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Feeding off Somalia's anarchy


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GALKAYO, Somalia–Beyond clan rivalry and Islamic fervour, an entirely different motive is helping fuel the chaos in Somalia: profit.

A whole class of opportunists – from squatter landlords to teenage gunmen for hire to vendors of out-of-date baby formula – have been feeding off the anarchy in Somalia for so long that they refuse to let go.

They don't pay taxes, their businesses are totally unregulated and they have skills that are not necessarily geared toward a peaceful society.

In the past few weeks, some Western security officials say, these profiteers have been teaming up with clan fighters and radical Islamists to bring down Somalia's transitional government, which is the country's 14th attempt at organizing a central authority and ending the free-for-all of the past 16 years.

They are attacking government troops, smuggling in arms and using their business savvy to raise money for the insurgency. And they are surprisingly open about it.

Omar Hussein Ahmed, an olive oil exporter in Mogadishu, the capital, said he was among a group that recently bought missiles to shoot at government soldiers.

"Taxes are annoying," he explained.

Maxamuud Nuur Muradeeste, a squatter landlord who makes a few hundred dollars a year renting out rooms in the former Ministry of Minerals and Water, said he recently invited insurgents to stash weapons on "his" property. He will do whatever it takes, he said, to thwart the government's plan to reclaim pieces of public property.

"If this government survives, how will I?" Muradeeste said.

Layer this problem on top of Somalia's sticky clan issues, its poverty and its nomadic culture, and it is no wonder the transitional government seems to be overwhelmed by the same anti-government defiance that has torpedoed earlier attempts at stabilizing the country.

Granted, many of the transitional leaders themselves acknowledge they have made mistakes and not played the clan politics as deftly as they could have. But they believe there are many Somalis who will never go along with any program.

"Even if we turned Mogadishu into Houston, there would still be people resisting us," said Abdirizak Adam Hassan, chief of staff for Somalia's transitional president, Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed.

"I'm talking about the guys bringing in expired medicine, selling arms, harbouring terrorists. They don't have a clan name. They're a congregation of people whose best interests are served by no government.''

In the past month, the resistance has intensified and more than 1,000 people have been killed or wounded as the country has sunk into its deepest crisis since the famine days of the early 1990s.

Most of the victims are civilians, like Amina Abdullahi, who recently fled Mogadishu with two small children holding her hands and a baby tied to her back. "I don't understand why this is such a problem," she said. "If people don't like this government, can't they wait until there is an election and vote them out?''

American diplomats have mostly shied away from Somalia since the infamous Black Hawk Down episode in 1993 when Somali militiamen shot down two American helicopters and killed 18 U.S. soldiers. But now the Americans are involved again, driven by a counterterrorism agenda and armed with a pledge of $100 million (U.S.) to rebuild the country.

And it is this kind of hefty support that is fuelling the resistance's urgency, because the opportunists sense that this transitional government, more than any other, poses the biggest threat yet to the gravy days of anarchy.

Somalis are legendary individualists, and when the central government imploded in 1991, people quickly devised ways to fend for themselves.

Businessmen opened their own hospitals, schools, telephone companies and even privatized mail services. Men who were able to muster private armies, often former military officers, seized the biggest prizes: abandoned government property, like ports and airfields, which could generate as much as $40,000 (U.S.) a day. They became the warlords. Many trafficked in guns and drugs and taxed their fellow Somalis at roadside checkpoints.

Below the warlords were clan-based networks of thousands of people – adolescent enforcers, stevedores, clerks, truck drivers and their families – all tied into the chaos economy.

"It was the opportunists who didn't see a role for themselves in the future," said Mohammed Abdi Balle, an elder in Galkayo, a city about 725 kilometres north of Mogadishu.

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