By Dara McLeod, Director of Communications, Refugees InternationalMOGADISHU, SOMALIA — Yesterday, I met with a man in Mogadishu whose business was the target of a suicide attack. Ahmed is a British-Somali who returned to the country in 2008 and went on to open up several popular restaurants. Last Thursday, two suicide bombers walked into one of those restaurants and killed 15 of Ahmed’s patrons and staff.
Ahmed’s story is a perfect illustration of the current state of affairs in Mogadishu. Since the departure of Al Shabaab last year, Mogadishu has changed for the better. Businesses like Ahmed’s are springing up and doing well, and the unexpected result of the recent presidential election has given people here some hope that the corruption that has plagued this nation is perhaps starting to lose its stranglehold.
But last week’s attack at Ahmed’s restaurant also demonstrates just how precarious life still can be in this town formerly described as “the world’s most dangerous city.” And there is no group of people more vulnerable than the city’s tens of thousands of internally displaced.
Drive through the streets of Mogadishu, and you’ll see that almost every place where there is an empty plot of land, there are the makeshift shelters of internally displaced people (IDPs). Some IDPs have been here for decades, others more recently arrived — the victims of ongoing conflict and last year’s famine. All came to Mogadishu seeking shelter, only to be further victimized by a system that prevents them from getting the assistance they so desperately need.
Most of Mogadishu’s IDP settlements are run by so-called “gatekeepers” — de facto camp managers who control access to the camps as well as exit from them. Some estimates suggest that there are as many as 1,100 gatekeepers in Mogadishu. There are a few examples of “good” gatekeepers, who provide a measure of security for the IDPs in their care. However, there are far more examples of gatekeepers who are using the IDPs as commodities in a complex matrix that includes local government officials, private militias, and the international aid community.
It is no secret that Somalia suffers from an institutional diversion of aid. Many of the gatekeepers are a large part of this. For example, to live in the camps, IDPs often have to pay “rent” to the gatekeepers — usually in the form of a portion of the international assistance that they receive. There are stories of IDPs wanting to leave the camps, but who are unable to do so because their rent is always in arrears. There are other stories of entire camps of IDPs being sold from one gatekeeper to another. The system has been described by some as a kind of slavery. And it can make it incredibly difficult for those IDPs to break out of this cycle of obligation and re-establish their own livelihoods. Here is video of an IDP camp in Mogadishu we recently filmed:
There are members of the international aid community who say that working within this system is just an unfortunate reality of doing business in Somalia. But many of the international agencies who provide the money for that aid are too removed from the situation to actually see first-hand the impact these operations have. They operate from outside of the country, relying on implementing partners and local organizations to provide the oversight on the ground.
Somalia is a country in transition. The new government should take action to try to reform a system that allows those to profit at the expense of the most vulnerable. But the international community has to help. This year, the United States government is providing more than $185 million in humanitarian assistance to Somalia. The U.S. and all other donor nations have a responsibility to be more accountable for where that money is ending up.