NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — Somali politicians are returning from Arab nations with briefcases of cash, and a Somali government watchdog report obtained by The Associated Press found that more than $70 million of it is missing instead of being used to fight terrorism, piracy or hunger.
The large cash payments encourage politicians to hang onto power while paying little attention to crucial needs in a country devastated by two decades of war. A lack of attention to constituents' needs may also be fueling an al-Qaida-linked insurgency, officials say.
"Politicians want to keep the status quo. They're profiting from it," said Abdirazak Fartaag, the head of the Public Finance Management Unit, a Somali government body charged with overseeing the country's financial management. "We have to hold these big shots accountable."
Somalia's prime minister told AP the government is trying to be more transparent by working from a budget and making records public.
In a 22-page report due to be released Wednesday and obtained exclusively by AP, Fartaag documented cash payments that came from Libya, the United Arab Emirates, Sudan and other donors in 2009 and 2010 totaling more than $75 million. Only $2.8 million was accounted for by the government. He based his report, which was written for the Somali government, on interviews with politicians who witnessed the payments or received money in Mogadishu, Somalia's capital.
Fartaag said in his report that the Somali government is missing more than $300 million once internal revenues from the port, airport, khat trade and telecommunications are added to the Arab millions that have vanished.
A separate AP investigation established that cash payments from Arab nations continue amid a lack of transparency over how much money politicians accept and what happens with it.
Somali Prime Minister Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed told AP in an interview in Mogadishu in April that his government received one payment of $5 million dollars from a Middle Eastern country this year that he "believed" to be the United Arab Emirates.
But Finance Minister Hussein Halane told AP in April that he accompanied the prime minister twice to Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, this year and had seen Mohamed personally receive $5 million in cash each time. After more than 50 phone calls and e-mails from AP over six weeks, the government produced documentation showing that only one payment of $5 million was deposited into the country's Central Bank. The other payment remains unaccounted for.
Politicians in position to receive such payments have little incentive to reach out to armed groups to end conflict because then they'd have to share the money, Fartaag said in an interview in Nairobi on Tuesday.
The weak U.N.-backed Somali government is fighting the al-Shabab Islamist insurgency that has control of much of central and southern Somalia. Al-Shabab kidnaps children to use as soldiers, carries out public stonings and amputations and claimed responsibility for bombings that killed 76 people in Uganda last July.
The government is constantly appealing for more cash to fight the insurgents, even as it fails to account for money already received.
Both Western and Arab nations pour aid into Somalia to try to combat piracy and terrorism and provide social services. The government gets very little cash directly from the West. Most goes to aid agencies. The U.S. and Italy even insist on paying wages directly to Somali soldiers after it turned out that commanders were stealing soldiers' salaries.
Oil-rich nations like Sudan and the United Arab Emirates have a tradition of cash diplomacy in which visiting officials are handed stacks of $100 bills to take home.
The foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates told AP he had no specific details at hand about funding for the Mogadishu government.
"I really cannot recall what the financial aid that's been given to the Somali government (is) from the UAE," said Sheik Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan. "We are just, frankly speaking, trying to solve ... the Somali conflict."
Somalia's prime minister and the finance minister say the government deposits these donations in Somalia's Central Bank, a newly renovated building in downtown Mogadishu whose fresh coats of paint stand out from the smashed gray concrete rubble around it.
"We are trying to be more transparent. We have a budget. We have public records of our finances," Mohamed said.
Halane said that not all cash was necessarily deposited in the government's account because some was spent on "legitimate and documented" expenses by officials before being deposited. The AP was not able to get details of these expenses. Officials did not respond to repeated requests for further documentation.
The sums are a fortune, especially in impoverished, war-ravaged Somalia.
The cratered streets of the capital are filled with rail-thin Somalis, rifles slung across their backs, wandering past thorn bushes and roofless homes pocked with bullet holes. Families fleeing the violence camp in domes of cloth tied over bent twigs. Most people in camps scrape by on less than $1 a day.
"There's no government here," said 31-year-old Hassan Ahmed as skinny, ragged children played around him in the sand under the watchful eyes of women in long, drab robes. "There's nothing to eat. There's nothing to drink."
The government says it uses the money to win over citizens like Ahmed by providing services and security. Some small progress has been made since the current Cabinet took power in November. Revenues from the port and airport have increased, a budget was created, civil servants paid, streetlights erected in one neighborhood and along the main road of Maka al-Mukarama. Some roads have been repaired and garbage collected.
It's not clear how much is paid for by donors and how much by the government, which raises revenue from the port, airport, and other sources. There are no public records.
The government's term expires in August and it wants to extend for another year. It also wants more cash, but Western nations appear reluctant to give for now.
"Transparency and accountability are critical," said Cheryl Sim, counselor for Somalia affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Kenya. "Donors have a right to know their taxpayers' contributions are being used as intended. Constituents have the right to know how their government is spending the aid it receives. Unaccounted-for assistance funds are troubling, especially in Somalia."
Associated Press writer Adam Schreck in Abu Dhabi contributed to this report.
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