Hope is four-legged and woolly: Somalia’s woes.

Salvation for the world’s most utterly failed state depends more on private enterprise than international aid

Oct 15th 2011 | BERBERA AND BOSSASO | from the print edition

WHERE there are beasts, there is life, goes a saying in Somalia. Half of its people depend on livestock for their survival. This year they will export record numbers of animals. That seems improbable given that a famine is raging in south Somalia, which has seen over a million animals die of hunger and thirst. But the grazing in other parts of Somalia, especially the north, has been excellent and demand for livestock from abroad has never been higher. After banning Somali sheep and goats for many years, for allegedly being diseased, Jeddah in Saudi Arabia has once again declared them welcome.

For the first time since the collapse of Somalia as a unitary state in 1991, Saudi and Lebanese traders have ventured into the local livestock markets. Goats are mainly exported to Mecca for the annual haj pilgrimage. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that $250m-worth of animals will leave the port of Berbera and its more ramshackle rival, Bossaso, in the seven weeks before the haj in early November.

In the livestock market in Hargeisa, capital of the semi-autonomous region of Somaliland, sweaty goatherds press in on Adan Ahmed Deria, a trader. Hundreds of camels are being loaded onto lorries. Mr Deria nods to show that the price is fixed. “God willing,” he says, “I will buy 800,000 goats and sheep this year.” That is $52m of business, in cash, in a country where the economy has apparently collapsed.

 

Trade is set to grow further. Saudi Arabia wants to double its livestock imports from Somalia by 2013. The herders face fierce competition from Georgia, China and Paraguay, but halal butchers value the quality of Somali animals, which are raised by nomadic Muslims.

Somalis have hardly begun to tap the value of their animals. With about $50m in international help they could invest in watering stations, encourage communities to cure animal skins, make soap from bone marrow and fashion buttons from camel bone. They might also usefully improve transport by, say, building bridges over rivers prone to flooding, which would cut out rapacious middlemen.

Though the region suffers from rampant piracy, it mainly affects international shipping rather than locals. Last month pirates captured a livestock ship in the waters off Bossaso; they were killed within hours by irate traders and herders. Meanwhile, hijacked foreign freighters litter the coastline undisturbed.

As parts of the economy grow, Somalis increasingly look to the diaspora for loans. Its members are prominent in gold and metal markets across Africa. Many excel at moving goods and money around. The once thriving fishing industry would be helped by investment in refrigerators, as would frankincense cultivation, which employs 10% of the workers in Puntland, a breakaway region in the north.

None of this is to deny that the situation in south Somalia—the country’s breadbasket—is anything other than dire. UN figures yet to be published suggest that 80,000 people may already have died as a result of the famine. More are certain to follow them to the grave. According to Somali aid workers from the hungriest areas, the situation is bad but improving. Forecasts for the coming rains are promising. Showers have already arrived in some places. Recovery will be a struggle, but apocalypse looks less likely now.

An American celebrity campaign, entitled “F— famine”, emphasises that famines are man-made. That is unhelpfully vague but not necessarily wrong. In Somalia famine results from the strictures imposed by the al-Qaeda-linked Shabab militia, which controls large parts of the south. A drought has strained the entire region. But Kenya and Ethiopia have dealt with it much better than the ignorant and petty Shabab. They have been kicked out of Mogadishu, Somalia’s ruined seaside capital, by African Union (AU) troops paid by America and the European Union.

The Shabab are not yet defeated, but they have lost a lot of ground and support. The story of a 23-year-old farmer, Ahmed Mohammed, is typical. He fled his village of Bulamerer on the Shabelle river along with his heavily pregnant wife and one of their children. They left two other children behind in the village with Mr Mohammed’s mother and his teenage brothers and sisters. The family’s goats died of hunger. He fears his children might suffer the same fate. Still, he says he will not return home until the Shabab have gone.

The fighters take a third of the harvest as taxation, ban singing, whip the men to prayers, force the women to cover their faces, and violently break up any gathering of four or more people. The village school is run by the Shabab, but only those loyal to their cause are allowed to attend. Echoing the suggestion that the famine is at least in part man-made, Mr Mohammed claims he and others were denied access to river water for their crops.

Now on the defensive, the Shabab have taken actions as desperate as they are deadly. On October 4th they arranged a suicide bombing in Mogadishu which killed over 100 people. Most were students queuing up for scholarships to Turkey. The bomber, a teenager, recorded an interview before the attack in which he said of the victims, “They never think about the hereafter and about harassed Muslims.”

The target of the bombing was education—hope itself—but also the Transitional Federal Government. It is supported by the AU troops in the capital. The prime minister, Abdiweli Mohamed Ali, wants to finish off the Shabab and has said “this is the time to intervene” and that the “cowards” should not be allowed to regroup. An offensive led by the AU and transitional government troops this week hammered Shabab positions on the edge of Mogadishu. Publicly, donor countries say the government is the best bet to run the country. Privately, they lambast it. Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, the lacklustre president, has extended his mandate by delaying elections to next year, to nobody’s satisfaction. Venal and inept, his government surely needs to be replaced. But with what?

The International Crisis Group, a research and lobby group, argues that a “European style centralised state, based on Mogadishu, is almost certain to fail”. Somali elders talk of free-spirited nomads “vomiting up” orders made far away. Devolving power to towns and clans—the linchpin of Somali society—would be better. But that too is risky. South Somalia has several separatist groups and Puntland has at least three separatist insurgencies which result in almost daily assassinations of officials and an indefinite delay in potentially lucrative oil exploration. Somaliland in the far north is different again. Despite a dependency on qat, a mild stimulant imported from Ethiopia, which accounts for a third of imports, or $160m a year, it has a maturing government and four successful elections behind it. Many Western diplomats now think it deserves full independence. Ethiopia might agree. It needs a stable Somaliland to pipe gas from a newly found field in the east to the coast.

The non-Shabab parts of Somalia have every chance of seeing strong economic growth. The diaspora remits $1 billion or so a year. That could finance badly needed investments. Yet often the money comes with strings attached. Some benefactors engage in what is known as “PlayStation politics” in which they attempt, as in video games, to control affairs in their homeland remotely. Or pillage it: “Where there is money, there is funny,” says Abdiwahid Hersi, the director of Puntland fisheries.

Take the spiny lobster. Puntland used to catch 2,000 tonnes of these each year. But predatory fishing practices have destroyed stocks. Last year, the catch was only 167 tonnes. Next year, the spiny lobster may be gone forever. With it goes another chance for a better life in coastal communities tempted by piracy.

Further economic growth in northern Somalia is dependant on law enforcement—an unlikely prospect. A group of mercenaries is suspected of having landed a shipment of arms and equipment at Bossaso this month. Could they be paid to clear out pirate dens and save the spiny lobster? Somalis laugh at the thought.

But with north Somalia recovering somewhat, while the south is mired in famine, one conclusion is inescapable. The Somalia of the past is gone. The southern breadbasket has fallen too far behind. Even though it may slowly be freed from extremist control, Mogadishu will only ever be the capital in name. The country’s economic centre of gravity has shifted to the Arab-facing north. Bossaso has grown from 50,000 to 1m people since 1991. Hargeisa has expanded even faster. The best hope for the south is that some of the dynamism spreads.

from the print edition | Middle East and Africa.

Source:  The Economist.

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