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After Years of Chaos, Somalia Is Open for Business


Hundreds of men wade waist-high into the ocean, hauling heavy sacks onto their shoulders and dragging them back up the beach.

Sand and cement dust sticks to the sweat on their faces as they move in shifting columns, racing to unload the dozen ships that lie hundreds of metres offshore before the next high tide makes the task too dangerous to continue.

Supervisors bellow orders to the army of stevedores, each with a 50 kg (110 pound) sack on his shoulders, and dozens of gunmen are on hand to impose order and keep out rival militias.

Somalia has a perfectly good manmade seaport in the capital Mogadishu but a civil war between rival clans has kept it closed for years.

So the natural port of El-Ma'an and this stretch of white sand is now the only trade link to the outside world for Mogadishu and the rest of southern Somalia.

Heavy mechanical equipment is brought in by barge while Brazilian sugar, Indonesian cement and rice from Thailand are among the basic products hauled in by stevedores for six cents a sack.

One has collapsed and lies face down in the sand. The chaos extends beyond the beach as truck drivers jostle for position to load up quickly and weave a way through market stalls and donkey carts to take the rough 30-km (20-mile) road back into the capital.

All of it is possible only because port managers spend $40,000 a month to deploy 400 militiamen and 20 battlewagons inside El-Ma'an and on the road linking it to Mogadishu.

"Otherwise, the whole port would be overrun by gunmen and they would steal everything," says Haji Abukar Omar Addan, one of the port's owners and a prominent Mogadishu businessman.

El-Ma'an is a vivid example of Somalia's ability to survive a decade of anarchy and, in some areas, even flourish. There has been no central government since early 1991 and, with clan militias running wild, up to a million people have died in fighting and a series of famines.


Much of the country has been destroyed and virtually every business was looted at one time or another. Power plants, factories, hotels, government ministries and office blocks -- they were either levelled or stripped clean. But trade continued and, in the last few years, entrepreneurs have set up three separate telephone networks, two mobile phone companies, private power firms and recently an Internet access service.

At the sprawling open-air Bakara market in downtown Mogadishu, even heavy guns and passports are sold with no questions asked and money changers decide among themselves the exchange rate of the Somali shilling against the dollar.

The chaos has forced businessmen to take one of two survival strategies -- employ enough private gunmen to deter the clan militias and freelance hoodlums, or adopt such a low profile that they either don't notice you or can't get at you.

Owners of Mogadishu's taxis routinely tear apart their own vehicles to make them as unattractive as possible to thieves. They rip off the doors, pull out the windscreens and dashboards and batter the bodywork with iron bars.

The twisted, rusting and sputtering vehicles look as if they have spent years rotting away in a junk yard. "When the cars look like this, it is worthless to them," says Mohamed Issa, whose stripped-down Toyota pickup truck carries up to 20 passengers, some of them clinging on to the sides, as it shudders its way over bumpy dirt roads.

Traders smuggle their own cash out of the Bakara market in small batches and a wide network of money transfer offices allows businessmen to move goods without moving cash along the country's dangerous roads. Businessmen have not always been simply the victims of the war -- in many cases, they financed the clan militias.

"It was an inter-clan war and a businessman is from one clan so, when he feels his clan is endangered, he feels he is endangered too," says Ahmed Nur Ali Jimale, who has extensive banking and telecommunications interests in Somalia. "Tribalism is the biggest problem we have.

People would do anything to assist in the fight," he says, although he insists he never financed the militias and believes the vast majority of Somalis have come to realise the war was "useless and futile."


Such war-weariness is now Somalia's greatest asset and could sustain a new deal under which the rival clans share power rather than kill each other for it. A new interim president, Abdiqassim Salad Hassan, was elected at an inter-clan peace conference in August and he has named a cabinet with members from all the country's clans.

But his government faces a mammoth task in pacifying the nation, setting up an administration from scratch, providing even basic social services, reviving the shattered economy and rebuilding cities practically levelled in the years of war.

Opposed by Mogadishu's clan warlords and two northern breakaway regions, Abdiqassim Salad relies largely on Mogadishu's business community for political support and cash. The businessmen are financing the planned formation of a new police force and, with no money in state coffers, their support will be crucial as the government tries to establish itself. In return, they want a stable government that can guarantee the rule of law and stimulate economic growth. Many of the city's smaller businessmen are also optimistic.

"We hope the new government will bring new investment. It would give us ports, proper banking services and we could reduce our security expenses," says Mohamed Yusuf, who fled Somalia after the civil war began but returned in 1997. He set up a tannery in Mogadishu and now exports up to 50,000 goatskins a month to Europe and the Gulf. "If there is peace, this could be a very good business," he says.

There was precious little room for private enterprise under the Marxist dictatorship of Somalia's last president, Mohamed Siad Barre, but those who flourished during the war and others returning from exile hope to exploit a possible peace dividend.

Abdiqassim Salad has promised to adopt pro-business policies and many businessmen are predicting an economic boom as the government, backed by foreign allies, begins rebuilding.

Standing on the beach at El-Ma'an, the port's managing director, Abdul Kadir Hassan, says he believes Somalia, for long a place of only chaos and misery, is open for business and there is good money to be made.

"You cannot imagine the opportunity here in Somalia in business. Anyone can invest here. You cannot have that kind of opportunity anywhere else in the world."


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