Ali Mohamed Siyad had a problem. As chairman of Mogadishu’s fledgling Bakara Market, he was responsible for the welfare of scores of businesses employing hundreds of people. It was the early 1990s. Somalia’s civil war was over, but its troubles were just beginning. There was the doomed U.N. and U.S. peacekeeping experiment that ended in violence following the shoot-down of two American helicopters in Siyad’s market. Warlords employing narcotics-addicted gunmen fought for control of the city. It was too dangerous for commerce.
So like any good businessman, Siyad found a commercial solution. He imposed a levy on Bakara’s businesses, and with the proceeds advertised for his own gunmen. Soon he had his own private army, and Bakara become one of Mogadishu’s many self-policing precincts. Security brought shoppers; shoppers caught the eye of business owners elsewhere in Mogadishu, who began to relocate to Bakara in droves. Soon it was the economic engine driving the city’s recovery. The gunmen remained even during the brief rule of the hardline Islamic Courts. Why mess with success?
Then in March came the Ethiopian army, and the northern-based Transitional Federal Government in its wake. “When the government entered, we handed over all our weapons,” Siyad says. ”We gave them 1,700 guns. After that, they started making people displaced and looting the properties.” Now Bakara — all but abandoned by businesses — is the main battleground in Mogadishu, where deposed Courts fighters and their nationalist allies take on the TFG and the Ethiopians. At night you can see the rockets and shells streaking in.
And Sayid? The former strongman and his family fled to the refugee town of Afgooye, where they live under a tree “full of mosquitoes.”
So where do all the guns come from? It works like this: TFG fighters get fed up with not being paid by the impoverished government and decide to seek their fortunes elsewhere. But their new lives need startup cash. So they sell their used AK-47s for $250 apiece to street thugs looking for a way to boost their criminal productivity. Wearing cast-off uniforms and carrying former TFG weapons, the thugs pose as security forces, “patrolling” the city shaking down motorists and pedestrians for cash, wrist watches and especially mobile phones. My fixer has a nickname for these toughs. “They’re not terrorists,” he says. “They’re mobile-ists.”