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Analysis of looting in the Somali war

Summary of published research1

In an attempt to fill the academic void around looting, a recent paper has examined practices of looting in the Somali war. Somalia has experienced violent conflict and war since the end of the 1970s. The state collapsed completely in 1991 and southern parts of the country especially have since been characterised by intermittent violence, banditry and looting. This paper is based on field research but also relies on descriptions found in newspaper articles and academic literature on the Somali war, as well as on internet blogs. Field research was conducted between 2002 and 2005 in the Kismayo, Mogadishu, Bay and Bakool regions of Southern Somalia.

The author finds that rather than being inspired primarily by economic objectives, lootings are complex and ambiguous social activities, which are embedded in daily practices and the political rhetoric of the war. In Somalia, looting activities have been driven by a broad range of motives, including military-strategic considerations and/or desire to revenge past atrocities and (perceived) injustices, as well as economic interests. Furthermore, the organisational structure, the performance of actions and the main targets of looters have differed widely. Based on an empirical analysis of different waves and phases of looting in the context of war and state decay in Somalia, the paper identifies six types of looting (see Table 1). These types are not exclusive and different kinds of looting may occur simultaneously or at different locations. Types may also overlap or over time, change from one to another.

The most common is strategic looting, which remains embedded in the political or ideological programme of war actors and draws on the rhetoric of friend and foe.

Protest looting demonstrates a collective claim to common goods, levelling looting aims to balance social and material differences. In prolonged wars, poverty looting becomes likely. If organised looting materialises, violent actors usually cooperate with business people and regularly with local or national authorities and international partners. However, widespread looting leads to exhaustion. Outside input is required to sustain looting economies, which in Somalia took the form of humanitarian aid.

Although international organisations contributed to the prolongation of violence, they also stimulated the transformation of local security arrangements. Protection rackets promises to confine violence and looting, and therefore enjoy a certain degree of legitimacy. In Somalia, such rackets provided the basis for localised forms of domination, which emerged in the southern and central parts of the country in the second half of the 1990s. These arrangements were clan-based and relied on co-operation between clan militias and businesspersons and traditional authorities. Although violence continued, the new power arrangements enhanced security and stimulated economic revival.

The study reveals that looting is not an expression of political chaos, but rather is patterned by and rooted in local moral universes. These have been fundamentally transformed during the course of the violent conflicts in the country since the end of the 1970s.

Table 1: Cross over design of the trial
Type Objects Main motivation Actors Performance
Strategic looting Properties of enemies War strategy Militias, government forces Selective targeting, humiliation of enemies,
Protest looting Public goods Protest exclusion Mobs, masses, gangs Selective attacks on public facilities, often angry and aggressive
Levelling looting Properties of privileged groups Protest social injustices Mobs, masses Urban riots with festive character
Poverty looting Food, medicine Survival Gangs, urban masses, militias Raids on food stores, markets, harvests
Organised looting Exchangeable and sellable goods Material benefit Gangs, militias in cooperation with businesspersons Goal oriented raids, strategic planning
Rackets Sale of protection Material benefit, power and domination Violent organisations and business people Vigilantism, police functions, cooperation with population/business people/NGOs

 

Show footnotes

1Bakonyi. J (2010). Between protest, revenge and material interests: a phenomenological analysis of looting in the Somali war. Disasters, vol 34 (S2): S238-S255

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Reference this page

Analysis of looting in the Somali war. Field Exchange 39, September 2010. p21. www.ennonline.net/fex/39/analysis