The chief job of Ali Sharif Ahmed, the recently appointed Somali ambassador to the U.S., is to pave the way for debt forgiveness on the backs of the U.S. taxpayers.
President Trump campaigned against unnecessary U.S. commitments and publicly called out wasteful aid spending. Why, then, is he prepared to bail out Somalia, rated by Transparency International to be the world’s most corrupt country for more than a decade, to the tune of $1 billion in U.S. taxpayer funds?
At issue is Somalia’s debt. According to the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, between 1991 and 2011, the United States spent $50 billion on Somalia. Over the past decade, the U.S. has given hundreds of millions of dollars more annually. Add into the mix the European Union, United Nations, and other aid agencies, and the money is even greater.
Somali President Mohammed Abdullahi Farmajo, Prime Minister Hassan Ali Khaire, and Finance Minister Abdirahman Duale Beyle have crisscrossed Western capitals, arguing that stability and future progress in Somalia requires debt forgiveness. The International Monetary Fund agrees. At issue is not just $1 billion in debt owed to the U.S. Treasury and an additional $4 billion owed elsewhere. If the Somali debt is wiped clean, then Somalia can once again borrow and receive new loans, especially for the amorphous and ill-defined “general budgetary support.”
There are several problems with this, all of which should raise red flags in the White House and Congress.
When historians and academics consider Somalia’s collapse, they focus not only on mismanagement under dictator Siyad Barre, whose reign of terror collapsed in 1991, but also on the wholesale looting of state assets. As the late historian John Drysdale noted, “Opportunism, being the ancient key to Somali survival in savannah conditions, could be readily turned by recent generations of urban dweller to the exploitation of alien moneybags.” Indeed, while the U.S. State Department seeks to concentrate all funds into Mogadishu in order to build patronage and loyalty to the central government, any honest assessment of recent Somali history will find insecurity an inverse relationship between aid and security. A new Stanford University Press book by Canadian scholar Jessica Darden Drisko finds direct linkages between greater humanitarian aid and state violence.
The chief job of Ali Sharif Ahmed, the recently appointed Somali ambassador to the U.S., is to pave the way for debt forgiveness on the backs of the U.S. taxpayer. Unfortunately, his arguments are rooted more in fantasy than reality. In a National Interest article, he suggests that accusations of “corruption and an unwillingness to fight terrorism” are “false stories.” Such declarations do little to address why Transparency International, surely a neutral arbiter, once again found Somalia to be the world’s most corrupt country: Corruption is both one of the leading causes and consequences of endemic political instability in Somalia, which has been ranked bottom of Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index every year since 2006. Corruption occurs at all levels in both the public and private sectors, and is a visible and expected form of behavior. It affects virtually every aspect of the Somali society: from public officials’ misuse of public goods for private gain and the solicitation of bribes in exchange for basic services to the clan-based patronage networks used to obtain employment and political appointments.
Simply put, while Ahmed and Farmajo say they have turned a corner on corruption, they have shown no willingness to trace the squandered billions or, in Farmajo’s case, even to release his U.S. tax returns from the years before he renounced his citizenship. When asking for a billion dollars in debt relief, a very relevant question is how a low-level Buffalo, New York, civil servant subsequently accumulated significant wealth since his return to Mogadishu.
More dangerous is Ahmed’s denial of Somalia’s growing security challenges. He writes of al Shabaab, “The terrorist force is on the run, reduced to operating in remote areas, away from economic and political centers.” And yet, al Shabaab continues to stage attacks in the heart of Mogadishu. Even currently serving Somali officials acknowledge that al Shabaab levies taxes, permits, and licenses in the heart of Mogadishu. Under Farmajo’s tenure, the Islamic State has made a comeback in Puntland. And al Shabaab has released videos of tribal leaders in Jubaland and elsewhere swearing allegiance to the group and begging forgiveness for having worked with the federal government of Somalia.
If the ambassador is to lie so outrageously, he does so because he believes Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Congress are dupes — they should not reward him by forcing U.S. citizens to pick up the tab on Somalia’s debt.
There is little accountability within the IMF or World Bank with regard to the ultimate utilization of their funds, but it is the job of Congress to defend the interests of the U.S. taxpayer. Somalia has done little to show it has turned the corner. To the contrary, Farmajo seems willing to sacrifice hard-fought gains for his own ambitions.
Farmajo has not accounted for the off-books funds he has apparently received through Fahad Yasin, the head of the national intelligence and security agency and Somalia’s chief liaison to Qatar. Farmajo would rather use the state treasury to fight his political rivals than al Shabaab. Nor is it clear why Somalia must get U.S. debt relief when it turns around and grants contracts for its fisheries to China or its offshore oil interests to Turkey.
Back in Washington, Democrats and Republicans may engage in partisan warfare in front of the television cameras and against the backdrop of Trump’s impeachment trial. But despite the polarization in Washington today, both Democrats and Republicans seek the best for their constituents. To form a united front on Somalia and demand no more handouts is a bipartisan interest.
If Somalia wants to clear its debt, let it account for its missing money, fight corruption, and promote its private sector. At the very least, relevant congressional committees should have a hearing to debate the merits of debt forgiveness and additional aid to Somalia. To do otherwise is to give relatively low-level and unaccountable State Department bureaucrats control over America’s purse.
About the Author
Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, where he researches Arab politics, the Gulf Cooperation Council, Iran, Iraq, the Kurds, terrorism, and Turkey. He concurrently teaches classes on terrorism for the FBI and on security, politics, religion, and history for US and NATO military units.
A former Pentagon official, Dr. Rubin has lived in post-revolution Iran, Yemen, and both pre- and postwar Iraq, and he spent time with the Taliban before 9/11. He is the author, co-author, and co-editor of several books exploring Iranian history, American diplomacy, Kurdish studies, and Shi’ite politics, including “Kurdistan Rising” (AEI Press, 2016), “Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes” (Encounter Books, 2014); and “Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos” (Palgrave, 2005).
Dr. Rubin has a Ph.D. and an M.A. in history from Yale University, where he also obtained a B.S. in biology.
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