Spoiled: Mogadishu Post Card
By Michael Maren
Acetylene torches tint the night sky on a sandy back street in Mogadishu, less than 200 yards from the fortified United Nations compound. Technicians working for faction leader Mohammed Farah Aidid are mounting heavy caliber machine guns and rocket launchers to the rear ends of Land Cruisers and pickup trucks to use in the next phase of Somalia's civil war. The u.n. barracks, once a base in the hunt for Aidid, now serve to deter any force that might attempt to shut down Aidid's weapons workshop.
Tomorrow, a delegation from the UN Security Council will visit. The u.n., it is widely known, will announce its intention to end the Somalia operation by March 31, 1995. Neither Aidid nor his rival, Ali Mahdi Mohammed, seems concerned over the impending departure; both have shrugged off warnings from u.n. Special Representative Victor Gbeho that this is the last chance for negotiations before the United Nations Operation in Somalia (unosom) mission pulls out. Neither seems any more willing to compromise than he was the past five times unosom threatened to withdraw.
Over the past year it has become clear that the Somalis do not view Unosom as a credible mediator, but rather as a big, dumb cow to be milked. unosom has supplied thousands of jobs in Mogadishu and other towns (every two weeks the UN buys up about 20 percent of all the Somali currency in existence). Now, with the departure imminent, the faction leaders are positioning themselves to grab whatever spoils the u.n. leaves behind.
Aidid's side seems to be winning. Last August his soldiers attacked a Zimbabwean contingent in the town of Beled Weyn. One Zimbabwean was killed. The rest were stripped to their underwear. Automatic weapons, mortars and armored personnel carriers valued at more than $2 million were confiscated. (Since the Americans left, the UN has lacked the transport capability to reinforce any of its troops in the field.) Aidid apologized for killing the soldier, kept the goods and continued to meet cordially with Gbeho--who continued to express optimism that the UN could broker a peace agreement. Meanwhile, Aidid has been complaining about the UN's failure to pay hotel bills that his delegation ran up during months of stalled negotiations in Nairobi and Addis Ababa.
Ever since the American forces left Mogadishu last March, Somalis on the streets predicted that the Egyptians and other Third World troops in Somalia were there only to do business. It appears they were right. Security has collapsed. A few dollars passed to sentries will buy anyone entrance inside the gates of the port and airport to do business. As of last week, fifty-seven brand-new four-wheel-drive vehicles had been sold to Somalis by the security forces for between $3,000 and $5,000 apiece. Some have turned up on the streets of Nairobi--their UN markings faintly visible beneath fresh paint--where they fetch $50,000 to $60,000. Recently four tankers filled with gasoline were simply driven out of the port, never to be seen again. Cash and goods alike feed the arms build-up.
When the UN finally withdraws, the big prizes will be the port, airport and the UN compound itself. Previously, Aidid financed his war against Ali Mahdi by selling off what he had looted in Mogadishu--plumbing, roofing, wires, monuments, office equipment. The war ran down when they ran out of things to steal. Now the UN has spent $160 million renovating the former U.S. Embassy compound (which was completed at a cost of almost $40 million by the U.S. government just before Mogadishu descended into chaos). Even after it became clear last summer that the UN operation would be ending, the bureaucracy continued to sink money into construction. A new airport terminal building was recently completed. The latest make-work project inside the eighty-acre compound has been to install speed bumps; apparently, driving the same two miles of road day after day had made people reckless. (You can walk across the compound in ten minutes.)
Aidid has insisted to the UN that it leave behind vehicles and other valuable equipment, arguing that any "aid" that comes into Somalia should belong to Somalis. Though the request has struck many at the UN as impertinent, from the Somali perspective the UN operation is inherently corrupt, and UN bureaucrats are in Somalia only to enrich themselves. They have seen little evidence to dissuade them.
In the past eight months Somalis have seen the UN bureaucracy double to nearly 800 civilian personnel, even as humanitarian activity halted. One UN worker in the humanitarian office said she was "disgusted" with how little was going on. Most UN employees, she complained, were just doing time there to help them climb the UN career ladder. "A Somalia combat ribbon looks good on the resume," she said.
A Somali employee in the same office was more bitter. Having worked under five different foreigners at the humanitarian unit, he said he finally had figured out that the expatriates were interested only in collecting their daily subsistence allowance of $100 or more per day, beyond their salary and perks. Somali employees are lucky to get $300 per month.
The bill for the operation is now $4 million per day--one-third of it supplied by the United States. Most of that pays for foreign troops. Another large chunk has gone to foreign contractors such as the Texas-based Brown & Root or Australia's Morris Catering. Somali businessmen who have tried to deal with the u.n. have complained that procurement officers demand kickbacks. Then there is the $3.9 million in cash that disappeared from the u.n. compound last April. None of the money has shown up, and it is generally considered to have been an inside job.
The price tag might have been worth it if the UN were brokering peace, but it's not. The two main factions are further apart than ever, agreeing on almost nothing except that the UN special representative is a joke. As negotiations have become more intricate, the UN personnel in the country have less experience. No one who was in Somalia last March remains, nor any trace of institutional memory. And although Somali politics can't be mastered in a few weeks, Gbeho seems to be missing even the simple points, further thwarting reconciliation. One of the largest and most powerful factions, the Somali Salvation Democratic Front, held a congress in August and elected General Mohammed Abshir Musa as chairman. No one from the u.n. was present, but Gbeho somehow reported back to New York that Abshir's rival, Colonel Abdullahi Yusuf, was chosen. The Security Council then published a report acknowledging the chairmanship of Yusuf. The confusion turned out to be catastrophic, since Yusuf belongs to Aidid's camp and Abshir to Ali Mahdi's. Both factions now claim to include the Democratic Front, and neither man can attend a conference where the other is chairman. Now that Yusuf has been anointed by the UN, he is unlikely to compromise. (Several people from Aidid's side produced copies of the Security Council report from their pockets to show me when I raised the issue.)
Gbeho, who is from Ghana, has another problem not of his making: Somalis in general show little respect for Africans. When speaking English, people around Aidid and Ali Mahdi refer to Gbeho as "that Ghanaian." When speaking Somali they use the word adon, which means slave, a term in common use to describe Africans with darker skin and coarser hair. That Gbeho's assistant is also Ghanaian just proves to the conspiracy-minded Somalis that the UN is up to no good. The logic runs like this: first the Westerners came in and took their piece of the UN loot. Then the Egyptians, Malaysians and other Third World countries got their shot. Now lowly African countries are picking up the crumbs as the operation winds down. The Somali share so far has been small.
For two years foreign optimists have been proclaiming peace at hand in Somalia because the factions were tired of fighting. In truth, they had run out of resources. Now, $4 billion later and with the UN's help, they are rested, rearmed and ready to fight again.
Leave a Response