BY HASSAN M. ABUKAR
The French were right. As their adage goes, “Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme change,” (The more things change, the more they stay the same).
Three weeks ago, the United Nations Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea released an exhaustive report that was reviled by some and lionized by others. The main theme of the report is simple: Not much has changed in the way Somalia is governed.
The arms flow to Somalia continues as usual and is facilitated by almost everybody, from rogue states to countries in good standing with the UN. Corruption is rampant, piracy is a lesser threat but former pirates have made a career change, radicalism is still a threat to the country but the menace is not exclusively from ideology, charcoal is black gold and illegally exported despite an international ban, and, of course, “spoilers” always erect obstacles to the pursuit of peace and stability.
President Hassan S. Mohamoud came to power last autumn promising change, stability, and accountability. Many Somalis and the international community were relieved that finally the country had a new leadership that would, skillfully and honestly, tackle the plethora of the problems they faced. President Mohamoud’s government gained international recognition and many countries promised to help in his efforts. The president persistently talked about the need for foreign donors to fund his government directly instead of having the United Nations administer aid.
The UN Monitoring Group report begins with a stark indictment of the new Somali government. “Despite the change in leadership in Mogadishu,” it says, “the misappropriation of public resources continues in line with past practices.” Some of the manifestations of this corruption are the following:
a) On average, about 80 percent of the withdrawals from the country’s Central Bank (CB) are made–not to run the government–but for private purposes. The CB has become, in a way, an ATM for certain public officials, or as the report calls it a “slush fund.” A case in point, of $16.9 million transferred to the CB for government use, $12 million cannot be accounted for.
b) The monthly revenue from the port of Mogadishu is about $3.8 million; however, from August 2012 to March 2013, only $2.7 million was deposited in the bank. The report further explains that “at present, at least 33 percent of the monthly port revenues cannot be accounted for.”
c) The immigration services charge a lot of money to issue passports and visas, but rarely are all the proceeds deposited in the bank. There is a great deal of fraud and embezzlement. Needless to say, an individual may never know if his traveling documents are authentic or fraudulent.
The UN report blames the country’s leaders for the widespread corruption, but it singles out Abdusalam Omer, the Somali-American governor of the Central Bank, for being “the key” to the bank’s irregularities. Omer, oddly, runs the bank without the benefit of a board. The report even adds a zinger when it brings up Omer’s checkered past. Once upon a time, Omer was the chief of staff of the mayor’s office in Washington, D.C. The report claims that Omer was forced out from this high profile position. The Central Bank has issued a preliminary response to these allegations.
Somalia, once a bastion for piracy, has experienced a decline in ship hijackings. You might wonder what happened to most of the pirate leaders. The UN report has the answer: “To date, neither Mogadishu nor Puntland has seriously prosecuted and jailed any senior pirate leaders, financiers, negotiators, or facilitators.” Some former pirates have become security guards for the unlicensed foreign ships illegally fishing on Somali waters. Pirates have always blamed these foreign ships for their own criminal acts of piracy. Now, the pirates have undergone a career change and are joining their arch enemies. Security protection in the high seas has become a booming business in Puntland validating the notion, “if you can’t beat them, join them.”
“At present,” the report states, “Al-Shabaab remains the principal threat to peace and security in Somalia.” The group has been weakened by internal discord among its leaders, but is still a force to be reckoned with. The terror group has not engaged in a direct battle with the forces of the African Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and, hence, has retained its core fighters. This enables the group to easily recapture the towns that Ethiopian forces had withdrawn from or abandoned. “These takeovers,” the report argues, “illustrates not only the inability of the Federal Government of Somalia and its associated militias to control any ground without international support, but also the capacity of Al-Shabaab to readily recover lost territory.” Moreover, the terror group has infiltrated the government and especially the intelligence services. Warlords and politicians enable the militant group to wreak havoc in Mogadishu. These enablers are not necessarily religious figures but instead are either persons tribally tied to Al-Shabaab leaders or pure mercenaries.
A good example is what happened in Mogadishu last week when Al-Shabaab suicide bombers attacked the Turkish embassy annex. The Turkish ambassador to Somalia said that the attack was “outsourced” to Al-Shabaab. “The Al-Shabaab organization may have been used as ‘subcontractor’ in this attack,” he told the Turkish news agency Anadolu.
Mogadishu Mayor, Mohamed Ahmed Nur “Tarzan” also railed about “some politicians” for aiding and abetting the radical group in the commission of its heinous crimes. At times, in Somalia, it is difficult to tell where religious radicalism begins and clan loyalty ends.
Al-Shabaab is not, however, the only entity responsible for political assassinations in Mogadishu. The UN report said that some warlords and even senior government officials like General Gaafow–head of the immigration services–run hit squads. The going rate is $200 per head and $25 for conducting surveillance. This explains why these crimes are never prosecuted. At least Al-Shabaab takes full responsibility for its killings. But then, how does one know if the job was “outsourced” to the terror group or not?
The UN Security Council had banned the export of charcoal from Somalia primarily because Al-Shabaab was then in control of Kismayo, Somalia’s third largest port city, and was profiting from its sale. No one cared about the devastating impact the related deforestation was having on the country. In 2012, Kenyan forces captured Kismayo with the assistance of a Somali militia group. However, the transport of charcoal not only continued but increased 147 percent. Al-Shabaab, which controls the port city of Barawe, is also exporting the black gold. “About 1 million sacks of charcoal are exported from Kismayo each month,” the report says. If the current rate continues, warns the report, “charcoal exports in 2012-2013 will consume some 10.5 million trees and the area of deforestation will cover 1,750 square kilometers, which is larger than the city of Houston, Texas, in the United States.”
Criticism of the report
For the record, the Somali government has denounced the UN Monitoring Group report as being based on rumors and innuendos. “It is clear that the report is increasingly dependent upon gossip, guilty-by-association, and hearsay,” declared the government spokesman.
The most biting critique of the report, so far, has come from the maligned Governor of the Central Bank, Abdusalam Omer, who called the allegations, “completely unfounded, unsubstantiated, defamatory, and reckless.” Omer questioned the methodology on which the report was based and the expertise of some members of its panel. Despite the fact that Omer’s name was mentioned 27 times in the report, no one, he claimed, interviewed him or asked him to see the books. In addition, Omer argued that the two designated as “financial experts” on the panel held degrees in anything but finance or economics. One was a police officer in Minneapolis and the other a foreign affairs journalist with Reuters. In essence, none of them has “any relevant training or experience in forensic accounting.”
In a nutshell, the UN Monitoring group makes numerous allegations. It might be a gargantuan task to collect reliable data from Somalia and especially Mogadishu because the city has its share of double-dealing and back-stabbing, not to mention, a vortex of gossip. For instance, several years ago, the UN Monitoring Group made a harebrained allegation that Al-Shabaab, a Sunni jihadist group, had sent 720 fighters to Hezbollah, a Shiite jihadi group in Lebanon, to fight Israel.
The current report does have some merit, rampant corruption in the country has been well-documented previously. For instance, a World Bank report in May 2012 found $131 million unaccounted for in then the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) revenues in 2009-2010. If history is a reliable guide, this is a case of attitudinal and cultural perversions. “Somalis did not consider looting national assets in customary law terms as stealing,” the report says and, hence, among many officials, the “pursuit of power and profit became indistinguishable.”
Mogadishu is unique because power interfaces with corruption, religion with clan, jihadism with opportunism, warlordism with legitimacy, and public service with personal enrichment. It is, indeed, a wild and dizzying world.
Hassan M. Abukar is a writer and political analyst.