MOGADISHU, Somalia – Sacks of grain, peanut butter snacks and other
food staples meant for starving Somalis are being stolen and sold in
markets, an Associated Press investigation has found, raising concerns
that thieving businessmen are undermining international famine relief
efforts in this nearly lawless country.
The U.N.’s World Food Program acknowledged for the first time that it
has been investigating food theft in Somalia for two months. The WFP
strongly condemned any diversion of “even the smallest amount of food
from starving and vulnerable Somalis.”
Underscoring the perilous security throughout the food distribution
chain, donated food is not even safe once it has been given to the
hungry in the makeshift camps popping up around the capital of
Mogadishu. Families at the large, government-run Badbado camp, where
several aid groups distribute food, said they were often forced to
hand back aid after journalists had taken photos of them with it.
“They tell us they will keep it for us and force us to give them our
food,” said refugee Halima Sheikh Abdi. “We can’t refuse to co-operate
because if we do, they will force us out of the camp, and then you
don’t know what to do and eat. It’s happened to many people already.”
The U.N. says more than 3.2 million Somalis — nearly half the
population — need food aid after a severe drought that has been
complicated by Somalia’s long-running war. More than 450,000 Somalis
live in famine zones controlled by al-Qaida-linked militants, where
aid is difficult to deliver. The U.S. says 29,000 Somali children
under age 5 already have died.
International officials have long expected some of the food aid
pouring into Somalia to disappear. But the sheer scale of the theft
calls into question the aid groups’ ability to reach the starving. It
also raises concerns about the ability of aid agencies and the Somali
government to fight corruption, and whether diverted aid is fueling
Somalia’s 20-year civil war.
“While helping starving people, you are also feeding the power groups
that make a business out of the disaster,” said Joakim Gundel, who
heads Katuni Consult, a Nairobi-based company often asked to evaluate
international aid efforts in Somalia. “You’re saving people’s lives
today so they can die tomorrow.”
For the past two weeks, planeloads of aid from the U.N., Iran, Turkey,
Kuwait and other countries have been roaring into Mogadishu almost
daily. Boatloads more are on the way. There is no doubt that much of
it is saving lives: the AP saw hungry families lining up for hot meals
at feeding centres, and famished children eating free food while
crouched among makeshift homes of ragged scraps of plastic.
WFP Somalia country director Stefano Porretti said the agency’s system
of independent, third-party monitors uncovered allegations of possible
food diversion. But he underscored how dangerous the work is: WFP has
had 14 employees killed in Somalia since 2008.
“Monitoring food assistance in Somalia is a particularly dangerous
process,” Porretti said.
In Mogadishu markets, vast piles of food are for sale with stamps on
them from the WFP, the U.S. government aid arm USAID, the Japanese
government and the Kuwaiti government. The AP found eight sites where
thousands of sacks of food aid were being sold in bulk. Other food aid
was also for sale in numerous smaller stores. Among the items being
sold were Kuwaiti dates and biscuits, corn, grain, and Plumpy’nut — a
fortified peanut butter designed for starving children.
An official in Mogadishu with extensive knowledge of the food trade
said he believes a massive amount of aid is being stolen — perhaps up
to half of recent aid deliveries. The percentage had been lower, he
said, but in recent weeks the flood of aid into the capital with
little or no controls has created a bonanza for businessmen.
The official, like the businessmen interviewed for this story, spoke
on condition of anonymity to avoid reprisals.
The AP could not verify the official’s claims. WFP said that it
rejected the scale of diversions alleged by the official.
At one of the sites for stolen food aid — the former water agency
building at a location called “Kilometer Five” — about a dozen
corrugated iron sheds are stacked with sacks of food aid. Outside,
women sell food from open 110-pound (50-kilogram) sacks, and traders
load the food onto carts or vehicles under the indifferent eyes of
Stolen food aid is the main reason the U.S. military become involved
in the country’s 1992 famine, an intervention that ended shortly after
the military battle known as Black Hawk Down. There are no indications
the military plans to get involved in this year’s famine relief
The WFP emphasized that it has “strong controls … in place” in
Somalia, where it cited risks in delivering food in a “dangerous,
lawless, and conflict-ridden environment.”
WFP said it was “confident the vast majority of humanitarian food is
reaching starving people in Mogadishu,” adding that AP reports of
“thousands” of bags of stolen food would equal less than 1 per cent of
one month’s distribution for Somalia.
Somali government spokesman Abdirahman Omar Osman said the government
does not believe food aid is being stolen on a large scale, but if
such reports come to light, the government “will do everything in our
power” to bring action in a military court.
The AP investigation also found evidence that WFP is relying on a
contractor blamed for diverting large amounts of food aid in a 2010
Eight Somali businessmen said they bought food from the contractor,
Abdulqadir Mohamed Nur, who is known as Enow. His wife heads Saacid, a
powerful Somali aid agency that WFP uses to distribute hot food. The
official with extensive knowledge of the food trade said at some
Saacid sites, it appeared that less than half the amount of food
supplied was being prepared.
Attempts to reach Enow or his wife for comment were not successful.
Businessmen said Enow had several warehouses around the city where he
sold food from, including a site behind the Nasa Hablod hotel at a
roundabout called “Kilometer Four.”
Three businessman described buying food directly from the port and one
said he paid directly into Enow’s Dahabshiel account, a money transfer
system widely used in Somalia. WFP has no foreign staff at the port to
check on stock levels or which trucks are picking it up; it relies on
Somali staff and an unidentified independent monitor to check on
The men said they would buy in bulk for $20 per sack and sell at
between $23 and $25 — a week’s salary for a Somali policeman or
Until last week, there were daily battles in the capital between
Islamic insurgents and government forces supported by African Union
peacekeepers. Suicide bombers and snipers prowled the city.
WFP does not serve and prepare the food itself. After the deaths of 14
employees, WFP rarely allows its staff outside the AU’s heavily
fortified main base at the airport. It relies on a network of Somali
aid agencies to distribute its food.
Gundel, the consultant, said aid agencies hadn’t learned many lessons
from the 1992 famine, when hundreds of thousands died and aid
shipments were systematically looted, leading to the U.S. military
“People need to know the history here,” he said. “They have to make
sure the right infrastructure is in place before they start giving out
aid. If you are bringing food into Somalia it will always be a bone of
In the short term, he said, aid agencies should diversify their
distribution networks, conduct frequent random spot checks on
partners, and organize in communities where they work — but before an
emergency occurs. “It’s going to be very, very hard to do now,” he
At the Badbado camp, Ali Said Nur said he was also a victim of food
thefts. He said he twice received two sacks of maize, but each time
was forced to give one to the camp leader.
“You don’t have a choice. You have to simply give without an argument
to be able to stay here,” he said.