Protection fees, stolen ammo extend Somalia's war

Ammunition intended for peacekeepers ends up in militant hands. Humanitarian workers pay Somali Islamist rebels protection money. U.N. and Somali officials are accused of skimming from contracts.

About $1 billion is poured into Somalia each year for humanitarian, development and security projects, but some of the aid that is wasted, stolen or diverted may be helping feed the 20-year-old conflict instead of ending it.

During a recent trip to Somalia and in interviews in neighboring Kenya where U.N. officials and aid workers are based, The Associated Press learned about numerous cases of wasteful spending, corruption and dubious payoffs.

— In order to carry out projects in central Somalia, staff working for the Danish Refugee Council paid protection money to Islamist insurgents who are battling the beleaguered government.

— Bullets bought by international donors and intended for Somali soldiers were sold on open markets, becoming a "significant source of supply" for insurgents, according to a confidential report given to the U.N. Sanctions Committee this year and obtained by AP.

— A $600,000 project by an international aid group was suspended after a government minister demanded a cut.

The problems facing foreign donors trying to rebuild a country wracked by an insurgency are not new: Both Iraq and Afghanistan have seen theft, waste and mismanagement on aid projects. Somalia receives less cash, but there is also far less oversight. Those who are supposed to ensure the aid is properly delivered can't even enter the country because it's too dangerous.

Some of the aid money provides food, shelter and medicine for desperate Somalis but a lot is wasted or stolen. How much, no one knows, but the anecdotal evidence is alarming.

"The cases that are known are just the tip of the iceberg. This problem has been a major contributor to the Somali conflict," said professor Stig Jarle Hansen, an expert in war economies working at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences.

He said donors often paid to train and equip Somali police or soldiers, but then didn't pay them, so the men preyed on the local population instead.

"They don't have much incentive to be transparent," he said.

One of the most startling examples of alleged graft occurred right under the noses of top U.N. officials in Nairobi, Kenya, where the world body's office on Somalia is based along with many aid agencies. A former member of the U.N. office there allegedly diverted millions of dollars over several years, including more than $188,000 earmarked for a Nairobi-based "security liaison office" for the Somali government.

The money was disbursed but no office was ever built. The worker has since moved to a U.N. position elsewhere. The top U.N. official on Somalia declined to comment, citing an ongoing U.N. investigation.

Last year a U.N. panel said that up to half of food aid intended for hungry Somalis was diverted by corrupt contractors or militias. The U.S. withdrew more than $200 million in humanitarian aid over concerns over diversion of aid.

Humanitarian agencies say they try to build safeguards into their programs but that some corruption is inevitable as they feed, treat and shelter millions in one of the world's poorest and most violent countries.

In an interview, the top U.N. official on Somalia was blunt about the situation.

"I don't think there is oversight," said envoy Augustine Mahiga. "We don't have accountability because information is not shared."

He said both the international community and Somali government need to improve transparency.

Hundreds of U.N. officials, aid workers and security specialists involved in Somalia are based in Nairobi, Kenya, not in Somalia's capital Mogadishu, complicating matters and making it easier for money, aid supplies and even military hardware to go astray.

The Somali government wants the international community to relocate to Mogadishu, but diplomats say it's too dangerous.

Staccato gunfire rings out every few minutes in Mogadishu, sometimes punctuated by the bang of a rocket- propelled grenade or mortar fire. Shops hang signs advising customers to leave their guns outside. Foreigners are never seen on the streets since a wave of kidnappings hit the city three years ago.

Flights, hotel rooms and payments for expenses to get Somali officials to Nairobi so they can meet with international donors eat up large chunks of budgets. On a recent flight from Mogadishu to Nairobi last month, 19 government workers, 12 members of parliament and four government ministers including the deputy prime minister were on board, along with an AP reporter.

Government officials can make enough money from donors in this impoverished and anarchic country that the cash might be a disincentive for them to solve the country's problems. As long as Somalia remains an apparently insolvable mess, the aid money — including $600 monthly stipends and other perks for parliamentarians — keeps coming.

The salaries and travel perks may also be an incentive to linger in office. The government's mandate expires in August but the political leaders wants their terms extended by a year, saying they need more time to provide basic services to Somalia. Parliament wants three more years. International backers are insisting that new elections be held.

For his part, Somalia's prime minister blames the U.N. for the hemorrhaging of aid money.

"We don't see a lot of effort made by the U.N. agencies to come here and monitor whether they are doing things correctly," Prime Minister Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed told the AP. He is lobbying for more money to come directly into government coffers.

Mohamed said he also wants to limit the amount of time Somali politicians spend abroad — "to 25 percent."

"But some people want to go to a nice hotel or a resort," he added.

Conferences are often held in top-level Kenyan hotels. Participants in U.N. conferences get $300 per day to cover expenses, far removed from how the average person ekes by in Somalia on $1 a day.

Doing most of Somalia's business in neighboring Kenya makes monitoring difficult. And in Somalia, staffers or auditors may be killed if they report corruption, said one Nairobi-based aid worker.

Mark Bowden, the U.N.'s top official overseeing humanitarian and development aid to Somalia, said that in the past two years there has been a push for greater accountability among donors and aid agencies. This year the U.N. began setting up a database of its contractors and it already has more than 500 entries, he said.

"There are always going to be risks in an environment like Somalia but we are taking these problems seriously," he said.

Besides the database, aid workers also recommend having multiple monitors for projects, ensuring monitors are not related to contractors and for donors to do their own monitoring instead of relying on information from aid agencies they pay to carry out projects.

Among problems aid workers cited was a project in Mogadishu worth $600,000 that had to be suspended after a government minister demanded a cut, and a school for more than 1,000 children where two donors were both billed for the same renovations. The aid workers spoke to AP on condition that they and the projects not be identified because of fears of retaliation.

The Somali military needs more oversight as well, observers point out. Ammunition for the Somali government is doled out by the African Union peacekeeping force, whose officers told AP that bullets are often sold by Somali commanders.

Joakim Gundel, who heads Katuni Consult, a Nairobi-based company often asked to evaluate international aid efforts in Somalia, examined 21 projects in the Somalia's central Hiran region last year that were run by the Danish Refugee Council. Staff members paid protection money to the Islamist insurgent group al-Shabab worth up to 20 percent of the project, he said. Contractors would then inflate costs and build smaller clinics or schools to recoup their money.

Most agencies operating in the region apparently have the same problem, Gundel said.

The Danish Refugee Council told AP an internal review conducted after Katuni's indicated "irregularities and unauthorized payments" to al-Shabab. After the review, the group suspended its commitments to longer-term projects in Hiran.

Gundel said part of the problem with aid delivery in Somalia comes when donors like the E.U. or U.S. expect aid agencies to both implement and evaluate the effectiveness of a project, Gundel said. Aid agencies are reluctant to report corruption for fear they would not receive more funds.

Unless donors demand more accountability, he said, the problems will persist and the donors wind up fueling the conflict at the same time they're helping its victims.


Associated Press writer Anita Snow at the United Nations contributed to this report.