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14 hours from good news to bad news in Somalia

Well, that could have been really good news. Yesterday, BBC ran a story celebrating the arrival of a ship at Mogadishu’s main port for the first time in several years, under the headline “Rare Ship Docks at Somalia Port”. By midday today, the story had changed headlines: “Rare Ship Forced to Leave Somalia”. The earlier BBC headline is currently listed by Google News, but has been removed from the BBC – Reuters Alernet has a similarly optimistic story on their site.

Somalia has been without an effective government since Siad Barre’s overthrow in 1991. Since then, the country has been dominated by competing heavily armed warlords. These warlords have been competing for the control of Mogadishu’s port, hoping to tax the goods entering the country. A standoff between three rival warlords has prevented anyone from using the deep-water Mogadishu port – instead, goods are routinely offloaded at El Ma’an, a smaller private port to the north of the city, where goods are transferred to small boats and offloaded on a beach.

A Somali businessman chartered a large ship, filled it with food and fuel and sent it from Dubai to Mogadishu, hoping to offload goods at the Mogadishu port. His associates spent several days cleaning and preparing the port for the arrival of the ship… which was greeted with gunfire by one of the warlords. It was able to dock later in the day, when gunfire died down, but lifted anchor when warlords began lobbing mortar shells at it. As the BBC reports, “…local warlord Abdulkadir Bebe told the BBC the dispute over the port, which led to its closure following the departure of UN peacekeepers, had not been resolved.”

(BBC, incidently, has done an excellent job covering Somalia in depth, including stories on the remarkable growth of the telecom industry, stories about the ease of purchasing Somali passports, and profiles of average Somalis surviving in the absence of a government. A typical excerpt of one of these profiles: Mahamut explains his occupation as a metalworker: “I spend all day smashing the foundations of the wall around what was the United States embassy in Mogadishu in order to retrieve the steel rods used to reinforce the concrete. I sell the rods to people who are building new houses. It’s really hard work – and very hot – but it’s the only way I can support my family at the moment. I have been doing this for about three years and have gone 3km around the wall.”)

My personal nightmare scenario for our modern world? A couple more Somalias. As much as oppresive autocracies like North Korea, Zimbabwe and Myanmar scare the crap out of me, they’re not nearly as scary as the total anarchy that happens in the absence of central government where the power goes to the guys with the most guns… or mortars.