In war or peace, Somali deal-maker survives
By William Maclean
NAIROBI (Reuters) – Hollywood wasn’t exaggerating when it portrayed Osman Ali Atto as the master survivor of Mogadishu’s ganglands.
But the warlord with a wrestler’s build and hawk-like face immortalized in the film "Black Hawk Down" says his wheeling and dealing is aimed as much at strengthening Somalia as at making money.
"The whole of Somalia is in the mud. Let everybody come together and pull it to dry land," Atto said on a visit to Kenya eight months after he was appointed a minister in Somalia’s latest faltering attempt at a government.
Financier, trader, militia boss and self-styled peacemaker, Atto is one of Somalia’s most pragmatic and astute politicians.
He cooperated with, and later opposed, U.S. involvement in a failed United Nations peace bid after Somalia descended into anarchy with the 1991 overthrow of dictator Mohammed Siad Barre.
The opening of "Black Hawk Down" depicts Atto’s capture by U.S. Army Rangers in September 1993, the start of four months detention on an island off Somalia’s coast.
The film shows Atto as a villainous war profiteer.
"By God I am telling you, I am not interested (in war). I love my life," said Atto, now in his late 50s. " I love the life of my kids and their well-being and those of Somali colleagues. So how can I advocate trouble? That is a joke."
"The film missed the real reality. If I sit down and write this film I think we can make a better one," he laughed.
But Atto cannot completely shake his screen image.
Today many Somalis want to know whether he and his fellow warlords really aim to restore government to the failed state, or whether they intend to perpetuate the instability in which they have flourished.
Atto shrugged his shoulders in protest and waved his beefy hands as he urged fresh efforts to mend a dangerous rift in the new government.
Like many Mogadishu warlords, Atto radiates charm and charisma. But the powerfully built man — whose name Atto means skinny — is shrewder and more commercially minded than most militia barons, Somalis say.
A look at his record shows a keen eye for opportunity.
In pre-war days, he worked for U.S. oil company Conoco. As turmoil mounted and oil exploration froze, his nose for a deal helped him build ventures ranging from property and finance to vehicle repair and supply of U.N. aid contracts.
Critics point out that in the early 1990s he earned big property rentals from aid agencies fighting famine while financing the main militia opposed to U.N. peacekeepers. His repair shops helped fashion some of the "technicals" — trucks mounted with machineguns — used by Somalis against U.S. troops.
In 1995 he helped plunge the city into fresh fighting when he broke from clan ally and former boss Mohammed Farah Aideed.
Asked how many armed men he controls today, Atto explained that clan solidarity means firepower expands in a crisis: "It can be 500 today, or 5,000 tomorrow if things get out of hand."
Some critics say his record suggests Atto is an unlikely supporter of law and order: The advent of true stability would land such men in prison in any normal country, they argue.
The real interest of militia barons is merely to minimize expensive and unnecessary turf battles, Somali critics say.
President Abdullahi Yusuf and Prime Minister Mohammed Ali Gedi accuse a faction of disaffected Mogadishu-based cabinet ministers, including Atto, of wanting to perpetuate chaos.
Atto says his critics are wrong, pointing to his faction’s partial withdrawal from gun-infested Mogadishu as proof.
"We could do whatever we please with our militias and our arms. But we have made cantonments and kept everything away from the city. We took these militias and training camps 40 miles outside Mogadishu, to the north and south," he said.
"PAY THE BILL"
Atto says 95 percent of the city’s militia checkpoints have been removed and 2,500 militiamen demobilized — claims his opponents deride — but he argues that lack of international support puts the success of the peace drive at risk.
The status of Mogadishu is the main cause of the rift in the government. Yusuf and Gedi say the capital is too dangerous as yet to serve as a base for the administration. Atto disagrees.
True to form, the spat has not stopped Atto from cooperating with his foes commercially. He has helped to organize the supply of equipment to help build an airport in Jowhar, a town north of Mogadishu that serves as a temporary base for Yusuf and Gedi.
Atto savors the irony: An airport would bolster Jowhar’s status as a temporary rival to Mogadishu.
"They wanted some equipment to build an airport. I told them ‘You don’t have it, so you came to your enemy?"’ he said.
He said he did the deal to stave off political turmoil. "If I had not given that equipment they would say ‘Atto and others are a nuisance and our animosity is now so big’."
"Well, they can take the equipment — but they pay the bill."