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Copyright 1993 The Washington Post

January 24, 1993, Sunday, Final Edition

The Italian Connection: How Rome Helped Ruin Somalia

By Wolfgang Achtner

DATELINE: ROME

The agony of Somalia has its roots in the endemic political corruption of Italy. Throughout the 1980s, Italian politicians and businessmen used the country, once a colony of Italy's, as a playground for huge construction projects that either did little to help the local population or actually disrupted and damaged Somalian society.

" Italy is definitely responsible for the tribal warfare and the genocide in Somalia," says Francesco Rutelli, a congressman for the environmentalist Green Party, which has played a leading role in exposing what has become a scandal in Italy. The United States, while not deeply involved in Somalia, was well aware of what was going on. Two U.S. ambassadors to Rome, Maxwell Rabb III and Peter Secchia, relayed Washington's approval of Italian policy in the Horn of Africa in the late 1980s, according to Western diplomats and Italian officials.

The reality of Italy's cynical role in Somalia is clear from documents made available to Parliament by the Italian Foreign Ministry. They show that Italy sponsored 114 projects in Somalia between 1981 and 1990, spending more than a billion dollars. With few exceptions (such as a vaccination program carried out by non-government organizations), the Italian ventures were absurd and wasteful.

Approximately $ 250 million was spent on the Garoe-Bosaso road that stretches 450 kilometers across barren desert, crossed only by nomads on foot. More than $ 40 million was spent to build a brand new hospital equipped with sophisticated machinery and operating rooms, in Corioley, south of Mogadishu. Since the Somalis were unable to run it, the hospital was allowed to fall to pieces. The Italian government paid about $ 95 million for a fertilizer plant in Mogadishu that never became operational. The Italians even established a University of Somalia -- despite the fact that 98 percent of the population is illiterate. The Italian professors received salaries between $ 16,000 and $ 20,000 per month. "If you consider that from 1981 to 1990 Italian aid to Somalia was almost equal to 50 percent of the country's [Somalia's] GNP and that for years Italy was the major donor of aid to Somalia," says Rutelli, "it's easy to see what a negative influence we had and just how great our reponsibilities are."

Piero Ugolini, a Florentine agronomist who worked for the technical cooperation unit of the Italian Embassy in Mogadishu from 1986 to 1990, says that a majority of Italian cooperation projects were carried out without considering their effects on the local populations. The result, he says, were increasing social tensions that led to the civil war. In February 1988, for example, Italy donated more than $ 4 million to set up a joint venture company that would buy cattle and sheep from the pastoral populations. The animals were fattened and exported to provide the Somali government with a source of hard currency. One year later, Siad Barre sold 3,500 head of cattle to the Yemeni army, in exchange for weapons used to fight his rivals, according to Ugolini.

"The Italian aid program was used to exploit the pastoral populations and to support a regime that did nothing to promote internal development and was responsible for the death of many of its own people," Ugolini says. Ugolini points out that the Italian authorities failed to discourage the use of what he calls "the modern equivalent of slavery" at the former "Duca degli Abruzzi" farm in Johar. More than 3,000 people were employed every year at the farm; most of them came from a prison located in the midst of the sugar plantation. Other workers were "hired" after lists were drawn up during meetings between the director of the farm, the political police, the leaders of nearby villages and the unions. The average pay was between 500 and 700 lira per day, about 50 cents.

Behind these misbegotten projects lay old-fashioned corruption. The Italian construction and engineering companies who were awarded lucrative contracts for the projects provided kickbacks to the political class in Rome and local politicians. The Italian taxpayer footed the bill. Control over the aid and development projects was shared by all the political parties in exactly the same way that all jobs in the vast public and semi-public sector were divided up. Ethiopia, another former Italian colony in the Horn of Africa, was awarded to the Christian Democrats. The Socialist party got Somalia.

The Socialists' long affair with Siad Barre had its roots in the early 1970s, when the future dictator had embraced socialism and vowed to carry out a revolutionary transformation of the Somali pastoral society. At first, Barre was embraced by the Italian Communist Party. Party officials, leftist intellectuals and sympathetic businessmen all frequented Somalia. But this flirtation ended abruptly in the first months of 1978, after Barre attempted to grab the Ogaden region from Ethiopia. The Somali invasion ended in defeat and humiliation. Barre broke off with Moscow and renounced "scientific Socialism."

In October 1978, the Italy-Somali Chamber of Commerce opened in Milan, the first act of a new political alliance between the Somali Socialist Revolutionary Party and the Italian Socialist Party. The party's new leader, Bettino Craxi, was seeking to make the Socialists a force to be reckoned with. His brother-in-law, Paolo Pillitteri, was the president of the Chamber. Many of the Italian-sponsored construction projects in Somalia in the 1980s were brokered by the Chamber.

Kickbacks became a routine part of doing business through the Chamber, according to a lawsuit filed against Craxi and Pillitteri in the spring of 1989. Gen. Mohamed Farah Aidid, a former aide to Siad Barre, alleged in the suit that the Socialists had promised him and another Somali official a "50-50 split" of the 10 percent commission on all deals settled through the Chamber. The two Somalis claimed they were owed billions of lira. A civil court in Milan dismissed the case, ruling that it was impossible to confirm the existence of an agreement to split the kickbacks without any written evidence. Aidid, whose name means "he who doesn't tolerate insults," is one of the two most powerful warlords in Somalia. Not surprisingly, he protested loudly when Italian troops returned to Somalia last December as part of Operation Restore Hope.

The corrupt relationship between the Italians and Barre, which began in 1978, flourished after 1983 when Craxi became prime minister. The Socialists flooded Somalia with millions of dollars in aid. Siad Barre obtained arms, military advisers and trainers for his armed forces. In September 1985, Craxi became the first Italian prime minister to make an official visit to Somalia, and he promised Siad Barre aid worth approximately $ 450 million over the next two years. Barre returned the visit and twice came to Rome, where he was received with all honors in 1986 and 1987. When Italian President Francesco Cossiga received the Somali dictator at the presidential palace in 1987, he congratulated Siad Barre, who had just been "re-elected" president with over 99 percent of the vote. On the Somali side, all the money was allegedly handled by Barre's eldest son, 48-year-old colonel Hassan Mohammed Siad, who had an apartment in the Hotel Raphael in Rome -- the same hotel where Craxi had his permanent residence in the Italian capital. During these years, many members of the Barre family (the dictator had five wives and at least 30 children) acquired property and bank accounts in Switzerland. On the Italian side, the list of beneficiaries reads like a who's who of major construction, engineering and communications firms.

By the late 1980s, the Italian government had lost touch with reality in Somalia. "We obviously had no idea of what was going on in Somalia and until the very last moment we tried to save Siad Barre," says Francesco Rutelli. In May 1988, rising dissatisfaction with Siad Barre's regime led to rebellion in northern Somalia. The dictator crushed the revolt by destroying three cities; 15,000 people died. Back in Rome, opposition politicians demanded an end to the cooperation with Somalia and were rebuffed. Detailed reports of tortures and atrocities committed by the Barre government, released by Amnesty International, had no effect on the Italian government. Rome maintained cordial relations with Siad Barre after the assassination of the bishop of Mogadishu, Salvatore Colombo, in July 1989, and even after an Italian biologist was beaten to death in the headquarters of the Somali secret services in June 1990. When members of the opposition complained in Parliament that Italy was supporting dictatorships, Socialist Foreign Minister Gianni De Michelis answered: "If we were to abandon all those states run by dictators in Africa there would be no one left to cooperate with."

Italy lost its final chance to win back some friends in Somalia when, just before Siad Barre was forced to flee Mogadishu in January 1991, Foreign Minister De Michelis tried to convince representatives of the rebel movements in Rome that a new political scenario must include the former dictator.

The tragedy of Italian involvement in Somalia, according to Rutelli and others, is that Italy was in a position thoughout the 1980s to put enormous pressure on Siad Barre and force him to change his ways. But every time he and the Greens called on the government to link the concession of Italian aid in Somalia to human rights and reforms, they were rebuffed by the powerful interests around Craxi.

Now Craxi and Pillitteri are at the center of a huge corruption scandal in Milan. Investigating magistrates claim that the Socialist Party in Milan orchestrated a huge web of corruption and kickbacks paid to local officials, belonging to almost all the political parties, in exchange for lucrative public contracts. The magistrates have asked Parliament to lift the Socialist leader's immunity from prosecution. More than 90 politicians and businessmen, many of them with close personal ties to Craxi, have been arrested, and a number of major construction companies like Cogefar and Lodigiani, which carried out some of the biggest jobs in Somalia, have also been implicated.

In Somalia, the total breakdown of civil order after Siad Barre's departure forced humanitarian agencies to withdraw and prompted the United Nations to call for U.S. intervention. When the U.S troops arrived via boat in the harbor of Mogadishu, they unknowingly passed by the rotting remains of three boats that had been paid for by an Italian government program to develop the fishing industry. The boats had never been used.

Wolfgang Achtner is a journalist in Rome.

 


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