17 May, 2011

Somali Saga-1

On arrival at Mogadishu
Early in the morning of a hot December day in 1988 I arrived in Mogadishu on a flight from Rome via Cairo in one of the two planes which constituted the Somalia Airlines fleet. I later discovered that the Somali Airlines had a large building in the middle of Mogadishu as its headquarters and half a dozen mini buses that cruised around Mogadishu moving staff and their families to and from the headquarters. I later heard that one of the two planes crashed at Nairobi airport and the other was leased from a European country. My only source of information about our only connection with the outside world, Somalia Airlines, was from one of the few expatriates in Mogadishu. He was a UN staff member in charge of the local office of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), a classic example of UN over management that ICAO
had an office in a country whose national airline had only one plane.

I arrived when the Americans were building their Embassy in Km7. The buildings spread across acres of land and were surrounded by a high perimeter wall. The size of this complex led many Somalis to believe that their country must have large oil deposits as why else would the U.S. build such a large embassy in their country? In the early years of the Somali civil war the
U.S. embassy site was similar to the Green Zone in Baghdad.

On my arrival at Mogadishu airport I discovered that the airport workers insisted on passing passengers’ luggage over the single, faulty conveyer belt and asked for some La’ak (Money).  I did not have any of their La’ak with me, but as it was compulsory to exchange a 100 US $ bill for Somali shillings before you left the airport, I soon had a plastic carrier bag full of La’ak. Some months later my family joined me in Mogadishu and I still remember my 5 year old son shouting, “We are rich Daddy!” as he ran towards me grasping a bag of shillings as his mother and sister, accompanied by a FAO liaison officer, emerged from the airport building behind him.

I can remember a time when a neatly banded stack of one thousand brand new 5 or 10 shilling notes was equivalent to a few US dollars. One of the rules of the UN was that staff members in the field had to exchange 25% of their remittance into the local currency and for those of us in Somalia it meant that we had more and more of stacks of worthless paper money. We used to call the bundles of shillings ‘paper bricks’ and indeed we did use the ‘bricks’ to build a shelf for my books and papers. It was actually cheaper than buying a set of bookshelves! By that time the country’s economy was in shambles and a year later General Mohamed Farah Aideed and his army ransacked Mogadishu and deposed General Mohamed Siad Barre.

I was assigned as a manager of an FAO (UN) project to train the nomads of Somalia in Primary Animal Health Care. On my arrival I found that the liaison officer, Abdull Rahman, had booked me into a private hotel, the Medina Hotel, the only other hotel in town was called the Mecca Hotel. There was a huge hotel by the sea that had been built with Arab money and it was owned by the government but, like everything else run by government, it was ruined. I was assigned for a one year contract in the country but somehow I stayed 8 years and in fact I left Somalia on July 31st 1996, the day General Aideed was killed. I lived in Hamar Jeb Jeb in the center of Mogadishu for most of the early days of the civil strife.

 Within a hour of arriving at the Medina hotel, and after a sleepless night, I was woken up by the loud ringing of the telephone in my room and, on answering it, I was greeted by a harsh eastern European voice informing me that I had to go down to Beled Weyne, a town some 320 Km north of Mogadishu near the Ethiopian border. Beled Weyne was a nice town, divided by the river Shebelle, and we had to go there as the German organization, GTZ, was organizing a seminar there on a Primary Animal Health Care project. This was a duplicate of what we in FAO were supposed to do. Duplication was, and still is the norm, with each organization or NGO talking about their separate mandates but yet they all step on each other’s toes while the poor host states have nothing to say about it at all.

The receiving country’s priorities and needs change with the availability of funds but civil servants welcome any project that brings in some money to  first line their pockets and then a little for the country. Vehicles were a priority and without failure most of the vehicles were divided equally among the hierarchy of the Ministries a day after the projects terminated. A year later I was managing an EEC project in Mogadishu and I had to buy a milk tanker to collect milk from the small farmers and bring it to a collecting point. The driver who brought the truck from the port gave the key to another driver who, in full view of my office, drove the truck away as the Minister of Agriculture wanted the truck for his farm! Apparently the Lome Four Convention between the EEC and the African and Caribbean countries allowed the countries ownership of vehicles and equipment on arrival in the ports. That was a European training program in corruption for African agriculture officials.

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