Al Shabaab militia’s tight grip on ‘desert’ charcoal trade

Sunday November 13 2011

Hundreds of charcoal bags ready for export to Dubai and other Emirates, Yemen and Saudi Arabia. Pictures: Jared Nyataya

Hundreds of charcoal bags ready for export to Dubai and other Emirates, Yemen and Saudi Arabia. Pictures: Jared Nyataya 


There is a noticeable change in the vegetation as one crosses the border from Kenya into southern Somalia, with sections where many of the short, tough acacia trees have been cut down for charcoal.

While there is thick tree cover on the Kenyan side near Ishakani, which reduces visibility to a few metres, inside the Somalia border, the bare open plain stretches approximately four to five kilometres.

The taking of Ras Kamboni and Bur Gaboby, the two fishing towns by the sea that have been under the control of Al Shaabab, by the Kenya defence forces has struck an economic blow at the militia group.

As Ras Kamboni is closer to the Kenyan side than Bur Gabo up north, it served as the base of fishermen who supplied fish to hotels in Lamu and resorts on the islands operated.

The cutting down of trees in large areas is evidence of the booming trade in charcoal that was a source of income for the militia group currently on the run in the Southern Sector.

At Bur Gabo, which has a deep harbour for medium-sized ships and big dhows to dock, the export of charcoal has virtually ground to a halt.

The charcoal’s destination was Dubai, Yemen, Saudi Arabia and other states in the United Arab Emirates, where it is used for cooking in hotels and barbeques by the general populace.

Captain Abdikadir Ahmed, the head of the Transitional Federal Government of Somalia forces in the area, told The EastAfrican that up to six of the dhows used to transport charcoal would drop anchor at Bur Gabo every day.

The charcoal exporters would be required to pay Al Shaabab $15,000 as taxes daily.

It takes three days to load one dhow with a carrying capacity of about 19,000 bags. A bag is bought from the traders at $1 and resold for $4 or $5 at the final destination.

The fighting in southern Somalia over the years revolved around the control of the lucrative charcoal trade, a source of revenue that is much sought after.

The EastAfrican was told that the charcoal burners transport their products to the harbour using donkeys on the treacherous rocky paths.

With the entry of the Kenyan soldiers and the cutting off of the charcoal trade, Capt Ahmed turned away a dhow that had called into the harbour to pick up charcoal the day before he gave this interview. The harbour at Bur Gabo has mountains of charcoal packed in light green gunny bags.

“These are enough to fill about 30 dhows,” said Capt Ahmed, adding that at Quday, where the Al Shaabab are believed to have headed after the fall of Bur Gabo, there is enough charcoal to fill 100 dhows.

He said that when the situation finally settles down and the Transitional Federal Government controls the economy of the region, it could reduce the taxes paid by the charcoal exporters.


But he is not certain since the forces are yet to capture more towns on the coastline and inland, and such security and economic issues would have to be agreed on by the TFG.

But it is clear the charcoal trade is not about to end, and there are no concerns about environmental degradation that would characterise the charcoal trade debate in Kenya.

The environmental destruction appears to be a minor issue for the local people and their leaders, going by the response by Ahmed Mohammed Islan alias Madoobe, a former governor of Jubaland under the Islamic Courts Union.

“It’s hard to talk about charcoal burning and the cutting down of trees,” he said, adding, “Watu ndio hukatwa sana saa hii, sio miti (It is people who are losing their lives here, not the trees).”

The hinterlands of Ras Kamboni and Bur Gabo are vast and dry, favourable only for the short, tough acacia trees. The recent rains have turned the land into a lush green.

“We need people to be educated about environmental issues first so they can know that we have to stop that (business) now,” said the man better known as Madoobe.

For now, Madoobe would perhaps want to secure the areas under the control of TFG and his Ras Kamboni Brigade, have access to Kenya restored so business can get back on its feet and bring back some peace to Somalia.