One of the toughest jobs in global politics just got tougher.
Somalia’s president Hassan Sheikh has to build a government in what was, until his election, routinely described as “the world’s most failed state” he has to confront the rebel force al-Shabab, which has already tried to kill him and promised to wage a guerrilla campaign to unseat his administration.
He has to feed a country in which more than two million people are dependent on aid. And now he has to deal with port city of Kismayo.
Of all the problems Sheikh has to resolve, none is more complicated or more urgent than the management of the port. The mix of clans in Kismayo is the most complicated and the most volatile in all Somalia.
After Mogadishu, the port is the country’s most important trading hub, supplying most of the south, as well as parts of eastern Kenya and Ethiopia. And it is the centre of the lucrative but illegal charcoal trade.
In short, whoever controls the port, controls the southern economy, the movement of weapons and the charcoal business. And everyone wants a piece of the action.
That’s why, when Kenyan forces took over the port a month ago, Sheikh ordered that the port remain closed until they’ve been able to resolve the thorny question of who should run it.
The charcoal trade is a particularly difficult problem. When al-Shabaab controlled the town, the rebel force made millions of dollars by stripping the surrounding forests and exporting charcoal to the Middle East.
In February this year, the UN Security Council passed resolution 2036, which banned the trade to both choke off one of al-Shabab’s most important sources of revenue and slow the massive environmental destruction.
But Kismayo’s traders have huge investments of their own tied up in a vast stockpile just outside the town. The UN estimates that about four million bags conservatively valued at $20m are slowly disintegrating in the weather.
Last week, apparently impatient with the slow progress in negotiations, a committee of 30 businessmen sent a petition to the government, the African Union and the United Nations. The committee reminded them that al-Shabaab is no longer in control of the port, and called for the lifting of the ban.
Kenya too has backed the idea, warning of civil unrest and threats to its troops patrolling the port if the charcoal doesn’t move soon.
At first glance, that makes perfect sense. It would seem to be the quickest, simplest way for the president to win supporters in the south and ease the economic crisis caused by years of isolation under al-Shabab. But over the weekend, Sheikh issued a statement reiterating his opposition to the trade.
The first and most obvious reason is that it is still illegal, not just under the Security Council resolution, but also under Somali law. The former military leader Siad Barre banned it soon after he came to power in the late 1960s and the legislation is still on the statute books.
Secondly, security sources say any lifting of the ban would not just help the local economy, but it would help al-Shabab. Sources in Kismayo say charcoal continues to arrive at the stockpile, much of it from areas still under rebel control. It is safe to assume that the businessmen bringing it in still have close financial connections with al-Shabab.
But the rebels would also benefit more directly. Further to the north, they control the coastal town of Baraawe – a fishing community half way between Mogadishu and Kismayo – and open-source satellite images clearly show local skiffs ferrying bags of charcoal to freighters anchored just off shore.
No practical way
Diplomats say there is no practical way of lifting the ban for Kismayo, and keeping it in place for Baraawe.
Then there is the question of the environmental damage.
Aid agencies believe the massive environmental damage caused by charcoal burning was one reason Somalia suffered so much during last year’s drought. Lifting the ban reignites demand, and accelerates the destruction of one of the world’s most fragile environments, and in a place that needs all the arable land it can get.
And finally, rather than easing tensions, reopening the port to the charcoal trade is likely to make already difficult negotiations over its management even more fraught. It favours traders and clans involved with the trade [and who prospered under al-Shabab] while putting those who were not involved at a considerable disadvantage.
For those reasons alone, the question of Kismayo’s control is fraught enough. But it is also crucial to the stability of the new administration.
A former Somali government official said the president must assert his authority over the city, to retain his credibility. If he loses control there, he loses power everywhere.
The debate has created a damaging rift between President Sheikh’s administration, and the Kenyan authorities keen to support local businesses and get the port opened.
It has been made worse by the appearance of at least two freighters and a number of trading dhows in the port.
The Kenyan troops, operating under the African Union’s banner, allowed the freighters to unload their cargoes of cement and sugar, violating the commitment they made to keep the port closed.
Even more damagingly, the ships have remained in port, almost certainly because they expect to leave with some sort of cargo, and the only cargo worth leaving with is charcoal.
The control of Kismayo is the most pressing, and potentially the most damaging crisis facing the fledgling administration, and the way it is eventually resolved will have a huge influence on its future stability.