A United Nations contract to buy charcoal for African Union troop kitchens in Somalia is believed indirectly to be funding the country's Al Qaeda-allied Islamist army, The Monitor has learned.
Al Shabab pays for weapons and fighters with the monthly $1.25 million it earns from taxing traders and from the export of charcoal, trade that was banned by both President Obama in July and a UN Security Council Resolution adopted in February.
The business has become the group’s “most lucrative source of income,” according to the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea.
Since April, the UN has been buying 52 tons of charcoal a week for the kitchens of peacekeeping forces in Mogadishu, and one Somalia expert says it is “highly unlikely” that the deal is “not at least indirectly benefiting” the terrorists.
The contract, worth close to $1 million annually, also directly spurs the destruction of southern Somalia’s last remaining tree cover, worsening conditions that cause drought.
The deal began in April, said the United Nations Support Office for AMISOM (UNSOA), the African Union peacekeeping mission in Somalia, meaning more than 1,100 tons of charcoal has so far been delivered and an estimated 5,500 trees have been felled.
A spokesman for UNSOA, headquartered in Kenya, said he was “unable to confirm” that supplies did not come from Kismayo, Al Shabab’s remaining stronghold and the epicenter of Somalia’s charcoal trade.
AMISOM forces this week closed in on the port city ahead of an expected offensive to push the Islamists out. Senior commanders are said to have fled already, and 10,000 civilians have also left, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees reported Friday.
The Monitor has seen an UNSOA purchase order for $17,722.50 for 52,125kg (about 115,000 lbs.) of charcoal due for delivery on Aug. 31, among the most recent of the deliveries.
It was to be sent to Ugandan and Burundian peacekeeping troops based at Mogadishu’s airport and its university. The two countries’ soldiers make up the majority of AMISOM’s 17,000-strong contingent in Somalia.
The Aug. 31 delivery was to be supplied by Mogadishu Stars General Trading Company Ltd., a Somali-owned firm headquartered in Dubai with offices in Kenya and Somalia. The UN has reported that two of the firm's managers, Mohamed Ali Warsame and Abdulrazak Ali Warsame, have close connections to a Somali businessman associated with Al Itihaad Al Islaami, an earlier Somali militant group linked to Al Qaeda.
A manager at the firm’s Nairobi office denied that supplies for the UN tender came from Kismayo, saying that they were “sourced from around Mogadishu.”
But Al Shabab earns money not just from direct links to charcoal traders but also from taxing charcoal trucks as they pass through areas under Islamist control.
“It’s highly unlikely that Shabab will not at least indirectly benefit from this contract,” said Andrews Atta-Asamoah, Horn of Africa analyst for the Institute for Security Studies in South Africa. “It’s not possible for that much charcoal to come from areas the government controls. Even if Shabab is not directly selling the charcoal, once money enters the system in south-central Somalia, Shabab always takes its share.”
The amount of charcoal being produced to fulfill the contract would mean traders felling at least 250 trees a week, according to ecologists’ estimates.
Deforestation for charcoal burning is seen as one of the major causes of drought, which has left 2.1 million Somalis still in need of international help. Last year, parts of the country were struck by famine.
It is for this reason, and because the trade benefits for Al Shabab, that the UN Security Council adopted resolution 2036 during the London Conference on Somalia in February, which banned the export of charcoal from Somalia and its import into other countries.
In part the resolution stated, “charcoal exports from Somalia are a significant revenue source for Al Shabab and also exacerbate the humanitarian crisis.”
President Obama in July ordered sanctions to be enforced against anyone involved in the export or import of Somali charcoal.
Domestic trade within Somalia is, however, exempt from both the UN ban and the US sanctions, meaning that the UNSOA order is legal under the resolution’s terms. “Our delivery does not contravene the ban,” Simon Davies, UNSOA’s spokesman in Nairobi, told the Monitor.
“Nonetheless, we are acutely aware of the negative impact of the trade in charcoal and have been pro-actively working to transition AMISOM to other fuels. All AMISOM contingents are traditionally used to cooking with charcoal and we have had to make a deliberate effort to change that.”
It was the supplier’s responsibility to source the charcoal, and “I’m unable to confirm whether this charcoal comes from Kismayo or not,” Mr. Davies added.
“UNSOA utilizes a common UN vendor tracking database to assess risks associated with doing business with individual vendors. UNSOA also consults with other UN bodies as part of procurement due diligence,” he said.
“These are the primary means available to us in our effort to limit the chances of inadvertently funding Shabab. Regardless, our immediate near-term goal is to phase out AMISOM use of charcoal entirely by October, thereby eliminating risk.”