Gunning down the taxmen of Somalia

At least 25 tax collectors have been killed since 2012 in Mogadishu, a city awash in weapons and abject poverty.

Tax collectors working in Mogadishu markets such as this are increasingly being killed [AP]
Tax collectors working in Mogadishu markets such as this are increasingly being killed [AP]
Mogadishu, Somalia – Feysal Mohamed Ahmed is a man living in fear. He is tasked with the unenviable job of collecting taxes in a city awash with small arms and where people aren’t accustomed to paying government taxes.

Ahmed works for the local government in the Somali capital, Mogadishu. He is one of six tax collectors in the district of Dharkanley. Every morning before Ahmed leaves the house, he offers a silent prayer, then says goodbye to his two young sons.

Every prayer, every hug and each goodbye could be his last, and so Ahmed takes his time before he starts walking the short distance to work. For Ahmed, every passer-by on his journey is a potential hitman ready to take him out.

“Many of my colleagues have been killed. Others escaped with injuries and cannot work anymore,” said the clean-shaved, baby-faced 23-year-old. He has been collecting municipal taxes for the past two years.

I am doing this job because I want my country to get better and move forward. We need to collect taxes to better our country.

- Feysal Mohamed Ahmed, tax collector

In the last three months, four tax collectors have been killed in Mogadishu. Since 2012, at least 25 have been murdered – that’s 19 percent of the city’s 130 tax-collecting staff.

No one has been arrested or charged in the killings. To be a tax collector in Mogadishu is to live on borrowed time, Ahmed told Al Jazeera.

‘Better our country’

Ahmed moves from stall to stall greeting traders and shaking hands before asking for the daily rate of 25 US cents. A security guard armed with a loaded AK-47 assault rifle walks a few steps behind him, making sure he doesn’t become the next victim of the unknown gunmen who took the lives of his colleagues.

“Many people do not want to pay the 3,000 shillings [$25 cents]. They are used to not paying anything. They can get very aggressive sometimes,” Ahmed said, drawing loud laughter from the eavesdropping stall owners nearby.
“But I am doing this job because I want my country to get better and move forward. We need to collect taxes to better our country,” he added.

Ahmed, who grew up in the market’s neighbourhood, knows most of the traders by name. But he never lets his guard slip.

Not all shopowners Ahmed encounters on this sunny Wednesday morning in Suuq Boocle are uncooperative, however.

Abdi Hamid Ali runs two clothes stores and said he has no problem paying his daily dues.

“I pay 5,000 shillings every day,” Ali said, sitting on a white plastic chair next to a counter, surrounded by new colourful garments imported from Dubai the week before. “We want schools, roads and hospitals, and the only way our government can afford that is if we all pay taxes.”

‘Not a lot of money’

At the other end of the market is Abdullahi Sheikh Hilowle, a chatty character who moves between stalls and dimly lit alley ways with a black plastic bag filled with Somali shillings.

Hilowle, a silver-haired man in his 50s, said he’s worked as a tax collector since the time of Siad Barre – the late dictator who ruled Somalia for 20 years until he was overthrown by warlords in 1990. 

These Somali tailors receive regular visits from taxmen [AP]

“Every stall must pay. It is not a lot of money we are asking for, and we explain to each person who doesn’t want to pay why they should,” Hilowle said. “We have not had to force anyone to pay taxes.” 

More than 250 stalls peddle goods in this market, but not all pay the taxman. “The only stalls exempt from paying taxes are the ones owned by orphans. We do not take money from orphans,” Hilowle said.

Despite the constant death threats for being a taxman, Hilowle said he couldn’t be more content with his job and is unafraid.

“Nothing makes me happier than serving my country and people. Death does not scare me. I will die when my time comes. Only God will decide when and how I will die.”

The government – busy battling the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Shabab rebel group, and financially in treacherous waters – is beginning to take the safety of the taxmen seriously.

“We provide security for our tax collectors and have given them training. We are not there yet, but we are serious in keeping our men safe,” said Colonel Mohamud Sheegow Adow, head of the taxation and revenue protection department in the Somali police force.

“We have 130 tax collectors in Mogadishu and now they don’t go out without armed guards to protect them from anti-peace elements,”  Adow told Al Jazeera.

Didn’t see them coming

However, some tax collectors say the government’s recent provision of armed guards came too little too late. Khadija Ali is mourning the death of her husband of 50 years.

Gunmen armed with pistols walked behind 78-year-old Ali Ibrahim Ali and shot him at close range. He didn’t see them coming; he was busy collecting taxes and talking with traders. Ali didn’t make it to the hospital and was pronounced dead at the scene. That was two-months ago, and no one has been arrested for the killing.

“I just got a phone call telling me to come pick up my husband’s body,” Khadija said, her eyes red from crying. “We don’t know what he did to deserve that. We don’t know who killed him. 

“It was Ramadan and he was fasting when they killed him,” said Khadija, her voice cracking with emotion.

Ali, a grandfather and father of six, was the only breadwinner of the family. He was also the most experienced tax collector the local authority had on its books. Now his family struggles to afford one meal a day.

“The government only paid for his burial. They gave us $250. His salary was our only income. He was also his grandchildren’s breadwinner,” Khadija said.

Despite the constant danger of his job, Ahmed – the father of two – has no plans of abandoning his tax-collecting work for safer alternatives.

“I do this so my two sons can have a better life than I had. I was born after the [civil] war started, no schools or hospitals,” he said. “But if I collect these taxes, the government can give them schools and hospitals.”

Follow Hamza Mohamed on Twitter: @Hamza_Africa
Source: Al Jazeera

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