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Mogadishu is being revitalized. During the five days I spent in the Somali capital last week, I saw first-hand the city’s development and increasing vibrancy. New businesses are popping up around every corner, local markets are buzzing with commercial activity, and there are traffic jams on the streets again.
But the trauma of the last 20 years is still very much in evidence: the Al-Shabab terrorist organization remains a threat, and local political leaders and journalists continue to be targeted for assassination at a devastating rate. With myriad armed militias operating throughout the city, United Nations staff and aid workers rely on heavy security details as they go about their business.
Nowhere are the city’s problems more apparent than in the camps where Somalis displaced by food shortages and fighting cram into every open space. Tens of thousands of new internally displaced persons (IDPs) from southern Somalia began arriving in Mogadishu last year, seeking refuge from famine and drought. They have joined the many IDPs living in the city’s camps for years, due to protracted insecurity and repeated bouts of violent conflict; an untold number have been displaced multiple times.
Life for the Somalis in these camps remains extremely difficult. When Al-Shabab gave up control of Mogadishu over a year ago, militia leaders, politicians, and influential landowners consolidated their control over various parts of the city. This control extends to the displacement camps where international humanitarian assistance is directed. On site, camp ‘gatekeepers’, often connected to these local powerbrokers through a complex network of influence, regularly demand a portion of the aid that displaced people receive as ‘rent.’ Some provide legitimate security in exchange for these payments and act as de facto camp managers. Others, however, can be merciless – treating the IDPs as commodities for their own personal gain, and even preventing some from returning home.
When visiting displacement camps anywhere, it can be extremely difficult to ask IDPs questions about their daily life. But the tension in Mogadishu’s camps runs higher than I have experienced anywhere else. That’s not surprising, since some gatekeepers are known to abuse IDPs who express criticism to aid workers.
There are signs of hope within this extremely difficult reality. With security in Mogadishu improving, aid agencies are able to increase their presence on the ground, and with that, it will be possible to decipher how these gatekeepers operate and to whom they are connected. With increased knowledge and a more consistent on-the-ground presence, the aid system in Mogadishu can become more transparent and accountable. And with careful attention, this can lead to better services for IDPs.
But the current situation cannot be changed by the humanitarian community alone. Rather, there must be political pressure from the top to mitigate the power of gatekeepers and to hold accountable those who steal aid.
Whether Somali leaders can effectively address this problem is an open question. There is a great deal of optimism surrounding the recent election of Somalia’s new president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud. As a respected academic and civic activist, he is a welcome change – both for Somalis and the international community – from the corrupt and ineffectual regime of former President Sheikh Sharif.
Of course, President Hassan Sheikh has monumental challenges ahead of him. But he must act to end this systemic siphoning of aid because maintaining the status quo is unacceptable. He has to make it clear to the city’s local politicians and powerbrokers that a continuation of aid diversion with impunity will not be tolerated. But President Hassan Sheikh cannot do this alone. The international community continues to invest heavily in the future of Somalia; it must use its influence to support the new government in any efforts to change the current aid system in Mogadishu.October 09, 2012 | Tagged as: Africa, Somalia, Humanitarian Response, Protection & Security