Checkpoints, Transport Committees and Shadow Governance

In an insightful article last year Aisha Ahmad et al. asked ‘Who governs?’ in Somalia, comparing the State and Al-Shabaab (AS). The authors argue that there are two key political bargains in Somalia, an elite deal between members of the Federal Government and Member States and a civilian deal which Al-Shabaab establishes with citizens under its influence. They argue that foreign support for the elite deal can undermine the usual taxation-protection relationship between citizen and state as well as provide an opportunity for Al-Shabaab to develop alternative forms of order. This framing comes to mind as we have been examining checkpoints in the country, focusing in this blogpost on the Southwest State and the role of transport committees.

In mid-2023 two unrelated episodes of contestation took place: One within the local and regional government system in Berdale district, and the other between the State (Southwest State, in this case) and AS. Both were revealing of checkpoint dynamics and contested forms of authority.

Berdale district in Baay region lies along the main Southwest-Gedo trade route and is considered one of the most volatile areas for checkpoints along this corridor, which connects imports from Mogadishu with catchment areas in the heavily populated Southwest State, Gedo region and markets in Kenya. Disagreements within the district on the legitimacy of local authorities are not uncommon and when such disagreements develop, they can lead to the mushrooming of checkpoints, making life difficult for road users and increasing costs for users and consumers. During 2023, tensions were high as the Southwest State (SWS) President attempted to support the incumbent District Commissioner while other groups wanted to see a change. This eventually led to the formation of two parallel local authorities which in turn led to violent conflict where approximately five people died. As each group claimed legitimacy, they in turn created their own tax collection systems – the main way of raising revenue – and at least seven new checkpoints were created.

These new checkpoints were in addition to the main government checkpoint at Baidoa, where taxes are collected for goods travelling to/through Berdale. AS have their own checkpoint along the Baidoa-Berdale route, at Jiiro Gurey, although this is a minor checkpoint as longer distance trade is taxed at Jameeco and Qansax Oomane, and then allowed to move freely (of AS interference) along the route. Both the SWS government and AS attempted to resolve the proliferation of checkpoints, but neither were able to.

At roughly the same time as the Berdale episode, AS implemented a separate, region-wide blockade on the Baay region of SWS. This was in response to the SWS administration fining and arresting schoolteachers who had met with AS. Apparently, AS believed that they had an understanding with the SWS administration that they were free to call people for meetings and that their sharia’a courts were accepted for use throughout the State. In return, they would not impede trade and traffic. AS considered the arresting and fining of the teachers a breach of this arrangement. A similar incident took place three years ago, when the State administration arrested seven businessmen who had attended an AS court in order to get an adjudication on a dispute between themselves, a not uncommon recourse to justice in southern Somalia. At that time, the SWS administration fined each businessman US$1,000 and AS responded with a region-wide blockade. The State President at that time, who had been away during the incident, later released the businessmen and reimbursed the fines. He also announced that people could move freely to access AS courts if they wished and were at liberty to accept or refuse summons by AS.

As we noted in our earlier checkpoint blogpost, the Transport Committee is an interesting and opaque actor, and is important in the navigation of checkpoints. Traders and transporters need an interlocutor with the various actors who can impede or enable the flow of goods. These actors include government administrations, clan militias, security forces and AS itself. The Committee must be accepted by AS in order to carry out its work. Traders and transporters cannot work unless they have a link to the Committee. Some Federal Member States (Puntland and Jubbaland, for example) do not allow the Committee to act in an official capacity within their territory, due to their antagonistic relationship with AS, but this is a minor inconvenience, and the Committee can operate remotely in such cases on behalf of traders and transporters. A second Transport Committee is reported to act at Mogadishu Port, managing the movement of goods from the port to Bakaaraha market, in town.

There are numerous fees associated with the operations of trade and transport. These include fees to the Transport Committee itself, to various brokers, to the workers and security actors at the checkpoints and to the couriers collecting receipts. There are also questions about whether different parties, including security and political officials attached to the government, want to remove checkpoints, as many high-level individuals benefit from the tax collection at these points.

In conclusion, while Ahmad et al. usefully problematize the different political bargains of the Government and the ‘shadow government’ (i.e. AS), these two episodes also show how both sets of authorities are forced to cooperate in order to allow trade – the lifeblood of Somalia – to flow. In this respect, AS has important leverage over the Government through its control of key transport arteries. The government cannot resist this pressure as trade is crucial to the economy and people’s livelihoods. There is also a considerable local constituency that will exert pressure if trade is disrupted for too long.

Finally, the Transport Committees are critical interlocutors in this domain. There are uncertainties about their status and networks, and our research team have found it difficult to access members, however they are likely to continue to work in some capacity as they are essential to lubricate the wheels of trade.

We continue to explore these dynamics.