Somalia's Welcome Warlord
A desperate town invited a businessman to be its military chief. It is now an oasis of stability in the country, which he'd one day like to lead.
By Edmund Sanders
Times Staff Writer

June 24, 2005

JAWHAR, Somalia ó For years, residents of this sugarcane-farming town watched as their lives were torn apart by Somalia's descent into anarchy.

Looters in the 1990s burned the mammoth sugar factory, which once provided 1,500 jobs, and peddled the remains as scrap metal. Irrigation canal gates along the muddy Shabelle River rusted shut, flooding thousands of acres of crops and desiccating thousands more.

Shootings and rapes were an everyday occurrence as marauding local militias extorted money from drivers, business owners and even the hospital.

Fed up with the bloodshed and tired of waiting for a federal government, town leaders made a bold decision in 2001. They invited a rich businessman from Mogadishu, the capital, to move the 60 miles north to Jawhar and become their warlord.

"We had no choice," said Hassan Dhisow, 30, who joined the new warlord's forces and now commands a 950-man militia. "No miracle was going to fall from the sky and save us."

In the 14 years since the collapse of the government of Maj. Gen. Mohamed Siad Barre, Somalia has fractured into a patchwork of feuding fiefdoms, which, like Jawhar, are ruled by warlords and machine-gun-toting militias.

Mogadishu remains a no-go zone for even the interim president and interim prime minister, who serve in a provisional government formed last year in neighboring Kenya. When Interim Prime Minister Ali Mohammed Gedi briefly visited Mogadishu last month, a grenade attack killed eight people during his speech. In October 1993, 18 U.S. troops were killed in the capital during an aborted mission to capture one of Mogadishu's most notorious warlords. It's little wonder that Somalian government leaders have spent most of their time this year in Nairobi, the Kenyan capital.

But for the people of Jawhar, the deal they made to install a warlord appears to be paying off. Today the town is an oasis of stability in war-torn south-central Somalia, and the region is seen by some as a possible model for rebuilding the collapsed state.

Unlike Mogadishu, where gunfire echoes regularly through abandoned downtown streets and bystanders are killed in the cross-fire of rival militias, residents in Jawhar are again free to stroll at night without fear. Illegal road checkpoints disappeared. The hospital director says he hasn't treated a local gunshot wound in two years, thanks to a ban on civilians carrying weapons.

"One of the most impressive things in Jawhar is the peace and humanitarianism," UNICEF's outgoing Somalia representative, Jasper Morch, recently told a gathering in the village. "It's precious. I hope the rest of the country does what you're doing right now."

The rest of Somalia has taken notice. Some leaders in the interim government are proposing Jawhar as a temporary capital. And Jawhar's new warlord is hoping to prove that even an unelected militia leader can transform into a respected politician.

It's too soon to know whether he'll succeed. But it's a burning question in a country where the majority of the new parliament consists of warlords and former military commanders who have spent most of the last decade attacking one another.

"We feel there is a national responsibility on our shoulders," said Mohammed Omar Habeb, the 55-year-old warlord of Jawhar, who calls himself chairman of the Middle Shabelle Authority, a body he set up to govern the area. "I want this region to be an example for all of Somalia."

Habeb, better known as Mohammed Dheere, or Mohammed the Big Man, is a burly, 6-foot-2 importer who grew up in Middle Shabelle, but moved away during the Siad Barre regime and grew rich trading agricultural goods.

When Jawhar leaders approached him about returning, he was looking for a platform to enter national politics and expand his business interests. Habeb had no previous experience as a warlord. But in the absence of a central government, it appeared the quickest route to political prominence, particularly for someone with enough money to form an army.

Habeb did not hesitate. "I decided only I could end their suffering," he said. "I dream about being prime minister one day."

With rumored backing from the Ethiopian government, Habeb built an army, entered Jawhar and took over nearly everything in town, including the statehouse, where he set up residence. Not everyone welcomed him. Scores died in the fighting that ensued. Some residents mined the roads to kill his soldiers. Local journalists accused him of arresting those who questioned his power.

But after crushing rivals and securing the peace, Habeb today wins praise from many residents for restoring order, even if he had to do it at gunpoint.

"He is our liberator," said Ibrahim Mohammed, 80, elder of a farming village just outside town. Mohammed said his hamlet was nearly destroyed during clashes before Habeb arrived. Their tiny school and mosque burned down.

"We have been forgotten," he said. "We can't ask the government for help because there is no government. Now we ask Dheere."

Recently Habeb promised to relax his tight control and restore local government institutions. He created a 250-man police force and reopened the courthouse. Community elders returned to positions of power, and work is underway for a regional charter and local elections. Habeb promises to step down if he loses the governor's race for Middle Shabelle, though no election date has been set.

Habeb even lured back international aid organizations, such as the United Nations Development Program and World Food Program, to help with reconstruction. Many aid groups had abandoned south-central Somalia because of violence and kidnappings.

This month, the two aid groups helped inaugurate the reopening of the Duduble Canal, a $1-million project that created 750 temporary jobs and will benefit 50,000 farmers. Habeb not only instigated the project, he paid 70% of the cost.

"He may be a warlord, but at least he's the best of the warlords," said Matanui Deboc, assistant administrator at Jawhar Hospital.

Aid workers say they have little choice but to deal with warlords if they want to help. They note that Habeb has lived up to his commitments and avoided the human rights abuses seen in other parts of the country.

"I wouldn't exactly call him benevolent," said Maxwell John Gaylard, the U.N. Development Program Somalia representative. "Anyone who transgresses against him is dealt with sharply. But I've seen enough to know that he has a vision."

Town leaders say they have no regrets.

"We always said we would cooperate with whoever brought the peace," said Osman Haji Abdulee, a former sugar crop manager who serves as deputy chairman of the Middle Shabelle Authority. "We couldn't keep waiting for the national government. Over the years, we watched reconciliation conference after reconciliation conference fail. Our children were growing up in anarchy with no concept of government. We had to establish a government ourselves."

Life in Jawhar remains far from ideal. The single paved road through town is so riddled with potholes that drivers prefer to navigate the dirt shoulder. Downtown consists of a row of shacks made of corrugated steel and mud.

Habeb's armed soldiers, known as "technicals," still tear through town in white Toyota pickups with M-50 guns mounted in the back. Pedestrians jump to get out of the way, and few in the city would dare challenge Habeb's authority.

Health problems abound, including malaria and tuberculosis. An estimated 40% of residents are addicted to green-leafed qat, a mild, amphetamine-like stimulant, local health officials said. The 1 p.m. delivery of the plants downtown is the highlight of the day for many, drawing hundreds of eager buyers.

"These 14 years without government have set them back 50 years in terms of health," said Gabrelli Lornardi, Jawhar Hospital's Italian-born director.

Still, the relative success of the region has catapulted Habeb onto the national political scene. He doesn't hide his ambitions.

Both Gedi and interim President Abdullahi Yusuf are political allies of Habeb.

Habeb is also eager to make Jawhar an economic rival to Mogadishu, where one of his political foes, warlord Muse Sudi Yalahow, reigns. Their forces clash occasionally, and the border between Mogadishu and Middle Shabelle is heavily guarded.

But as Habeb attempts to shift into politics, he's trying to soften his warlord image. He doesn't wear dark sunglasses or military fatigues. There are no bodyguards hovering around.

At the recent canal opening, a smiling Habeb played attentive host to an international delegation of potential donors, fussing over them at a luncheon, personally serving plates of chicken.

"We don't call him a warlord anymore," one aide said. "We just call him 'The Chairman.' "

But last week, Yusuf's plane was due to arrive in Jawhar, and Habeb arranged for hundreds of residents to welcome the interim president. After waiting several hours at the airstrip, the entourage learned that Yusuf had diverted to Djibouti.

An angry Habeb abruptly announced that the Somalian government was no longer welcome in Jawhar. The next day he changed his mind.

This week, the interim prime minister touched down in Jawhar, and once again, Habeb had hundreds of locals waiting to welcome the government leader.

Ellie