Warscapes Rasna Warah

Speaking before members of the international press gathered in Mogadishu on January 29, 2015, Philippe Lazzarini, United Nations humanitarian coordinator for Somalia, called on the international community to act in order to prevent a repeat of the famine of 2011 in Somalia. "About 731,000 Somalis face acute food insecurity, the vast majority internally displaced people, while an additional 2.3 million people are at risk of sliding into the same situation," Lazzarini told the press. The UN estimates that approximately $863 million is needed to save Somali lives. It is in the backdrop of Somalia’s ongoing food insecurity that Kenyan writer and journalist Rasna Warah recently published her controversial new book War Crimes: How warlords, politicians, foreign governments and aid agencies conspired to create a failed state in Somalia. The book is a scathing indictment of the United Nations, Western NGOs, violent warlords and Somali leaders who have long been accused of using international aid as their personal slush fund. War Crimes is not Rasna Warah’s first foray into the labyrinthine world of the international aid industry. In 2008, she edited an anthology called Missionaries, Mercenaries and Misfits, a critical exploration of the “development machine” from the perspectives of Africans. In 2011, she published Mogadishu Then and Now, a pictorial tribute to the lost splendor of Somalia’s capital before the civil war and contrasts it with the devastation that has characterized the city since 1991. Warscapes recently interviewed Rasna Warah about her controversial new book on Somalia and her fascination with the country, whose people she says have long been the victims an “unholy alliance” between corrupt leaders, Western NGO’s and an international media that enables them.  

Warscapes: Rasna Warah, you’ve written extensively about Somalia. What’s the fascination the country holds for you?

Rasna Warah: I never started out intending to write books about Somalia. I didn’t have a particular interest in the country until around July 2011, when a famine of “catastrophic proportions” in the Horn of Africa was declared by the United Nations. At that time, a Somali agricultural economist contacted me and made a convincing argument about why it was highly unlikely that there was a famine in southern Somalia, as the UN claimed, as that region was the breadbasket of Somalia and had even experienced a bumper harvest the previous year. I then began investigating the story by talking to various people within and outside the UN who had worked in Somalia or who had projects there, and concluded that the famine had been exaggerated. It occurred to me that the international media and aid organizations were united in an unholy alliance where stories of piracy, famine and terrorism dominated the narrative about Somalia, while politicians begged for more aid - which was inevitably diverted to militias or just stolen outright - thereby contributing to further conflict and under-development in the country.

Warscapes: The full title of your most recent book is War Crimes: How Warlords, Politicians, Foreign Governments and Aid Agencies Conspired to Create a Failed State in Somalia. The term “war crimes” is pretty loaded. It carries so much historical baggage. Why that particular title? What were you trying to convey?

RW: I realize that the term “war crimes” is pretty loaded, but the happenings in Somalia in the last two decades are nothing short of crimes against humanity. Since 1991, and some would argue even before inter-clan warfare, massacres of vulnerable and weak clans, massive theft of donor aid, destruction of public institutions and blatant disregard for international laws have caused untold misery in Somalia. None of the warlords and politicians who caused this mayhem have been charged by any local or international court for these crimes.  Some of these notorious warlords actually live in comfort in Nairobi, where they are seen as heroes by their clan members, and given refuge by the Kenyan state. The international community added to the mayhem by taking sides and pitting one warlord or clan against another, and by continuing to give aid to corrupt politicians. By naming these criminal and destructive activities as “war crimes,”  I hoped to end the perception that violence, mass displacement and corruption are inevitable consequences of civil war, and that no one should be held accountable for the atrocities committed.

Warscapes: If I might play the devil’s advocate for a moment, The United Nations, foreign governments and aid agencies have certainly made huge mistakes, and they often have their own agendas vis-a-vis Somalia. But do you really believe, as the title of your book suggests, that they have actually conspired to create a failed state in Somalia?

RW: I don’t think the UN, foreign governments and aid agencies sat down and made a plan to ensure that Somalia remained a failed state, but their actions certainly did not bring about stability or development in Somalia. Every UN and humanitarian agency has projects in Somalia, yet the Somali people are worse off today than they were under Siad Barre’s dictatorship. Somalia has among the highest illiteracy rates in the world, and most places have no basic services.  Meanwhile, everyone knows that aid to Somalia is regularly diverted not just by politicians, but by staff of aid agencies including local NGOs. If this is a well-known fact, why does the aid keep flowing? Think about it.

Warscapes: But isn’t putting so much of the blame for Somalia’s condition on outsiders letting Somalis off the hook in the destruction of their own country?

RW: Actually, my book places the blame squarely on Somalis. If Somali politicians, warlords, NGOs, businesses and so-called experts were not benefitting from the anarchy, they would have put an end to this vicious game. If they were not willing recipients of foreign aid, and co-conspirators in the theft of it, Somalia would not be where it is now. If they built the institutions that delivered services to the Somali people, every humanitarian agency would not have a reason to have a project in the country. If clan rivalry was not such an important element of Somali politics, perhaps Somalia would have a chance at nationhood. Yes, Somalis have themselves to blame for the quagmire they find themselves in. They must accept responsibility for the dysfunctional state of affairs.

Warscapes: In 2011, while putting together your book Mogadishu Then and Now, you visited Somalia. Can you describe for me how the city and the people that you had encountered compare to what you have read and heard about Somalia before your trip?

RW: On my first trip to Mogadishu I really didn’t know what to expect. I remember catching a glimpse of the turquoise-colored sea that borders the airport from the plane, and thinking, really, there are beaches in Mogadishu? The airport was chaotic, but as I drove to my hotel in the notoriously dangerous K-5 district, I remember marveling at bullet-ridden buildings that had obviously seen better days. The city was bustling with activity – women selling khat along the streets, mini-buses ferrying commuters, kids playing football. It seemed like a city determined to be normal amid chaos. I realized that much of what the world knows about Mogadishu was based on reports by humanitarian agencies or war correspondents who had failed to capture the fact that Mogadishu is one of the oldest and most historic cities in Africa and was once so beautiful that it was called “The White Pearl of the Indian Ocean.”  When I got back to Nairobi, I published some of the photos of old battered buildings in Mogadishu in a regional newspaper. Shortly after, I received an email from a Somali living in Columbus, Ohio, who told me that the former curator of Mogadishu Museum had pictures of the same buildings before they were damaged by the war. This then led to the idea of doing an exhibition titled “Mogadishu Then and Now,” which showcased the city before and after the civil war. The exhibition was highly successful. That is how the book Mogadishu Then and Now came about.

Warscapes: In your book, you write about what you call the “war economy” that the civil war gave birth to. Can you talk about this war economy, what forms it takes and who benefits from it?

RW: As soon as the civil war started in 1991, foreigners colluded with local militia to loot the country’s resources. Somalia’s waters became toxic dumping grounds for foreign companies, who entered in a “guns-for-waste” agreement with local militias. Foreign trawlers illegally fished along Somalia’s largely unguarded coastline, thereby depleting the country’s rich marine life.  Warlords sacked cities and took control of important ports and other infrastructure. The looted resources further contributed to conflict. They became the reward against which the militias and clan-based fiefdoms weighed the benefits of peace. Later, Al Shabaab began extracting “taxes,” or protection money, in areas it controlled.  

Warscapes: In the Author’s Note section of your book, you write this: “journalists have tended to portray Somalia as a dangerous place where clan warfare, famine and terror are the order of the day. Accounts of Somalia range from patronizing sketches of people in desperate need to horrific stories of pirates, warlords and terrorists.” Why do you think these images of Somalia have taken such a strong hold in the mainstream press and the collective imagination of the world?

RW: I think the point of no return was the so-called “Black Hawk Down” incident in October 1993 when dead American soldiers were dragged through the streets of Mogadishu by jeering Somalis. More than 500 Somali civilians were killed during that incident but the world only remembers the 18 American soldiers who died.  From that point onwards, Mogadishu, in the popular imagination, became a place where savagery and anarchy reigned supreme. The incident, which was shown on international television, reinforced racist perceptions of Africans as barbarians.  The narrative of Somalia was hijacked by foreigners, particularly Westerners. When I tell people that Mogadishu is more than a thousand years old, they look at me as if I am from another planet. Westerners cannot stomach the fact that Africa had cities long before Europeans “discovered” Africa, and laid claim to the continent through colonization. Somalia, unfortunately, has been unable to reclaim its history because outsiders have appropriated that space by “explaining” Somalia not just to the world, but to Somalis as well. I realize that I too could be accused of the same crime, but as I state at the beginning of my book, I am no authority on Somalia. I am only putting recent events in Somalia in perspective and giving a voice to those who might not otherwise be heard.

Warscapes: One of my favorite chapters of your book focuses on the little known story of Abdirazak Fartaag, Somalia’s first whistleblower. Tell me about Fartaag, who he is and what he revealed about the internationally-backed transitional federal government of Somalia.

RW: Abdirazak Fartaag is a Canadian Somali who was appointed head of the Public Finance Management Unit in 2009. During his tenure, Fartaag came across irregularities in the way donor funding, mostly from Arab countries, was used. His attempts to bring these irregularities to the attention of Somali leaders, including the Prime Minister, came to naught. He was dismissed and ridiculed - a fate that befalls many whistleblowers.  In many ways, Fartaag is what you would call a typical whistleblower – a non-conformist with a particularly rigid code of ethics, where the line between right and wrong is very clear. Most whistleblowers pay a heavy emotional and financial price for revealing corruption in high places. Many succumb to depression. Some never find jobs again, which affects their family life. It is a huge price to pay for doing the right thing. I admired Fartaag’s unusual courage in exposing corruption within the Somali government. He showed that millions of dollars in aid from Arab countries had been diverted by various Somali politicians. Some of this aid was used to fund personal or clan-based militia; some went into the pockets of individuals.  His exposés also revealed the clan-based dynamics of Somali society, where theft by a fellow clan member was tolerated, and where clan rivalry was an integral part of the power struggles we see now.  Unfortunately, I think Fartaag also naively believed that his revelations would bring about a significant change in the way the international community and donors dealt with the Somali government. But, as I have tried to show in the book, donors and foreign governments have their own agendas in Somalia, and are willing to look the other way when it comes to theft of public funds and donor aid.

Warscapes: You make the case in your book that the kind of informal economy that enabled Somalis to survive during the many years of anarchy and instability following the war also enabled corruption to fester with things like informal banking system and practices like the “fadlan system.” First of all, what is the “fadlan system,” and can you talk about how the lack of basic bookkeeping had made corruption almost too easy to commit and get away with in Somalia?

RW: You have to remember that when the civil war broke out, all public institutions, including the Central Bank of Somalia, became dysfunctional. This led to the privatization of public services. The banking sector was replaced by money transfer companies known as hawala. The informalization of the economy led to a patronage system, where individual warlords and politicians controlled access to resources and decided how these resources were to be used. The fadlan (which translates as “please” in Arabic) system, as explained to me by Fartaag, was an informal system that allowed individuals to withdraw money from the Central Bank without any checks and balances or regulatory framework. One only needed a chit with a figure sanctioned by the President, Prime Minister or Minister of Finance. The lack of basic bookkeeping made public finances vulnerable to abuse. The lack of functioning public finance management systems enabled individual politicians to do as they pleased with public funds.

Warscapes: You argue that corruption is not just limited to Somali politicians. One of the most troubling chapters of your book is called “Feasting on Famine,” and we have known for a long time that natural disasters and famines are, to borrow your word,  a “godsend” for humanitarian agencies. So what makes the famine of 2011 in Somalia uniquely troubling for you?

RW: When the UN declared a famine in the Horn of Africa in 2011, many figures were simply not adding up. Firstly, the UN claimed that a catastrophic famine had hit the most fertile areas of Somalia, not the arid parts, which didn’t make sense. Secondly, if the UN figures were to be believed, nearly half the country’s population was starving. There was definitely food insecurity in Somalia, but the figures gave the impression that Somalis were on the verge of extinction.  The international media fed into this lie by publishing photos of naked and emaciated Somali children on the front pages of newspapers and on television. These images were followed by pledges from donors. It is a well-rehearsed script that aid agencies use to raise funding. A large proportion of the aid ends up paying for the salaries of over-paid UN staff and administrative costs. Much of the aid that does manage to filter through to Somalia ends up being stolen or diverted. Famine thus becomes an income-generating opportunity.

Warscapes: Some analysts actually argue that the presence and involvement of aid agencies and what has been called the “crisis caravan” has, in fact, hampered Somalia’s recovery. How so?

RW: Every disaster in a poor country attracts hundreds of humanitarian agencies. Yet the funds raised for these disasters fail to bring about significant changes in the lives of those affected.  The distribution of food aid in Somalia, particularly during the peak harvest season, kills the incentive to farm, as farmers cannot get a competitive price for their produce in an environment where there is free or cheap food available. Food aid is also regularly diverted by militia and criminal networks who determine who gets aid and who doesn’t, and how much of the aid will be sold in markets. This has severely distorted the local economy, entrenched corruption, and created a country dependent on handouts, which does not augur well for its recovery.

Warscapes: Somalia has been the playground of colonial powers and later super powers like the Former Soviet Union and the United States. But after the civil war, it has been regional powers like Ethiopia and Kenya who have been meddling in Somalia’s affairs. Why is Somalia of such great interest to these countries?

RW: Both Kenya and Ethiopia hold sizeable ethnic Somali populations, which have in the past declared an interest in seceding from these countries in a bid to be part of the “Greater Somalia” dream that Siad Barre envisaged when he invaded the Ogaden region in Ethiopia in 1977. So both countries view Somalia as a source of instability. They would like to see a government in Mogadishu that does not threaten their national interests. In recent years, however, Ethiopia and Kenya have been viewed by the United States as natural allies in its “war on terror”. The irony is that while these countries profess to want peace and stability in Somalia, their actions have undermined both peace and stability in that country. Ethiopia has regularly backed warlords in Somalia, as has Kenya, and pitted clans against each other. It is a very cynical game being played by all sides, including the United States.

Warscapes: I’m particularly fascinated by your country, Kenya, and its relationship with Somalia. I liken it to a bad, dysfunctional marriage in which there is so much animosity and co-dependence, but neither party wants to sever the relationship. Why is the relationship between Kenya and Somalia so toxic?

RW: Some of the reasons are historical. When people of the Somali-dominated Northern Frontier District voted to secede from Kenya in 1962, the colonial government did not agree to the decision and the region was declared hostile territory. At independence, the first president, Jomo Kenyatta, declared a state of emergency in the region. Raids and counter-raids known as the Shifta Wars followed, leading to much bloodshed. Somalis were framed as people who were antagonistic towards the Kenyan state. The region thus remained undeveloped and marginalized for decades. On the other hand, the Kenyan government likes to take credit for accepting large numbers of Somali refugees within its borders, without admitting that refugee camps have been sites of exploitation by Kenyan security forces. Refugees are extremely vulnerable to violence and bribe-taking.  Now that Kenyan boots are on the ground in places such as Kismayo, there is a perception that the Kenyan forces are working with destructive elements within Somalia to loot the country’s resources, which will probably fuel further animosity between Kenyans and Somalis.

Warscapes: As we conduct this interview, there are over 20 thousand African Union troops, mostly from Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda, Burundi and few other countries, fighting the terrorist group Al-Shabaab in Somalia and propping up the country’s weak federal government. But still, there are almost daily terror attacks in the capital. Where do you see the situation in Somalia headed? Do you see the African Union troops pulling out anytime soon, or is this the new reality for the foreseeable future?

RW: I hope that the troops pull out sooner rather than later, but this will not happen unless there is a viable national army in Somalia and as long Al Shabaab remains a threat. Troop-producing countries also have an interest in prolonging their stay in Somalia as their salaries are paid by the European Union and the UN.

Warscapes: As a foreign, female journalist writing a book about Somalia, there must have been many challenges inherent in the enterprise. What has the experience been like for you, and would you do it again knowing what you know now?

RW: Somalia has been one of the most difficult and complex subjects that I have ever tackled in my career as a writer and journalist. I don’t know if being female was an advantage or a disadvantage, but I definitely feel I still have so much to learn about that country. Several times while researching and writing the book, I felt as if I would descend into some indeterminate form of insanity. At one stage, I even felt that I was developing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. As the Somali trauma expert Hussein Bulhan says in his book Politics of Cain, “[i]nquiry into Somali politics and history, full of peril and pain, is in some respects akin to an onion. As you peel each layer, you shed tears.” I was also acutely aware of the fact that as an outsider my views would be considered suspect by Somalis. I’ve even been told that I had no right to write about his country. Such sentiments worried me. Would I do it again? I don’t know. While writing and researching the book did take an emotional toll on me, I also learned a lot and am grateful that I had a chance to peek into a world that remains a mystery to most. I hope my book helps in debunking some of the myths and lies about Somalia and contributes to unmasking the various forces that have wreaked havoc in that war-torn country.

Image via Pakistan Defence webpage.