords to come onto their side. And there was even talk that the United Nations might re-establish a presence in Mogadishu, which it had fled for safety reasons.
But in recent months, setbacks have outnumbered the government's accomplishments. A no-confidence vote in October resulted in the dismissal of the cabinet. The country's biggest single economic sector - remittances from Somalis working overseas - suffered a blow when the US shut down the largest money-transfer company for allegedly funding Osama bin Laden. (US military officials met Sunday with the antigovernment Rahanwein Resistance Army, which recently reported activity by local Islamic groups linked to Al Qaeda, the wires reported.) The $120 million livestock industry was crippled after Gulf states banned imports from Somalia because of an outbreak of Rift Valley fever. Even the weather isn't cooperating: The most recent harvest is being described as Somalia's poorest in seven years, the result of a drought.
The initial surge of donations to the government from Arab states has shriveled, while Western donors remain unwilling to contribute, and recent militia attacks halted tax collection efforts in Bakara, Mogadishu's biggest market. As a result, the government is nearly broke. The police and army haven't been paid their $50 monthly salary in three months.
"Somalia needs the help of the international community," admits President Abdiqassim Salad Hassan.
His position is supported by Randolph Kent, the UN humanitarian coordinator for Somalia. Mr. Kent says that the international community does not need to impose a solution or pour millions of dollars into the country, but does need to support the progress that Somalis have made in re-establishing a semblance of order on their own.
"Until there's engagement, I think it's going to be difficult for progress to be made," says Kent.
A Western diplomat says a large part of the international community believes the government "can serve as a basis for national reconciliation."
"The TNG has survived longer than some people thought it would," he says. "It's got militia, it's established a framework for government, but that's where it ends."
Somalia's government lacks authority over two fundamental things that define a government: printing currency and controlling territory.
Businessmen arbitrarily order huge consignments of bank notes, flooding the market and causing huge inflation. While it cost 10,000 Somali shillings to buy a US dollar last December, this year it costs almost 25,000. Two months ago, big businesses simply stopped accepting the 500 shilling note, worth about 2 cents, prompting riots by small traders.
The government holds little territory beyond Mogadishu, and doesn't even control the whole capital, plagued by warlords who have refused to give up the gun. Indeed, key warlords opposed to the government said they would not take part in peace talks due to begin today in Nairobi, Kenya, the wires reported.
Half of the country is covered in the territory of Somaliland and Puntland, two breakaway regions with their own administrations.
UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan gave a blunt assessment of the government's strength in a recent report to the Security Council: "There is no single authority in the country that can assure security and unimpeded access to the United Nations, even in Mogadishu."
At a Koranic school, surrounded by shops selling car parts in Mogadishu, dozens of children study under Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Muhidiin, a religious leader who sports an embroidered cap and dark glasses.
"The government is making progress," says Sheikh Sharif. "The most important thing is to create security in Mogadishu. After that, we can do schooling, healthcare. But first it is the security."