Bulo Mareer, Somalia – It is just after 8am and Sheikh Abu Abdullahi is busy inspecting what he refers to as his latest “anti-NGO” project: workers digging new canals in Bulo Mareer, a town in Somalia’s Lower Shabelle province.
The diggers have been at work since 6am, as part of a province-wide canal-building project that was launched about two and a half years ago. Al-Shabab – the al-Qaeda-linked rebel group fighting against Somalia’s internationally backed government – has so far spent about $2m on the project, along with others like it in south and central Somalia, according to the group.
Three months have passed since the last drop of rain hit Bulo Mareer, but thanks to the numerous canals and waterways, the town is lush and green.
In a seven-hectare maize farm on the outskirts of this riverside town, Hussein Mohamed Ali, 66, is still in an ecstatic mood after one of the canals reached his farm a month ago. “I don’t have to wait for the rains any more,” he said, holding tomatoes plucked from the plants on his farm. “Before, I will have been very lucky if I had one harvest a year. Now I’m expecting at least three harvests in the next 12 months.”
Kicking out the NGOs
In November 2011, in a much-criticised move, al-Shabab banned foreign non-governmental organisations (NGOs) from areas it controlled, accusing some of the organisations of “illicit activities and misconduct”.
“We want our people to be free of NGOs and foreign hands. We want them to depend on each other and to stand free of outsiders,” Sheikh Abu Abdullah, the al-Shabab governor of Lower Shabelle province, told Al Jazeera.
Lower Shabelle is Somalia’s breadbasket. During the famine of 2011, which killed more than 250,000 people, the province was hit hard. Many people moved to camps for internally displaced persons in the Somali capital, Mogadishu.
On the other side of the town is the farm of Abdi Haji Qarawi, a 47-year-old who is the father of 18 children. On one side of his 17-hectare sesame farm stand triangular heaps of sesame drying in the scorching mid-afternoon sun.
bought their food from abroad and never bought from us local farmers. They killed every incentive to farm.”]
Before the banning of NGOs and the construction of the town’s canals, Qarawi says he was a “beggar”. “Every last week of the month we used to go to the NGOs’ office to ask for food. Sometime they will tell us there was no food. It was a shameful life.” Two years after deciding to return to farming, Qarawi is a happy man. “All my children go to school. I can afford to send them to study and I have surplus cash,” he said with a smile.
According to data from the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the number of people in crisis in Somalia is at its lowest since famine was declared in Somalia in 2011. FAO credits average to above average rainfall, low food prices and sustained humanitarian response for the improvements.
In a statement Luca Alinovi, the head of the FAO in Somalia, told Al Jazeera: “FAO operates in Lower Shabelle… [and] works through a range of local and international organisations to reach some of the most vulnerable communities in Somalia. Currently, FAO is working in areas of Afgoye, Awdegle and Wanla Weyne in Lower Shabelle through implementing partners.”
He added that the FAO has no information regarding whether al-Shabab was responsible for the improvements. FAO will not explicitly say whether they operate in al-Shabab areas.
‘They killed every incentive to farm’
But farmers here see the turn of their fortunes differently. The area’s newfound prosperity “is because of the NGO ban”, said Mohamed Sheikh Abdi, the chairman of the Bulo Mareer farmers union. “They always brought food to the town weeks before the harvest… They bought their food from abroad and never bought from us local farmers. They killed every incentive to farm. We were hostage to the NGOs.”
Restaurant owners have also benefited from the NGOs’ absence. Al-Shabab offers tax exemptions and free rent to restaurants that sell only locally produced food. In every town controlled by the rebel group in the Lower Shabelle, so-called qutul wadani (“national dish”) restaurants have popped up and are proving popular.
Abdirashid Xaji, 38, runs one such restaurant. It is dinnertime and the restaurateur, a father of 13, is busy giving orders to his staff. His restaurant was the first to open, but four others have since opened their doors in Bulo Mareer, a town of about 30,000 inhabitants.
“On a very quiet day, we serve 150 people. On a busy day like Fridays, we serve three times that number,” he said. “We are popular because people now know the health and economic benefits of eating locally produced food. Doctors have also told them to eat local food.”
Abdullahi Boru, a Horn of Africa security analyst, said al-Shabab is “attempting to kill two birds with one stone: Make people food-secure, and increase their long-term revenue base.”
‘Honey trap’ fears
By not taxing farmers for their land but for what they produce, Boru said al-Shabab is encouraging more people to farm – which means more tax income from the increased produce. And by providing rent-free premises for restaurateurs who serve only locally sourced food, the group is maintaining the demand for local food and safeguarding their coffers, he added.
Al-Shabab’s decision to ban aid organisations could also help minimise risks to the armed group’s security. “Making the residents self-sufficient reduces the opportunity for relief aid – a ‘honey trap’ for intelligence gathering by the Western aid agencies.”
Regardless of al-Shabab’s motives for banning NGOs and building canals, many locals have welcomed the developments. “Before, I was a beggar. Now what I produce with my two hands in my farm is sold in the markets of Mogadishu. God sent us al-Shabab to chase [out] the NGOs,” said Qarawi, the sesame farmer.
Follow Hamza Mohamed on Twitter: @Hamza_Africa