Sunday, November 04, 2012
By CHARLES ONYANGO-OBBO
Somalia, now nearly liberated from Al-Shabaab militants, has two new world records.
According to the African Union (AU) and UN, in and around the recently captured port city of Kismayu and the surrounding areas in the southern Jubbaland region, lies the largest charcoal stockpile in the world.
The stockpile of about four million bags — whose value the AU and UN estimate ranges from $25 million to $40 million in the Middle East market where most of it is sold — has become the first to cause diplomatic disagreements between countries. In addition, according to UN sources who spoke on condition of anonymity, could also become the first charcoal collection to cause war.
Both the AU peacekeeping operation in Somalia, Amisom, and the UN told The EastAfrican (our sister publication) that they fear that since most of Kismayu Port remains closed except to emergency humanitarian deliveries, the failure to resolve the charcoal issue could anger locals, and lead them to support a new Al-Shabaab insurgency.
The biggest problem is that the UN Security Council imposed sanctions on the export of Somali charcoal over a year ago. Not only was it the main source of revenue for Al Shabaab, but the then Transitional Federal Government in Mogadishu argued that the cutting of trees for charcoal in Somalia had reached alarming proportions, and unless something urgent was done, the country risked environmental collapse.
AU officials say the problem forced them to do something probably not done anywhere before — set up an “experts panel” on charcoal! The experts team on charcoal visited Kismayu in mid-October and, the officials say, in one instance they encountered charcoal bags piled and lined up for one kilometre into Kismayu.
Main source of income
Because of insecurity and weather, charcoal in and around Kismayu became the main economic mainstay of the city and, indeed, of many parts of Jubbaland.
Thus with an estimated population of 10 million people living inside Somalia today, if the charcoal in the region was distributed around the country, every 2.5 Somalis would get their own sack.
Even more startling, because the charcoal is packed in bags averaging 111.76cm by 67.31cm it means if spread over, they would cover a distance of 4,470km, thus lining up the distance from the South African capital Pretoria, and falling shy of reaching Kismayu itself. The Somalis pack the export bags to an average height of 40cm, so if they were stacked up, they would reach 1,600kms in the sky.
Small wonder there are fears that the charcoal could spark a return to renewed fighting. Two weeks ago, AU sources say, the local Kismayu community was planning to demonstrate against Amisom for closing the seaport. Opening the port would only allow other businesses to restart, but Somalis in the area hope it would also lead to some resolution of the charcoal issue.
Afraid the business community might organise the Kismayu people against Amisom, and thus gift Al-Shabaab, there has been frantic activity to break the charcoal deadlock.
One option, according to AU and UN sources, is to consider a temporary waiver by the United Nations Security Council to allow the export of the charcoal. This would get rid of the current stockpile, and the money would go to the government, pay Somali government soldiers (who have not received a salary for the past eight months and are getting restless), and be used for stabilisation.
There is opposition to this, though, with sources telling The EastAfrican that critics argue it would set a bad precedent and benefit the same “negative” group and businesses that have worked with Al-Shabaab in the recent past.
However, this approach continues to be supported by the regional body, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (Igad), usually seen as representing the view of the Ethiopian government and the US – thus drawing America into a charcoal diplomatic cat fight.
The second option is to sell the charcoal locally because selling the charcoal in Somalia was not illegal. However, the purists — including quite a few people in the Somalia government in Mogadishu and Amisom — oppose this because it would still benefit the same business people who have links to Al Shabaab and are currently opposed to Amisom. And for the charcoal entrepreneurs, local sales means their margins will be smaller.
Nationalise the stockpile
In the endless creativity brought on by the Kismayu charcoal stockpile, the third option on the table is to “nationalise” the stockpile, sell it and use the money mostly in the Juba region. This would make the Somali charcoal the second one in the world that is owned by the government. The only other place where this might be the case is North Korea, and it is not clear whether there is a charcoal business there.
This, surprisingly, has been rejected as a hot political potato, because of concerns that the Raas Kamboni militia, which was closely allied to the Kenyan Amisom contingent in the capture of Kismayu, and other area allies who see it as a major revenue source would not co-operate with the various initiatives to stabilise Kismayu as they would view the new government, which has taken over “their” charcoal as a rival, and create tensions with the central government.
Burn the charcoal
The fourth option, proposed by radical environmentalists, is that the charcoal should be buried or burnt. Pragmatists, however, say this would provoke a backlash from the community, which would see it as a huge waste. In an area where, AU sources say, there is anything between 6,000 and 10,000 internally displaced persons who could use the revenue from the export of the stockpile to improve their lives, that would be political suicide.
The charcoal, sources say, could turn into a nightmare for the Kenyan Amisom contingent. Kismayu used to be a haven for shrewd Kenyan businessmen and smugglers. According to reliable sources, there is a whispering campaign in Kismayu that the charcoal could disappear in the same trade routes controlled by Kenyan traders into the topsy-turvy Somali dominated suburb of Eastleigh in Nairobi and in the northeast town of Garissa. The Kenyan army closed this route when it went into Somalia last year.
These rumours have been fuelled by the fact that, in spite of the instructions by President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, the port has been re-opened selectively for commercial traffic.
There has been no information indicating any charcoal has been shipped out of Kismayu since Amisom took control, but on October 30, about 4,500 metric tonnes of sugar was offloaded from a Syrian merchant ship in Kismayu. Sources at the port claim that an unknown quantity of the sugar is for the Kenyan market.
This sugar is allegedly to be transported via road to Garissa, in northeastern Kenya. The infrastructure to spirit out the charcoal out into Kenya, according to word in Kismayu, is warming up.
It would be the biggest irony that after the Kenya Defence Forces won the war in Jubbaland, they could lose it all to sacks of burnt wood and its businessmen who can’t keep their hands off the rich pickings offered by bootleg charcoal.
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