This week the World Food Program (WFP) shoved out a press release about how piracy was raising food prices in South-Central Somalia. At first glance, most people who would read such a report will likely think, oh the poor people in Mogadishu. Of course, I share their sentiments.
However, there is a deeper issue at work here. One that I’m not sure many people realize. The conclusion (because I’m a lawyer and we put these things up front) is that this rise in cost of business may have drastically good effects for the conflict in the South. Here’s how I get there.
Those brains who study war break themselves into two-sides of the same coin (since they are academics largely they have to classify and camp-ify themselves in order to create non-existent academic conflict to drive conscriptions to their own camp to drive their own popularity to drive their tenure track – but that is a story for a different day). I’m too lazy to look up what the classifications of the two sides are, but generally one camp focuses on the structural conditions for conflict to begin (guns, poverty, etc.) and another camp focuses on the social conditions for conflict to begin (ethnic diversity, natural resources, etc.). Or something like that.
These camps have outlined pretty logical paths for those who seek to mitigate, manage, or militate conflict to follow. If conflict A is characterized as an X conflict than follow path Z to recovery. Fair enough, and it has worked in several instances. In Liberia (prototypical charasmatic leader led conflict), once Charles Taylor left then the conflict subsided almost instantaneously.
The difficulty for conflict academics and practitioners (and no I didn’t mistype that) when it comes to Somalia is that every category for conflict can be found. Not only can every one be found, but the primacy of each driver of conflict into primary, secondary, tertiary, etc. driver of the conflict will depend on the time and location in which one analyzes the conflict. The drivers are like a kaleidoscope which is constantly fluctuating over time in each location.
It is a post-modern hell for people who study these things – which answers my own question about the lack of detailed academic research on Somalia (that and the difficulty in getting correct information).
After living here for two years and studying and thinking through the conflict at length (because there is little else to do during a Somalia evening), and despite the kaleidoscopic nature of the conflict, a few themes can be extracted. The first of which is that in the far south around the major rivers the conflict is really and truly about natural resources and land. Which is why my organization has put in to do a project focused on conflict mitigation of natural resources driven low-level conflicts throughout Somalia – but particularly in that region.
The other major theme, and how this connects with the WFP report, is that the business community in Mogadishu is quite happy with the anarchical situation. Let me explain.
If Somalis were Americans a large percentage of them would be mid-nineties salesmen. The ones that would drive the 2.0 Trans Am, sport their cell phones in belt holsters, and have lunch meetings at Hooters. They are quite money focused (certainly more than many from West Africa), and this has some good consequences. Here in the north the private sector is very vibrant and is driving much of the development; there remains a good environment for doing business – certainly better than the neighbors in the region. However, the focus on money can make many a bit myopic as they are always chasing pennies and don’t see the dollars.
I have met businessmen from the south who laugh at their colleagues here in the north who only make 67% profit (I’m referencing the telecom sector here) as opposed to in the south where they make double that. There are tons of instances in the history of the southern conflict where it has been oscillating towards some resolution but the business community ensures that instability returns quickly. They are convinced that the anarchy allows them to live like kings and do whatever they want – in their minds make more money.
Yet from my point of view they are looking at the wrong metric. I think they should be looking at the total amount of profit. Sure they can make a higher percentage in Mogadishu than the guys can here in H-town, but the pot is bigger here so in the end they make more money.
This is where the dissonance approaches resonance frequency for me. The rhetoric has failed to show these men that peace will inevitably make them richer. Although their profit margins will fall, their total revenue will rise at a faster rate and they will end up with more money in their pockets.
Simple talking has failed to convince them of such a result, so here is where I’m optimistic about the WFP report. If the pirates can (ironically) be the ones that raise the costs for the large importers then the effects of that rise in the cost of business will ripple throughout and maybe the arguments for resolution of the conflict will gain more weight.
Or maybe the businessmen will simply launch their own navies as they already have their own armies. I don’t know, but I remain optimistic.
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