Somalia: Al-Shabaab expands tax empire in Mogadishu under gov't control
MOGADISHU, Somalia - Al-Qaida linked Al-Shabaab group is steadily increasing its influence in Somalia's capital Mogadishu under FGS control, a host of businessmen have said, adding that "they might expand their tax empire to neighboring countries".
For a decade, the militant group has caused havoc in the Horn of Africa, mainly in Somalia and Kenya.
At Nairobi last week, a host of businessmen frequenting Mogadishu and Nairobi, raised an alarm over alleged take over of the port city by militants, taking total control of taxation.
The businessmen, who spoke in confidence for fear of Al-Shabaab reprisals, appealed to regional stakeholders to intervene and block the group for taking over the Somalia government.
Rampant taxation by Al-Shabaab
So fragile has been the situation, that most businesses are almost being answerable to Al-Shabaab, which has taken over, with Mogadishu-based Somali government remaining quiet, they said.
The militants, they said, are targeting all sorts of businesses in Mogadishu, increasing their grip in the city, which they once controlled before being flushed out in 2011 by Somali and AU troops.
Sources within Somalia's Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Mogadishu said the terrorist group collects $4 million to $5 million a month.
“Al-Shabaab is taxing every business by force,” they said referring to port importers, exporters, transporters, hotels, and shopping malls.
This, they argued, supports terror activities within Somalia and across the borders, a move that could escalate should neighbors fail to intervene.
“Authorities must pay attention to what is happening in Mogadishu. History will judge them harshly if they give up their role (of helping Somalia). Because they may invite attacks on their soil,” the traders said in Nairobi.
Suspicions everywhere in Mogadishu
Determined to completely take charge of the city, Al-Shabaab militants have made tremendous progress in taking over all formal institutions, they said.
Although the group previously collected tax, the businessmen said, the situation has gotten out of control, with frequent threats and harassment.
“They are making tremendous progress to take over all formal institutions in Mogadishu except for the main government," they said.
“Yes, we have previously paid informal taxes to them but now it’s gotten worse… the amounts, the influence, the threats, and the pressures.”
Cases of Al-Shabaab infiltration were first reported last year by the Washington Post, which highlighted several incidents in which Al-Shabaab was directly involved.
Abdirahman Dualle Beileh, the finance minister, admitted Al-Shabaab infiltration in government institutions, promising an immediate redress to the matter.
“We have not been able to address it. It is the number one problem in this country,” Beileh said.
The militants are said to be pricing all goods and services in the capital city, taxing even the seaport in the capital, they said.
Suspicions among citizens are becoming a norm, with people left unsure of who is a member and who is not, further creating anxiety, the statement read.
"Even ministers now don’t trust their assistants and vice versa. They can no longer fully express themselves. Nobody knows who is who, all in a span of a few months,” said a trader.
Attempts to take over chambers of commerce
Somalia's government under President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo, they said, is paying little attention to get rid of the terror group from extorting “taxes” in the capital through threats.
For instance, Mohamud Abdikarim [Gabayre], the chair of the Somali Chamber of Commerce, appointed Ahmed Abdullahi as the chair of the Banadir region, resulting in protests among the traders.
Last month, the National Intelligence and Security Agency [NISA] detained the chair of Mogadishu's chamber of commerce, Ahmed Abdullahi Hassan and his deputy for having links with Al-Shabaab.
In addition, Somalia's Ministry of Commerce and Industry has disbanded the city's chamber of commerce after Al-Shabaab infiltration and appointing the top leadership to the office.
But on December 17, the ministry of commerce and industry dissolved the traders union of Banadir region the same day Gabaire and Abdullahi denied allegations of the Shabaab influence.
“The chamber and its membership have quite the influence and access to government officials, including the president," one member said in confidence.
"You do not want to entertain the thought, let alone the reality, of the group taking it over."
But a UN Panel of Experts on Somalia revealed the militant group is now relying less on charcoal exports and focusing on “mafia-style taxation” at the port in Mogadishu as well as markets.
“The group also continues to take advantage of virtually unregulated mobile money and domestic banking services to collect and transfer revenues throughout the country,” the panel noted in a November report.
Somalia's government enjoys protection from over 22,000 peacekeeping mission troops selected from several East Africa countries.
NISA's dwindling fortunes
Somalia's spy agency NISA has been on receiving end from a section of opposition leaders, who accuse it of playing politics with the country's security.
There have been claims that the agency has been infiltrated by the insurgents, further making it difficult to effectively fight the terror group.
Abdalla Ahmed Ibrahim, director of the East African Centre for Research and Strategic Studies, says the infiltration makes it difficult for partners to share information with NISA.
“It is not new and Somalia’s partners know this infiltration within security ranks has made partners, sometimes, reluctant to share information with the National Intelligence Service because of its structure,” he told Sunday Nation.
“I think, normally, the intelligence service should report directly to the President. In Somalia, Nisa is under the Interior ministry, which means information can easily leak to the enemy. Somalia needs to change that structure of reporting,” he argued.
NISA operates under Fahid Yasin, a former Al-Jazeera journalist, who has often been linked to political instability in Somalia.
According to the traders, Somalia is eroding gains made under former President Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, who is credited for flushing Al-Shabaab out of the capital.
“We are now rolling back the gains we had made. The common joke here, nowadays, is that we have an air force but no ground force," a member of the chamber said.
"This is because Farmajo cannot go from one end of Mogadishu to the other without flying,” he added.
Farmajo has often denied claims that he's an Al-Shabaab sympathizer, even though opposition bigwigs like Abdirahman Abdishakur have often accused FGS of harboring Al-Shabaab.