Checkpoints/Isbaaro – Brokers and Clusters


One of the research themes of PeaceRep in Somalia is the relationship between checkpoints and sub-national governance. Work is currently underway in different locations and will continue over the next two years. This blogpost presents some initial findings, revealing new brokering practices which lead to new geographies of control via the clustering of checkpoints. These findings are given added salience in light of the offensive against Al-Shabaab that is currently ongoing.

The importance of trade and transport to Somalia’s state formation process has been given a new impetus by Hagmann and Stepputat and their ‘Trade Makes States’ arguments. They elaborate on the point that the ‘facilitation and capture of commodity flows have been instrumental in making and unmaking states across the Somali territories.’ Similarly, in central Africa, Schouten has shed light on ‘Roadblock Politics’ and has since applied his methodology to Somalia. Our research builds on these (and other) work.

Checkpoints – isbaaro in Somali – are not a new phenomenon in Somalia being present in the 1970s and 1980s under the Siad Barre regime. They were used at that time as a means to control contraband trade and security, particularly important in the later years under ex-President Siad Barre, as insurgent activities increased. Informal payments – bribes – were also part of the management of checkpoints in these years.

Following the collapse of the state, checkpoints became an important source of income for clan-based militia, clan leaders and ‘warlords’, and were used to maintain militias and fund military campaigns. For a time, they could even be justified to constituent local populations as a means of maintaining communal security and defending populations from attacks by other groups.

The rise of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) and then Al-Shabaab, cleared many checkpoints and provided a more centralised system of organisation, still evident today. Al-Shabaab’s demonstration of its intent to clear all checkpoints, in 2008, has gone down in Somali folklore (the picture of a human head on a stake made clear their intentions and went viral on social media). Today, through our discussions, traders and transporters describe the Government as the ‘mother of checkpoints’, contrasting the proliferation of checkpoints in government territory with their relative absence in Al-Shabaab areas.

Contested Ownership

The ownership of checkpoints is a complex and sensitive issue but crucial to understand in relation to governance processes. Influential people inside and outside of government are frequently involved in the ownership and profit-sharing from checkpoints. Checkpoints can be traded, rented out and have even been used as part of clan compensation (diya) settlements.

Checkpoints vary enormously in their ownership, organisation and importance. Major checkpoints – where revenue collection is significant – are located at key points along major trade corridors. Some of the larger checkpoints are ‘Ex-Control’ on the outskirts of Mogadishu, Bar Ismail at the entrance to Afgoye District, Daynuunaay outside Baidoa, and Jamecada in Bur Hakaba. A proliferation of smaller checkpoints also exists along many of these routes as well as on smaller, secondary and tertiary roads. Checkpoints can be temporary, set up on a spontaneous basis, or more permanent.

One example of a contested site is at Bar Ismail. The location of this checkpoint is in South West State, with the regional authority attempting to gain control and claim revenues, but where these checkpoints have long been in the hands of powerful individual and clan interests from outside of this area – the riverine areas of Lower Shabelle having a long history of predation and exploitation, over land and water resources as well as trade (and therefore checkpoints). Contestation at this point represents tensions and competition within different levels of Government, and which is difficult to reconcile given the financial interests involved.

Another example concerns the checkpoint outside Belet Weyn town, a major route for the transportation of goods to/from Bosasso port in Puntland. Earlier this year Al-Shabaab attempted to install a checkpoint in this area, upsetting the prevailing order where the Governor of Hiraan controlled these revenues ostensibly in the name of Hirshabelle regional government, but effectively a key resource of certain Hawadle militias and the Governor himself. The potential lost revenue was a major threat to Hawadle resource and power and contributed to the uprising against Al-Shabaab that the Federal Government then joined. While Al-Shabaab have been removed from this area, the ownership of taxation revenue remains locally managed and is a source of tension within the Hirshabelle administration, with local leadership having recently declared Hiraan region an independent Federal member state.

A third example comes from Baidoa, where the major checkpoint outside the city, Daynuunaay, is now in the hands of Al-Shabaab, having been retaken from the government. While the group physically controls the checkpoint and collects revenue, other local actors, previously in control continue to demand and collect revenue, in town, from transporters, justifying it from their previous positions at this checkpoint.

Brokers and Clusters

Private transportation systems in Somalia are linked through layers of brokers. In Bakaara market, in Mogadishu, for example, brokers collect goods in smaller orders so that they can fill 40-60 tonne trucks. These brokers are linked to another group of brokers, called Kireyste, who rent the trucks and organise the transportation, paying the taxes, fuel and other costs along a route.

For example, Hassan Roble (anonymised), a truck owner, who has limited connections to businesspeople as well as a limited understanding of how to negotiate the different checkpoints along a route, prefers to rent his truck to a Kireyste, who knows the appropriate businesspeople and how to navigate the route.

Brokering in this form is not a new phenomenon in Somalia but, according to one of the oldest of these Kireyste, is one used since the early 1990s. Kireyste have seen the changes and difficulties along these roads and routes, that have included uncontrolled clan-based checkpoints, changing ownership of the checkpoints, looting of vehicles and even killings.

A major development over the last two to three years has been the clustering of checkpoints. This clustering was developed through negotiations between traders, Kireyste and checkpoint operators (military and militia leaders). This idea reportedly developed as a response to trade moving through Al-Shabaab territory; transporters had been preferring to use Al-Shabaab controlled routes for some time, diverging from the main roads and thereby avoiding the more numerous government checkpoints. Security was also better. However, the cost of using these longer, rougher routes added to fuel costs as well as increased wear and tear and damage to vehicles as the rural roads are much poorer in quality.

An important actor in the trade and transport system, including the new cluster system, is a transport committee which is an interlocuter between the different forms of public authority that exist on the ground and traders and brokers. The role and history of this committee is the subject of ongoing research.

The clustering system includes pre-agreed fees that are collected by Kireyste prior to a journey. Kireyste either travel with trucks or, often, deal with the different checkpoints by telephone and make payments electronically. The payment of such taxes through Somalia’s well established mobile money systems has been identified previously, particularly in the case of Al-Shabaab. The clustering and brokering system appears to apply mainly to the transport of goods but may exist to a differing extent for other vehicles and forms of mobility (e.g. minivans and people).

In order to move goods from Mogadishu to Kenya, via Baidoa and Belet Hawo, five clusters of checkpoints can be identified. Each of these clusters is comprised of several individual checkpoints, all of which must generate revenue for their owners, and where each checkpoint represents a different set of interests. The first cluster is from Ex-control (Mogadishu) to Hara-Shinaha (Balidoogle). The second is the Al-Shabaab checkpoint in Jamecada located between Wanlaweyne and Burhakaba. The third cluster is from Burhakaba to Baidoa. The fourth cluster is between Baidoa and Berdale districts in Bay region. The fifth and last cluster is from Yurkut to Belet-Hawa.

These preliminary findings raise further questions about the organisation and ownership of checkpoints or isbaaro: Does this clustering and brokering system represent a more efficient management system than existed previously, in terms of revenue collection? Who has benefited and lost out in this rearrangement? What is the role of the transport committee in these rearrangements?


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