Analysis: Death, dollars and déjà vu in famine-hit Somalia

23rd July 2011 Off By mattpotterthewriter

Update, October 2011: This is the July 2011 post that spawned the recent CNN documentary. It appeared two weeks later in modified form on the Huffington Post.


Famine declared by the UN in the Shabelle region of Somalia. Mogadishu in a state of “gun-blasted anarchy”. Aid floods in – but its effects are patchy. The supply chain is plagued by corruption, schisms, distribution problems, gunmen, and the deadly business logic that makes looting humanitarian supply lines easier and more profitable than harvesting from the fields nearby where food lies rotting.

Welcome to the news, second time around. For the above is not, in fact, a sketch lifted from today’s foreign pages – through in almost every detail, it is the same – but from a feature by Brian Johnson-Thomas in the October 18th, 1992 edition of British newspaper The Observer.

The picture the 19-year-old report paints is worthy of Hieronymous Bosch or Joseph Heller – humanity trapped in a Hell of its own schismatic thinking, short-termism and avarice. Still, while most of the story could have come from today’s news, some things have changed. For despite the continuing scarcity of food, justice and medicine for Somalis, some products – and products that have quickly become daily necessities – have got far, far cheaper. These daily necessities are guns. And those guns are the key to understanding the circular, Boschian absurdity of the scenes unfolding before us on the evening news.

Back in 1992, the price of an AK-47 in Somalia was “just under $75”. Today, in common with Afghanistan, Pakistan and many parts of West Africa, the price has tumbled to around $25. And unlike (say) policemen, traffic lights, teachers, sanitation, functioning schools, hospitals, government and shops – unlike any of the signs and symptoms of civil society, in fact – these weapons are everywhere. They are within reach of anyone with a family farm, home or business. Anyone with well-paid or well-connected friends, in government, in the rebel or criminal gangs that proliferate with the cash that arrives. Anyone with contacts or clients in that fattest of prizes, the aid supply chain.

In situations like this, of course urgently required food, medicine and shelter are the focus of the aid industry. But that industry’s workers, suppliers, transporters, fixers and execs bring with them the one thing that – if you can get a piece of it – not only puts you (and those you favour) at the front of the queue for food and care. It also gives you access to those missing pieces in the Somali jigsaw: a voice, influence, and justice, albeit of a summary kind. Because money means you can join the weapons merry-go-round.

The anarchy-disaster-aid-money-weapons-anarchy-disaster loop is self-sustaining. Dutch journalist Linda Polman calls it the “crisis caravan” in her book of that name. “No conflict ever stopped because the combatants ran out of weapons,” former World Bank senior committee member, Venezuelan minister and Foreign Policy editor Moisés Naím told me last year, while I was researching the deadly trade in Russian-made arms for my book Outlaws Inc. “If you have the money, the guns will appear.”

And make no mistake, Somalis – or rather, certain people in Somalia – are no strangers to foreign money. The stop-start floods of international aid dollars provide the lucky few with personal riches beyond words, and feed a growing shadow-economy that only can’t be called ‘black market’ because there’s no ‘white market’ left for it to undermine or oppose.

The coastal waters, too, are often literally awash with cash, as strongboxes packed with millions of unmarked dollars dropped to pirates from the skies to obtain the release of ships and crews often come to grief on impact with the water, their green-backed cargo borne ashore by the waves. This cash from the developed world does not arrive without consequences – either for the next ship and crew taken and held to ransom, or for Somalis themselves, victims of an unstable local economy in which the arrival of $20 million in ransom money can inflate prices a hundred-fold in an hour, then cause localized economic crashes as it disappears again. In my book, I detail the way in which ransoms for ships hijacked by pirates are dropped by ex-Soviet transport planes and their crews, as the behest of underwriters and insurers keen to get their kidnapped boat back for $20 million rather than cough up $100 million to the owner on a replacement-new-for-old basis. I also describe the ways in which the drops are made, through a network of international blue-chips and charter agents, cargo airlines and fixers.

The fact that this money goes towards the purchase of assault rifles and rocket launchers (typically Russian-made Kalashnikovs and Strelas favoured by the pirates and Al-Shabab alike) should come as no surprise. These men are not Robin Hoods. They do not distribute their booty to the poor. Much of what they make is reinvested into the tools of their chosen trade: Russian-made assault weapons, terror in neighbouring countries (such as the World Cup blasts in Kampala, Uganda, organised by Al Shabab, with whom many of the pirates have a casually collaborative relationship sustained by their mutual pursuit of money) and the selective blindness of the authorities.

This brings us back to those humanitarian flights. The fact is, many carry illicit arms as well as aid, and others drop parachute-ready strongboxes full of crisp unmarked dollar bills, courtesy of insurance giants on Wall Street, the City of London and elsewhere, on their inbound journeys. High-demand goods, freshly minted cash, and AK-47s, on the same flights into a country in the grip of civil war. This, to quote one arms-trafficking monitor I spoke to recently, is “a dirty little secret in [our] world.”

Then again, to suggest the aid agencies and UN, the men who bring the cash and relief supplies in and the people who distribute it, are all simple angels of mercy may be naive too. The blindness many well-meaning outsiders display in the face of their own complicity is staggering now, as it was 19 years ago. And its description reads just as fresh. Back in 1992, in the report at the head of this entry, Johnson-Thomas wrote: “Ubiquitous gunmen control every aspect of life in Somalia and there is no sign that the supply of arms is drying up… Since every visitor – be he aid worker, UN official or journalist – has to hire his own bodyguards from there same gunmen, it is essential to get their support even to travel to the gun market.”

I am watching the footage from today’s news now. Footage of starving families. Aid workers imploring the world to sit up, take notice, give, do something. Analysts calling for Al Shabab to lift its decree banning foreign aid. Al Shabab claiming reports of a famine are “pure propaganda”. And I ask, what if – as in Ireland under the British, as in 1980s Ethiopia, as in early 1990s Somalia – the nuances are being lost amid the noise? What if the truth is, the economics of the disastrous interplay of rebels, desperate people, aid agencies, the UN, media and government, has turned a drought into a spiralling vortex of dollars and death?

The report finishes. The gunmen are nowhere to be seen. Nor are the pirates. Nor the aircrews, fixers, looters, corrupt officials.

But to ignore them – to talk about famine and relief in isolation – is perhaps the biggest, blackest, most deadly lie of all. Only a BBC report from Somalia today, 23rd July 2011 contains the barest hint of the fatal cloud of dollars and déja vu that is laying the country and its people to waste: “Most Western aid agencies quit Somalia in 2009 following al-Shabab’s threats, though some say they have managed to continue operating through local partners.”

Until the focus shifts from aid alone to exactly who those “local partners” are, and the part they play in the Somali tragedy, we may as well switch off the news, power down and keep reading, over and over again, our one yellowing copy of The Observer, dated October 18th, 1992.

Update: an edited version of this article with links to the book’s Amazon page has since appeared on the Huffington Post.