[an error occurred while processing this directive]
BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Thursday, 18 November 2004, 13:33 GMT
Living in Somalia's anarchy
As Somalia's new government prepares to return to restore order after years of anarchy, the BBC News website's Joseph Winter reports from Mogadishu on life with no central control.

Somalia is the only country in the world where there is no government.

Mrs Ladan
Some of my children sell nuts in the street to earn some money. We can't afford to send them to school
Ladan Barow Nur

Seventeenth century philosopher Thomas Hobbes wrote that "life is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short", if there is no central authority.

Few Somalis have probably heard of Hobbes but most would agree with his description - except for "solitary", as family and clan ties remain extremely strong.

The last government, of Siad Barre, was toppled in 1991.

Since then Somalia has been divided into a myriad of different fiefdoms controlled by rival warlords, who occasionally clash for territory.

So what is life like after more than a decade without a government?

No public spending

Driving 50km (30 miles) from one of the airstrips near the capital, Mogadishu, to the city, you pass seven checkpoints, each run by a different militia.

The former Coca Cola factory
Life in Somalia is 'poor, nasty, brutish and short'
At each of these "border crossings" all passenger vehicles and goods lorries must pay an "entry fee", ranging from $3 - $300, depending on the value of the goods being carried - and what the militiamen think they can get away with.

There is no pretence that any of this money goes on public services, such as health, education or roads.

Much of it is spent by the militiamen on khat, an addictive stimulant, whose green leaves they can chew for hours on end.

Those who can afford it travel with several armed guards - and then you can pass the road-blocks unmolested.

I am from Somalia and to live without government is the most dangerous system
Abdow, Vingaker,Sweden

Much of south Mogadishu appears deceptively calm but parts, including the north, remain too dangerous to visit.

While Siad Barre is commonly referred to as a dictator and people were press-ganged into fighting wars with Somalia's neighbours, some now remember with fondness that schools and hospitals were free.

It is now estimated that only about 15% of children of primary-school age actually go to school, compared with at least 75% even in Somalia's poor neighbours.

In Mogadishu, many schools, colleges, universities and even government buildings, have become camps for the people who fled to the capital seeking sanctuary from fighting elsewhere.


Makeshift shelters made from branches, orange plastic sheets and old pieces of metal cover what were once manicured lawns outside schools and offices.

Somalia is a pure free market
Somalia-based diplomat
And since some of the militiamen started to kidnap aid workers, demanding huge ransom fees, many of the aid agencies have pulled out, leaving many of those in the camps without any assistance whatsoever.

"Some of my children sell nuts in the street to earn some money. We can't afford to send them to school," says Ladan Barow Nur with resignation, as she cooks chapattis for the evening meal on an open fire just outside her tent.

"My husband helps shoppers carry their goods in the market but it's not enough. We're always hungry."

Facts and figures about life in Somalia

She lives in what was a school in Mogadishu. There are no toilets in what is now a refugee camp, and in the rainy season, diseases such as malaria, tuberculosis, diarrhoea and dysentery spread quickly.

Some schools, universities and hospitals continue to operate but they are mostly privately run and charge fees.

The many thousands of people like Mrs Ladan are unable to pay the $3 it costs to see a doctor and so people die of diseases which could be easily prevented or cured.

Market forces

"Somalia is a pure free market," one diplomat told me.

And the central Bakara market certainly looks to be thriving. Some businesses, such as telecoms, are also doing well, with mobile phone masts and internet cafes among the few new structures in Mogadishu, a city where many buildings still bear the scars of the heavy fighting between rival militias of the early 1990s.

Somali money
This large pile of notes is worth about $210
But is a pure free market a good thing?

Speaking from a theoretical point of view, some economists might say so, but in the very harsh reality of Mogadishu, it means guns and other military hardware are freely available in a market not far from the city centre.

I was advised that it was too dangerous to visit, as customers were constantly firing the weapons to make sure they work before buying them.

The cost of an AK-47 is the equivalent of a survey of business confidence in more stable countries.

Following the election of a new president in October, the price fell, as people anticipated that militias may soon no longer be able to operate with impunity.

But a month on, with a government still not named, nor a clear plan for how or when President Abdullahi Yusuf and his team will even go to Mogadishu, let alone get anything done, the price of a weapon has been creeping higher.

Passports for sale

The lack of a government also means that the US dollar is the currency of choice - even refugees beg in hard currency.

Somali shillings are still used but the notes only come in one denomination - 1,000, worth seven US cents.

Somali passport
Somalia's passports are a DIY affair
Three types of notes are in circulation - some still survive from the last government, some were printed by the newly elected President Yusuf, when he was in charge of his native Puntland region, and others were commissioned by private businessmen.

At first, some traders in Mogadishu refused to accept the new notes but now they are all used side-by-side.

Similarly, the printing of passports has been privatised. For just $80 and in less than 24 hours, I became a Somali citizen, born in Mogadishu.

As I had omitted to travel with any passport-sized photos, my supplier kindly left the laminate for that page intact, for me to stick down at home.

For a slightly higher fee, I was offered a diplomatic passport, with my choice of posting or ministerial job.

There is nothing you can do when kids with guns steal everything you have, even your clothes
Former Somali army major
With passports and guns freely available, those wanting to launch terror attacks have just about everything they need.

And some fear that in the absence of any other authority, terror training camps could be set up in Somalia.

Although Somalis are able to survive and some are even prospering, everyone I spoke to in Mogadishu is desperate for a return to some semblance of law and order - schools and hospitals can only follow security on the new government's to-do list.

"I just want a government, any government will do," one man told me.

We all seem to enjoy criticising our governments but life in Somalia shows the alternative is far worse, as Hobbes wrote 350 years ago.

A former Somali army major, now a refugee in London, summed up life without a government very well.

"There is nothing you can do when kids with guns steal everything you have, even your clothes. I'm from a small clan, so I was unable to fight back," he said.

"Here, there are rules which people respect and so you can get on with your life in peace."


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific