Photo: Bosasso Port, Somalia, January 2020, by Jutta Bakonyi
Author: Mohamed Hassan Ibrahim, Freelance Researcher and Consultant
Bosaso port is located on the shores of the Gulf of Aden. It is the main seaport of the Puntland State of Somalia, the north-eastern and oldest of the member states of the Federal Republic of Somalia. A 750 km long tarmac road links the port to Galkayo, a town at the southern border of Puntland that connects Bosasso to the central and southern parts of Somalia facilitating the circulation of goods and people. Bosaso port is one of the main hubs for import and export trading activities in Somalia. Most imported goods, including cars, electronics, building materials and food, are re-exported from the United Arab Emirates (UAE), followed by Oman, and Yemen. Exports, mainly livestock (goats, sheep, camels) and livestock-related goods (hides, skins), go to Saudi Arabia, UAE, Oman, and Yemen.
In the first century, Greek merchants mentioned natural harbours in the coastal areas of Bosaso. In the 14th century, the city of Bossaso, then known as “Bandir Qassim,” was established, and the harbours at the coastline facilitated trade connections with the Arabian Peninsula and beyond. Under military rule (1969-91), maritime trading activities shifted to Berbera in the northwest and the capital city Mogadishu. In the 1980s, the rise of armed groups fighting the military dictatorship from the north-eastern part of the country (today Somaliland) disrupted trade through the port in Berbera. The construction of the port in Bosaso provided an alternative, and a move to enhance the legitimacy of the military dictatorship in the marginalized north-eastern regions. The new port construction was funded by Italy, the former colonial power. The construction was planned over several phases. The first phase was completed in early 1991, only days before the defeat of the military government and the subsequent collapse of the state. At the same time, the tarmac road connecting Bosaso to Garowe was finalized. However, the start of the civil war in southern and central Somalia impeded further port developments, and the port, therefore, has operated with outdated facilities and equipment (warehouses, cranes, tug boats,) and has only limited logistical capacities.
The Port City
The fall of the central government in 1991, and the subsequent civil war and mass violence that shattered southern and central Somalia, did not affect the Northwest in the same way. Bosasso did not experience major violence, except for a short violent intermezzo with the Islamist group al-Ittihad al Islami. The port city, therefore, became a prime location for former civil servants and military officials from the locally dominant Darood clans. They used their financial means, previous connections, and know-how to revive international trade. The two other main seaports in Mogadishu and Kismayo were heavily contested after 1991 and closed for prolonged periods. In this context, Bosaso emerged as a major international trade center, enabling livestock export and import of consumer goods. Livestock exports, for example, have increased by 210% between 1991 and 1992.
Bosaso also drew many people from clans considered non-local, especially those who fled from violence and continuous harassment. Many of the in-migrants planned to use the port as an exit route and flee the country by sea, embarking on the dangerous journey across Yemen and the Gulf of Aden, a journey locally referred to as tahriib. After 1991, the city, therefore, saw a massive influx of people and grew rapidly. Population figures are rough estimates and unreliable, but satellite images clearly show the city’s spatial expansion and densification. Between 1991 and 2009, the population of Bosaso was estimated to have grown from around 20,000 to 250,000 people, among them approximately 45,000 internally displaced people (IDPs). According to a 2014 survey, the population of the city was estimated to be 471, 483 people and 49,000 IDPs. The city meanwhile hosts people from all major clans of Somalia. In the clan-based system of governance, however, people from non-local clans have no political representation and voice in the city or regional government. Many city newcomers work as day labourers in the port or port-related trade and construction activities.
Overall, the security situation of Bosaso decreased over the last years. Two Islamic militant groups, Al-Shabab in the west of the city and Islamic State (IS) in the east, pose serious security challenges. Both groups have carried out deadly military raids against government installations in Bosaso and engaged in target killings. Among the murdered was the P&O Bosaso Port manager who was assassinated in July 2019. In March 2021, the Islamist organisations attacked the central jail of Bosaso. The presence of military actors in Bosaso, such as the Puntland Marine Police Forces (PMPF) and Puntland Security Force (PSF), has exasperated the current security challenges in Bosaso. The PMPF and PSF are associated with powerful sub-clans while both al-Shabaab and Islamic State (IS) are associated with the less influential sub-clans, and military operations against the militants have further embroiled the PMPF and PSF in clan dynamics.
Shape and Capacity of the Port
The port is divided into two sections. According to the Puntland Ministry of Ports (2006), one section can accommodate about seven dhows, smaller ships with a capacity of up to 1000 tons. The other section is used by ships up to 6000 tons, but can only handle one ship at a time. During the last decade, major investments in the port involved the development of livestock infrastructures, such as livestock holdings and handling facilities, veterinary inspection and quarantine facilities that allow for veterinary inspection and animal health certification. These investments, which were made by a major Saudi Arabian and several Somali livestock traders, came in reaction to the nine-year ban of Somali livestock by Saudi Arabia (2000-2009) due to concerns about animal health. Especially during the Hajj season, Saudi Arabia imports over 3 million animals from Somalia and Somaliland, is traded mainly through the ports of Bosaso and Berbera.
The port is not large enough and does not have the facilities to handle containers. Goods are imported in a non-containerized manner or bulk, often using dhows orother small bulk carriers which are transport consumer goods, such as cement, construction materials, food items, and medicine from the UAE, Oman, and South Asian countries. Many of these goods are unloaded from container ships handled by other ports in Dubai or Oman. Bosaso takes advantage of its strategic location between the two major Somali ports in Mogadishu and Berbera and embeds itself into a more informal maritime transport network that operates in the shadow of global trade and uses the ‘intersection of legality and illegality’ to provide ‘cheap, safe and quick access to frontier markets and networks’. From July to early September, the traffic in the port usually slows down due to rough winds and high swells in the Indian Ocean caused by the southwest monsoon.
Port Management and Operation
In 2017, the management of the port was handed over to P&O Ports, a subsidiary of the Dubai-based company DP World. The Puntland government signed a 30-years concession agreement with DP World to develop and manage a multi-purpose port in Bosaso. The deal is allegedly worth $336 million to be spent for the expansion and modernization of the port and the deepening of the sea to allow the handling of large-scale container ships. Investments are also directed towards equipment, facilities and technologies, such as IT operating systems, mobile cranes, and a container handling system. Yet, the lack of transparency has raised concerns about the legitimacy of the port concession. This critique was raised by members of the Puntland parliament as well as by traders and businessmen who fear losing their access to the port due to increasing handling flees. The critique also highlighted the secrecy of the agreement with terms that are not known publicly.
Regional and International Rivalries
DP World won port concessions along the coastline of the Horn of Africa. The expansion of maritime positions increases the political influence of the UAE on countries in the Horn and serves its commercial and security interests. To counter the UAE presence in the region, Qatar has also launched port projects in Somalia and Turkey won a 14-year concession for the management and development of the port of Mogadishu. On several occasions, these power conflicts have led to violence, be it that the Puntland Marine Police Forces (PMPF) were directed to attack ships owned by rivals of the UAE, or that Qatar may sponsor attacks of al-Shabab against the Emirates’ interests – as often claimed by local as well as international actors. While the concessions are part of international rivalries for access and influence in the East African region, they are equally used by local actors to boost their economic and political power vis-à-vis their competitors.
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