Center for Peace and Democracy (CPD)

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Lessons from Somalia

ON December 2, 2005, His Excellency Eng. Hussein Mohammad Farah Aideed, deputy prime minister (politics and security), minister of interior, Transitional Federal Government of the Somali Republic, called, by appointment, on India’s high commissioner in Nairobi, Surendra Kumar.

He was dressed in a dark blue suit, tie and leather-strap sandals. The ‘Eng.’ before his name was similar to ‘Dr’: Engineers now like to be known that they are thus qualified. In Somalia the preferred title of Hussein Aideed is ‘General’, a claim by hereditary right.

His father, General Mohammad Farah Aideed, became the world’s most famous warlord, immortal in local lore and deified by Hollywood, when, in 1993, he broke American will by downing two Black Hawk helicopters and killing 18 American Marines whose bodies were dragged through the streets of Mogadishu, capital of Somalia. A reward of a million dollars was placed on his head, and he was nicknamed, for some obscure reason, Yogi the Bear. The father did not die in an American prison, but in his own city. His son was living in America, and had trained to become a reserve Marine. When his father died, he returned to Somalia to inherit the title and the loyalty of his father’s militia, though not the respect that his father commanded. Neither father nor son believed that the term "warlord" was appropriate. Aideed means "one who rejects insults".

He seemed sincere, said ambassador Kumar. Hussein Aideed promised peace would finally come to Somalia in about six months, thanks to the latest deal brokered by mostly well-meaning (or simply fed-up) neighbours. He asked for Indian assistance in demining southern Somalia, building roads, assisting in healthcare and training the police.

Uniforms and guns for the police would not be unwelcome. Since there is nothing called a police force in Somalia at the moment, perhaps Hussein Aideed wanted arms and training for his own force. Kumar was diplomatic in his response; the visitor’s charm was not sufficient to reduce the host’s scepticism. The news is that India is not in any hurry to arm and train anyone, or rebuild roads, which are controlled by AK-47-wielding bands who laugh as they collect their tax on any vehicle brave enough, or desperate enough, to travel. The government of Hussein Aideed used to be based in Nairobi until the Kenyans exhausted their patience and told them to go.

Somalia is not a country in search of a government. It is a government in search of a country. From the air, Mogadishu is entrancing, lean and stretched out against the Indian Ocean, a city of two million in a country of seven. It begins in the greenery of banana trees in the south, curves along the pristine beaches untouched by the large waves that break much before the shore. The city ends where the sand rises to cliff height in the north before spreading into the arid and endless desert. We flew into an airport in the north on Saturday in a Red Cross plane. The Red Cross is now the only international organisation with a national presence in Somalia, working to bring a touch of contemporary concern to a land that has been driven back into a pre-industrial past by criminal greed and mindless violence.

The breeze cools the midday sunshine and throws sand into our eyes as step off. The airport was built by Osman Hassan Ali Atto, warlord and politician, to ferry khat, a local nerve-soother. When the international airport closed down, its fortunes boomed. Wisely, Mr Atto decided to share such fortunes with a fellow warlord. The commerce is limited but it is a commercial hub of sorts.

In 1998, two Red Cross officials disembarked at this airport from a similar plane and wandered off to answer a call of nature behind a nearby sand dune, a reasonable need after a two-and-a-half hour flight. They were lucky. The rest of the group was kidnapped by gunmen who appeared over a small hill, and held hostage for 10 days. Somalia is now one of two regions where the Red Cross uses armed guards, rather than the humanitarian credibility that keeps it safe elsewhere. The only other place is Chechnya.

There are three structures at this airstrip, nearly indistinguishable from the colour of the surrounding desert. The first, about 10 feet wide with a sloping tin roof, is both the cafeteria and the bank: you can get a soft drink while you change foreign exchange for Somali shillings. There was a time when a dollar fetched 30,000 shillings, but the rate has stabilised at 15,000. Warlords print the Somali currency. There is an advertisement of a cellphone company on the second hut, which is possibly an office. The third structure on an airstrip devoid of any human habitation for miles is a mosque, an Ottoman crescent atop its minaret.

A small craft of Aviation Sans Frontieres is waiting to take off when we land: the two NGO planes constitute the business of the day. A man near the tarmac with a cap, a piece of cloth wrapped around both ears, a football-referee whistle in one hand and a tasbeeh (prayer beads) in the other is the air traffic clearance authority. Each item has a function. The cap is for the sun. The cloth is for the sand. He keeps in touch with the pilot with the whistle. He keeps in touch with God with the prayer beads.

Our plane is refuelled while we wait. Three skinny, industrious men, two of them in the trademark lungi, kick-roll dented drums from a Dyna 350 semi towards the plane. A wheelbarrow, carrying a hose and a small engine, accompanies them. The drums contain the fuel. Each is opened, with some effort, by a metal strip that fits into a groove in the cap and twists the cap around. On end of the hose goes into the drum, the other into the plane. The engine is pulled into a gurgle. Oil begins to flow up. They travel about a hundred metres or more ahead, obscured by a windscreen of powdery desert dust: nine men on the back of a powerful Toyota, their legs dangling over the side, each with an AK-47 of varying power, and enough ammunition to start a small war. In the centre is a mounted heavy machine-gun, manned by a burly brother in a bandana, with don’t-fool-with-me in his eyes and a pistol in his belt. In local parlance, they constitute a "technical". No self-respecting warlord travels with less than four "technicals". Since this one has been hired to protect us, I suppose this ‘technical’ is on the side of the angels, but loyalties are variable in a cash-and-carry business.

We drive over sand and rock towards the world’s largest, or perhaps only, ghost city. An occasional man sleeps under a desert shrub. Lonely men squat on the edge of the track, waiting for nothing, their faces drained of all expectation. Women, in rare ones or twos, are defined by the bright colours of their dress, principally a dramatic red interspersed by a soothing yellow. The rest is silence in a vast emptiness, broken only by the periodic and minimal radio exchanges between our SUV and our "technical".

Suddenly, to our left, appears a huge scrapyard, a crazy museum of twisted, shattered metal, carcasses of cars, machines, yesterday’s homes, anything that could be pillaged. It is owned by Bashir Raghe, a warlord. A minute later we see a large ship sitting impassively offshore. This is the scrap metal trade, a lucrative byproduct of a destruction-economy, and yet another fortune for warlords to kill over. "Do you know where the scrap is headed?" asks a friend whom I shall leave unnamed. I don’t. To India.

To the right, in another minute, is what seems to be a mirage: a pink villa from an Italian seashore. Who lives there? A businessman. What is his business? He owns a bone factory. A destruction-economy has more than one byproduct.

So far, I note, I have seen seven beneficiaries of this economy: the warlords; Japanese vehicle manufacturers (all registrations in Dubai or Sharjah); the Russian armaments industry; Belgian pistol-makers; telecommunications equipment makers; shipowners and Indian scrap merchants. Add an eighth, I am told. Coca-Cola. There is a flourishing Coca-Cola factory in the south of the city. Life goes better with Coca-Cola, particularly amidst death. The first sight of Mogadishu is unreal. It is like seeing ruins from the wrong end of time.

The jagged edges of Rome’s or Amman’s amphitheatre symbolise the achievements of 2,000 years ago. In Mogadishu, you see the ruins of a flourishing 20th century city in an environment that has regressed 2,000 years. Only a few of the shell-shocked homes seem inhabited; strangely there is utter silence even among the sparse patches of life.

I am given a guided tour of devastation: here what was once an enclave of diplomatic homes or an embassy row during the era of the Soviet-supported President Siad Barre, there nothing where once the Indian embassy existed. Every hundred paces is dull repetition of what used to be. The true sadness of Mogadishu is not what it has become, but what it once was, and what it could have been.

The radio crackles. We cannot go to the Italian cathedral built when they colonised this part of Somalia. The "technical" has reported that a gunbattle is going on in front of the cathedral. And so, without any fuss, we turn left a little before the gunbattle and drive into what was once the pride of the city: the main street, full of banks, businesses, government offices, cars, pedestrians, restaurants, bars and hotels. The street ends at the embankment. A majestic hotel sweeps in a classic Italian curve to our left, architecture that once hummed to the music of hundreds of rooms. It has now been blasted apart, shattered by tank battles that destroyed this street and city.

We get off at the embankment, which is broken at one place leaving a large gap. One tank, unable to brake, crashed through at this point. The tank lies on the rocks of the ocean shore, rusted, its turret tilted up, still searching for an enemy of the same colour and blood. It is as distressing a memory as the Fascist pillar nearby that has survived on the promenade from the time of Mussolini. We are at the Hammaruin. We change guard. Literally. Our gunmen are all smiles as they wave goodbye; their replacements smile more broadly as they welcome us. But they don’t smile at one another.

This is the dividing line between the north and south of Mogadishu. Militia from the north cannot enter the south, and naturally vice versa. In the ocean, a handful of children chatter and skip over the rocks, the shallow water being their only entertainment. On the street, young men with nothing to do but clutch triggers at their nerve-ends watch as we switch vehicles and guards. A gun is part of the normal dress code of normal young men.

Engineer Hussein Aideed, leader of the United Somali Congress/Somali National Alliance, is yet to reach middle age. His mother, Asli Dhubat, his father’s first wife, took him to the United States as a teenager. He joined the US Marine Corps Reserves in 1987, became a corporal and told the Associated Press in Somalia: "Once a Marine, always a Marine". He has, he believes, a wonderful idea for Somalia’s future.

There are no passports in Somalia; even Kenya does not recognise a warlord passport any more. Hussein Aideed told ambassador Surendra Kumar that he was negotiating with an Indian IT company to create e-passports. The cost was estimated at $25 million. He had worked it out. An account would be opened in a prestigious international bank; 80 per cent of the passport fee deposited in this account would go to pay for the initial cost and 20 per cent would be sent on to Somalia. This would eventually pay the $25 million. It seems a great idea for California.

Eminent intellectual and author M J Akbar is the editor-in-chief of The Asian Age and Deccan Chronicle newspapers. He is currently on a visit to Somalia.


The opinions contained in this article are solely those of the writer, and in no way, form or shape represent the editorial opinions of "the Center for Peace and Democracy in Somalia (CPD)"