Somalia's fight to harness the power of Mogadishu port

Workers load ship in Mogadishu

At the thriving seaport in Somalia's capital, Mogadishu, the aroma of lemons drowns out the smell of ship's fuel.

The dried fruits, packed into hundreds of sacks, are being offloaded from trucks and hoisted by crane on to a cargo vessel for export.

The ship will eventually make its way to the Arab Gulf states.

"The pay is poor, but at least there's more work now," says a porter by the name of Alasow, taking a breather from the back-breaking work.

Decades of war and piracy almost destroyed this once-powerful trading hub.

Start Quote

The management and the businessmen are eating into our wages ”

End Quote Noor Osman Mogadishu dock worker

But in recent months, better security has seen the number of ships docking here more than double.

For Somalia, this port represents more than just a return to business.

It could be the engine of the country's economic resurrection.

Exports consist largely of fruit and livestock. Imports are mostly spaghetti and cement, the latter for use in Mogadishu's current building boom.

All of this economic activity is good news for Somalis, from the porters on the quayside to the lorry drivers; from the wholesalers and importers right down to the farmers who grow the lemons.

All of them are making a living.

But even the people who work here say corruption is rife.

"For 20 years we had no government," says Noor Osman, another porter - caked in dust from a morning offloading sacks of cement.

"Now the management and the businessmen are eating into our wages.

"If the president is a proper Muslim, let him do something about it."

Scrutinising the books

Mr Osman's troubles with the payroll are symptomatic of a wider problem.

Somalia does not have an income tax. Most of the federal budget comes from foreign aid.

Armoured car at port of Mogadishu The port still shows evidence of Somalia's political instability

What little revenue the government does collect comes from here, the port, and to a lesser extent, the airport.

Unfortunately, very little revenue is making its way into government coffers.

Abdirazak Fartaag, former head of the Somali Public Finance Unit, says 75-80% of the funds that are being generated by the port are unaccounted for.

"Nobody really knows where that money goes," he says.

In 2010 Mr Fartaag was asked to investigate the financial management practices of what was then Somalia's Transitional Federal government.

Mogadishu port

  • 1991-2006: Closed for business as rival warlords disagree on who should control it
  • May-December 2006: Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) takes over control of the entire city and reopens the port
  • 2007-2009: Ethiopian forces, which ousted the UIC, secure the port and the WFP undertakes repair and refurbishment work
  • 2009-present day: African Union and Somali government troops provide security - trade increases significantly

What he found was an almost total lack of accountability.

When he presented his findings the following year he was sacked.

He says he has no reason to believe things have changed since then.

"The international community have a say in this regard.

"To say, 'You know what, since we're paying for this, we need to understand [what you're doing with] the money you generate from the port and the airport and any other sources.'"

Earlier this year the UK proposed setting up a mechanism whereby Britain and other donors would get to scrutinise the books.

It was to be called the Joint Financial Management Board.

Somalia's new government rejected the proposal on the grounds that it would infringe national sovereignty.

'Stop being timid'

Start Quote

All the revenues generated here in Mogadishu port, directly will go to the central bank of Somalia”

End Quote Abdullahi Ali Noor Port general manager

Mr Fartaag says the countries that fund the Somali government should demand more accountability.

"Unless the international community demands that, nothing is going to change in my view," he says.

"The Americans and the British should stop being timid about this whole process, they should be a bit forceful."

The port's manager, Abdullahi Ali Noor, denied any suggestions of corruption.

"All the revenues generated here in Mogadishu port, directly will go to the central bank of Somalia," he said.

He said the money was already being used to pay civil servants' salaries and other government expenditure.

Ship docked at Mogadishu Everything from livestock to cement passes through the bustling port

Mr Ali Noor said that revenue currently amounted to around $3.5m (£2.2m) per month - not a large sum with which to run any country, let alone one struggling with the legacy of two decades of war.

The trucks laden with goods rumbling in and out of Mogadishu's port are emblematic of a city rising up from the rubble of war.

Foreign aid is paying for former militiamen to join a fledgling national security force.

Some of them are in evidence at the entrance to the port: Policemen in blue uniforms alongside soldiers in camouflage fatigues.

But old clan loyalties are still strong.

The gun is often still the arbiter here, and he who controls the gates also controls the revenue flows.

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