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Development has begun to return to the region bordering Somalia, Kenya and Ethiopia after more than a year of poverty due to fighting between Somali Transitional Federal Government (TFG) forces and al-Shabaab militants. While the conflict is not over, some traders are making cautious efforts to revive business in the region.
From February 2011, when the roads in the Gedo region were mined by insurgents seeking to prevent pro-government and foreign troops from seizing the region, the normal trade routes between Somalia's capital Mogadishu and the Gedo region of Somalia deteriorated. The closure of the highway to Mogadishu in particular crippled the region, since it passes through the Afgoye and Walanweyn districts in the Lower Shabelle region, up through the Bur-Hakaba, Baidoa and Bardale districts in Bay region, through the Luq and Dolow districts in Gedo region, running to the border of Ethiopia. More than 200 kilometers of this critical road were closed between the Luq and Baidoa districts for more than a year, only opening in April 2012. During that time, al-Shabaab's forces extended from Yurku village to subsume the regions of Bay and Bakool completely, and parts of the Gedo region.
“When the strategic road between Luq and Baidoa districts was closed, we started to travel a rough road which turns from nearby Baidoa and passes through many areas in Bakool, Bay and Gedo regions,” Mohamed Ali, a truck driver, told Somalia Report. “Our travel along the side roads may take as much as three months, while even when it is raining, our journey on the major access road may be as little as three days.”
Many lives and vehicles were lost to the closure of the main roads. “The side road has many boulders and pitted with holes; moreover, a large part of the road is washed out during the rainy seasons” said another driver, Adan Faaney. Due to the hilly region between Beled-Hawo and Mandera, donkey carts were used for transporting goods.
However after 14 months, the road has reopened and this has supported trade between neighboring regions in Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya. “When I saw at least 500 cars stuck in the road near Goofgadud village in Bay region, I realized the hardship caused by the closure of the major access road. Allah has granted us a dispensation and I’m very pleased to see our road reopened,” said Sadia Hussein, a businesswoman and mother who lives in the Beled-Hawo district of Gedo Region.
People in Gedo and neighboring regions claim al-Shabaab were responsible for the landmines, and recall checkpoints near the Yurkut village and Bardale district, located between the Luq and Baidoa districts. Al-Shabaab never gave a media statement on the road closures, but TFG Gedo commissioner Mohamed Abdi Kalil speculates as to why al-Shabaab closed the roads. “When they realized they would be forced from the Gedo region, they decided to isolate the region by cutting off the major road from Baidoa to Luq, thereby cutting off access to food aid to the region. They hoped the starvation would compel people to support al-Shabaab, but that didn’t happen,” he told Somalia Report.
During the road closure, the price of basic necessities rose in the Gedo region and many regions like Kenya's Northeastern Province and the Somali self-governing land in Ethiopia saw a doubling in the cost of basic food items. Other critical items, such as flour, rice, sugar, pasta, oil, the canned milk powder and many others including fuel, electronics and cars for sell became very expensive. For example, a 50 kilogram sack of sugar reached $106, while before the closure of the road it was only $51. Prices have begun to return to normal. “We look forward to life returning to normal, as the bus fare from Mogadishu to the Gedo region was more than $50, but now it is around $30,” said Abdi-Karim Abdullaahi Osman, a Beled-Hawo resident who recently came from Mogadishu.
The Kenyan northeastern province of Mandera borders with Somalia and Ethiopia and much of the goods traded in the region come from Somalia, as such it was affected by the road closure. Mohamed Yusuf, a Mandera businessman, told Somalia Report how developments affected his business. “While the road was closed, we used to drive a long distance through Ethiopia to reach Mandera. At that time, we often lost truckloads of goods, as Ethiopia made restricted trade and travel, and many of our merchants fell into the hands of the soldiers who seized their goods as contraband,” he said. “However, life has returned back to normal. Now one often sees trucks passing through the Beled-Hawo district carrying many and varied goods. For over a year, we would rarely see even one or two trucks through Beled-Hawo, so we are grateful for Allah's mercy,” Mohamed added.
Locals express their pleasure and hope that the hardship of the past year is behind them. “Over the last year, everything became hard, not just for us but many people have suffered from the rising food prices. I hope things continue to improve, and plead with all the factions who still fight each other to respect our rights and not to close the road again,” said Fatuma Osman, a widow with nine children.
Some people in the region said local officials and traders had paid bribes to al-Shabaab to end the road closure. Noor Sayah, the TFG commissioner for the Beled-Hawo district, told Somalia Report that al-Shabaab was driven out by force. “Al-Shabaab wanted the road closure to continue until they seized regions of Gedo, Bay and Bakool. Finally they learned their lesson, and now they hope to rob our goods, but speaking for the TFG, we will fight al-Shabaab's presence” Noor Sayah said.
Al-Shabaab officials failed to offer any comment to Somalia Report's requests.