Saturday, November 10, 2012
BY ANDREA BOHNSTEDT
In an article for the latest East African, Charles Onyango Obbo tried to explain how big exactly the charcoal pile stuck in Kismayo in Somalia was: There are so many sacks that you could give every 2.5 Somalis one. Or, if you lined them up, you would end up with a thread of charcoal sacks 4,470km long. If you stacked them up, they’d reach 1,600km into the sky.
Basically so much charcoal that your brain will struggle to grasp the magnitude. And, more importantly, it’s worth an estimated USD25m to USD40m.
The reason the charcoal heap grew so mountainous is that the UN Security Council imposed a ban on charcoal exports around a year ago to cut off Al Shabaab’s revenues.
Most of Kismayo port in fact remains closed except for humanitarian deliveries. This, Charles writes, creates a steadily worsening challenge: If charcoal exports are allowed to resume, or even if the charcoal is allowed to be sold locally, then would this not help Al Shabbab – down, but possibly not out – recover revenues?
On the other hand, letting Mount Charcoal grow and grow is also not a solution: It will anger the locals and might lead them back to supporting Al Shabaab as it’s clearly the foreigners who are holding up trade.
In fact, Charles points out, the Kismayo business community had been planning to demonstrate against the continued port closure, so there is a groundswell of resentment that might threaten to reignite fighting, he thinks.
Mount Charcoal is an intriguing issue for a number of reasons, I think. For one, with respect to Somalia’s nominal government: It’s difficult to run a government if you do not have any sources of revenue.
And extensive privatisation had been a side effect of Somalia’s years of fighting and fragmentation. What are often considered public services, including infrastructure, has been entirely in the hands of private business people and interest groups.
Why would they suddenly hand over revenue-generating assets like ports, airports and roadblocks to a government trying to assert itself? In principle, the Somali government could sell the pile and use the money to for instance pay its soldiers (unpaid for the past eight months, Charles points out, and getting understandably restless).
But this would most certainly anger those who feel they have a right to the revenues. As Charles Onyango Obbo points out, the Ras Kamboni militia, who were allied with the Kenyan troops in taking Kismayo, and other local allies, would oppose initiatives to stabilise Kismayo if they feel that the new government takes away the charcoal that belongs to their regional economy.
And in this context, I also wonder if it is really possible to isolate Al Shabaab as a distinct element in the Somali landscape. Yes, there’s been a lot of coverage about how annoyed Somalis are with the group, and that it partly consists of foreign extremists.
But in the end, the group is part of Somali society, and has connections – to families, to clans, to interest groups, including, as the charcoal shows, to business.
Somalia is as ever fragmented, and this means that with the stockpiled goods at Kismayo port, liberators like AMISOM and the Kenyan military can quickly change from being liberators to becoming invaders.
Also, charcoal is not a very sophisticated product. But the size of the stockpile shows that this very much a functioning industry. When you look at Somalia as an outsider, it’s easy to overlook that underneath all the seeming chaos and violence over the past two decades, there was still an economy - the frustrated charcoal producers and traders are just one part of it.
Moreover, business interests are not just Somali, nor are they just in Somalia. Charles writes that ‘Kismayo used to be haven for shrewd Kenyan business men and smugglers. (…) the charcoal could disappear in the same trade routes controlled by Kenyan traders into the topsy-turvy Somali dominated suburb of Eastleigh in Nairobi and in the northeast town of Garissa.’ Although the Kenyan military had closed the cross-border route when it started its military campaign last year, it may be opening again: ‘It would be the biggest irony that after the Kenya Defence Forces won the war in Jubbaland, they could lose it all to sacks of burnt wood and its businessmen who can’t keep their hands off the rich pickings offered by bootleg charcoal.’
Somalia’s conflict partly lasted for so long because it worked for enough people, and unless you understand those business relations, you will not be able to understand the political dynamics, nor be able to find a way to restore some sort of central government. What was Bill Clinton’s slogan again? ‘It’s the economy, stupid.’