Category Archives: Somalia

Refugee Boy – A Review

Refugee BoyBy Alpha Abebe

As I stood in line ready to enter the Oxford Playhouse, I overheard the conversation between the staff person collecting tickets and a father and daughter who stood before me in the line. She warned the father that she was advising all guests with children that the play included strong language and difficult situations. Undeterred by the warning, the man smiled politely, lovingly put his hand on the shoulder of his adolescent daughter and proudly proclaimed, “That’s alright, she read the book. And she’s lived in Africa before, she’s seen real refugees”.

Refugee Boy is a theatre production based on the teen novel written by Benjamin Zephaniah and adapted for the stage by Lemn Sissay. The story follows Alem Kelo, a fourteen-year-old boy of Ethiopian and Eritrean descent who is seeking asylum in England. Before coming to England, Alem and his parents were forced to move between Ethiopia and Eritrea as the border war intensified and identity politics devolved into increasing violence. After managing to find a way to travel to the UK, Alem’s parents decide to leave him to be cared for by the British state as they continued their peacebuilding efforts in East Africa, and with the hopes that they would be reunited some day. After a difficult time in a children’s group home, Alem is eventually placed with a foster family, where much of the story then unfolds.

Anyone familiar with the work of Lemn Sissay will notice his fingerprints through the rhythm and poetics of the characters’ dialogue. I have admittedly not read Benjamin Zephaniah’s original novel, but I imagine much of the grit and humour in the play can be attributed to Lemn’s adaptation. Lemn Sissay is a British poet and author of Ethiopian and Eritrean descent. Much like the play’s protagonist, Lemn grew up in the British foster care system after he was given up by his birth parents. I am certain that Lemn had a compendium of memories to draw from as he helped to tell the story of a young boy coming of age in a state of flux, uncertainty, and adversity.

“Your country don’t want you, nobody wants you. Refugee boy. Say it! Refugee boy!”

“DON’T CALL ME REFUGEE BOY! MY NAME IS ALEM!”

This scene happens early in the play, as Alem tries to fight off a bully at the children’s home he is initially placed in. Ultimately his is pinned down, runs out of options, and is coerced into saying it. I am a refugee boy, he says in defeat. Moments later, in a dream-like vignette, Alem recites: “Ask me who I am again. Ask me where I’m from”. It is this tension between Alem-the-person and Alem-the-refugee that gripped me the most throughout the play. Alem fights vehemently to assert his individuality – refusing to abbreviate his name, preserving the memory of his homeland, and proclaiming his appreciation for Charles Dickens. He is however simultaneously thrust into the legal political bureaucracy that is the refugee adjudication system, where he must fight to be recognized as a refugee in order to earn his safety and freedom.

My mind drifted back to the father and daughter at the entrance to the theatre. “She’s seen real refugees.” In the moment, I was instinctively put off by what I’m sure was meant as an innocuous and reassuring comment by the father. But at the end of the play, I was also struck by the irony of the fact that Alem spent so much effort trying to resist the homogeneity and objectification that so often accompanies the label ‘refugee’, yet it was exactly the ‘refugee experience’ that we came to the theatre to see.

The Horn of Africa is a diverse region whose history has been punctuated by years of protracted conflict and rapid social and political change. While ‘refugee’ serves as a useful analytical and legal term to refer to the millions who have had to flea their homes, Alem reminds us that each of these refugees are people with individual stories, ambitions, challenges, and lives.

The aristocrat who travelled to the US for university then decided to file for asylum status after the monarchy was overthrown. The young man from Eritrea full of hopes and dreams who boards a crowded boat destined for the Mediterranean seas. The young Somali girl sitting in a classroom in the same Kenyan refugee camp where she was born. These are all ‘real refugees’ in the strict sense of the term, but I imagine they’d all have very different stories to tell if we had tickets to see a play based on their lives.

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Filed under Diasporas, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia

Destroying What Works? Barclays and the Changing Somali Remittances Marketplace

By Emma Lochery

In May this year Barclays announced it would no longer supply bank accounts to 250 money service businesses as of July 10th – including four major Somali money transfer businesses. For most other countries that rely on remittances, there are alternatives for sending money, but Somalia is in a difficult position due to the weakness of its banking system, lack of banking regulation, and high level of need. After much protest from Somali diaspora and other civil society groups, the original deadline was extended a couple of times for particular companies, but as of mid-October only one Somali money transfer company had been allowed keep its account open pending the outcome of a court case arguing that Barclay’s decision violated competition law.

Oxford’s Horn of Africa Seminar met on October 15th to discuss the Somali remittance landscape and the challenges ahead.

Amidst the multitude of challenges facing Somalis today, money transfer agencies represent ‘what works’ in the Somali territories. As pointed out by a FSNAU report authored by Laura Hammond earlier this year, they provide an efficient way for an estimated minimum of $1.2 billion to be remitted back to Somalia every year, which is far more than what Somalia receives in international aid (on average just under $850 million for the last five years), foreign direct investment (just over $100 million in 2011), or exports earnings ($516 million in 2010). In the FSNAU study, which covered both rural and urban areas, 40% of all Somalis surveyed said they received remittances from abroad – and in urban areas that number rose to over 50%. Remittances helped meet basic needs; three-quarters of recipients said they used them to buy food and pay for services such as health and education. Three-quarters of recipients also said they shared what they received with others – demonstrating the way remittances help maintain a fragile but crucial social safety net. 93% of all recipients said they used money transfer companies to receive their money.

Money transfer companies in the Somali territories have also begun to offer more complex services, such as deposit accounts, debit cards, and credit to small businesses. They are a principal employer in the formal economy across Somaliland, Puntland, and Somalia. The bigger companies are also crucial players in wider Somali trade networks, facilitating financial transfers to the Gulf and cities in China and other trading hubs. Money transfer companies have helped to hold together economic networks, which are the mainstay of the Somali economy – from livestock to retail trade businesses. Based on informal mechanisms at first, but soon formalizing and adopting new technologies, they proved essential through the oppressive and extractive 1980s, helped families rebuild their lives amidst the wreckage of a state in the 1990s, and enabled people to survive conflicts in Somalia since then. They have been key in allowing Somali trade networks to expand and link into markets in Kenya, South Africa, and further afield. The names of the largest firms are household names – they are highly trusted brands in very insecure places.

However, the very factors behind the companies’ success are also some of the reasons for the current struggle with banks and regulators. To understand why, it is necessary to step back and look at the broader banking sector.  Since 9/11 in particular, there has been a huge growth in anti-money laundering regulations. Much of the pressure in the sector today comes from US regulators – and with operations spanning the globe, British banks such as Barclays cannot afford to ignore the changes. Last year in the US, HSBC was fined $1.9 billion by the US government for weak anti-money laundering controls in Mexico, while Standard Chartered was fined more than $300 million for violating US sanctions on Iran, Burma, Libya, and Sudan.

Money transfer businesses then find themselves in a difficult position. While the amount of money transferred as remittances is important to Somalis, for a bank like Barclays it is rather small in terms of their global business, and the small amount of profit is not worth the perceived risk of hosting the companies’ accounts.

While neither of the cases cited above involved transactions to Somalia, Somali money transfer businesses seem riskier to banks for two main reasons. First, they principally serve one country – and the less diverse a money services company’s customer base, the more risky they appear to a bank. So the reason that the major Somali money transfer businesses are so trusted in Somalia – that they are homegrown businesses with strong track records and connections at home and in the diaspora – means banks trust them less. Secondly, Somali money transfer companies generally rely on a third location as a clearinghouse – and these are most often in the Gulf States. Between a sender in London, and a recipient in Mogadishu, a transaction may also flow through Dubai, for instance. Dubai has long been a central economic node in Somali trading networks; Somalis migrated to labour in the Gulf in the 1970s, and in the 1980s, Somali businessmen took advantage of their relatively easy access to profitable and convenient Dubai markets. However the very ease of access and laxity of regulation that makes Dubai and its free zones attractive to Somali businesses makes large, global banks nervous that they might inadvertently end up flouting regulations in the other jurisdictions in which they operate – for very little profit.

To make matters worse, the UK government’s response has been rather slow and uncoordinated. The Economist hit the nail on the head with their article about the recent conference on a ‘new deal’ for Somalia in Brussels – much waffling about aid and not enough about how to fix the remittance question. Soon before the last and largest company was supposed to have its account closed, the government finally announced that over the next year it was planning to create a ‘safe corridor’ for transferring money between the UK and Somalia in partnership with the World Bank. However, it is unclear what will happen in the short-term before the corridor is set up. Questions remain as to if and when either the UK or US government will also create the regulation needed to assuage the banks’ concerns sufficiently. Somali money transfer companies have adapted to regulation before – but it is hard to adapt to regulation yet to be written.

Finally, last week’s speakers emphasized that people will find alternative means of sending money, sending cash in suitcases (risky for everyone involved and not exactly what the regulators want either…) or by using other companies on the market, many of which have a smaller geographical reach in Somalia. One company for instance has their clearinghouse in a more highly regulated location and connects with Somaliland’s mobile money system. Others are ‘small payment institutions’ (rather than authorized payment institutions), limited to remitting no more than 3 million euros a month. The largest company Dahabshiil, meanwhile, has managed to find a bank that will host its corporate client business, but not its small-scale remittance business that is so central to daily life in Somalia.

It thus remains to be seen how people will adjust to the closure of the accounts of the four major remittance firms – and what effects this will have on the overall market for money transfer businesses, some of whom are very powerful players on the Somali economic scene. As the Oxford event ended, we were still waiting to hear the outcome of the court case deciding whether Dahabshiil, the final company due to lose its account, had managed to escape the ‘final final’ deadline one more time.

This post is solely based on the opinion of the author, but we want to thank the seminar speakers who included:

Abdi Abdullahi, Chairman, SOMSA | Industry perspective

Edwina Thompson, Beechwood International | UK policy environment

Farhan Hassan, Somali Heritage Academic Network | Civil society view

Emma Fanning, Oxfam GB | Impacts on NGOs

Laura Hammond, SOAS | Livelihoods impacts

Chair: Anna Lindley, SOAS

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Filed under Business, Development, Diasporas, Somali diaspora, Somalia, Somaliland

Somalia’s ‘Constructive Elite’ and the Challenges Ahead

Laura Mann reports from the first event of the Rift Valley Institute’s Nairobi Forum for Research, Policy and Local Knowledge – ‘A Somali Spring?’ A link to the podcast can be found at the end of the post.

On October 11th, the Rift Valley held its first ‘Nairobi Forum’. They invited Ken Menkhaus, Amal Ismail, Jabril Abdulla and Matt Bryden to discuss the post-election climate in Somalia. The former Kenyan ambassador to Somalia, Mohamed Abdi Affey, who was chairing the proceedings, joked: “We wanted to show Kenya what it means to be a democratic nation”.

All parties agreed that Hassan Sheikh Mohamud is a man who combines two clean hands with enormous street cred. There is reason for ‘cautious optimism’ even amidst the challenges ahead. Ken Menkhaus argued that it was not the election of this single remarkable man that was important, but the extensive support network behind him. Describing this network as a ‘constructive elite,’ Menkhaus clarified that this was not a mass uprising ‘Somali Spring’ but a civic mobilization of determined professionals tired of warlordism and ineffective foreign interventions alike. These individuals have been on the ground for the past 20 years, building hospitals, schools, universities and private businesses. They have spent the past 20 years “navigating the streets” as Ken Menkhaus put it. They have learnt how to negotiate deals with difficult parties, how to build trust across clans and most importantly, they know how to get things done. Jabril Abdulla added that these negotiating skills are important. The gradual expansion of the state will not just involve institutions, but people, some benign and some less palatable. Getting warlords to engage in politics is one of the key challenges.

Abdulla added that while elites had gotten him elected, there was nonetheless widespread public support behind his victory. He described how the public ‘legitimized’ the election by broadcasting the news on radios and televisions during the week following the election. However he also cautioned that there were some regions that did not share in the jubilation.

Nevertheless, as each of them said in turn, there is reason for cautious optimism. Continue reading

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Filed under Development, Diasporas, Elections, Somali diaspora, Somalia, Uncategorized

The poetry of Hamza Egal

Next Sunday, 10 June we will be hosting a blog launch party at the Oxford Hub, with food, art, music, and poetry, including performances by Hamza Egal, a Somali poet and philosopher based in the UK. The following is a poem by Hamza, but you can read more of his work and other Somali poets here.

Even a caged bird never forgets to sing

Picture how the heavens teach the most beautiful of lessons, celestial movements have compromise and union in their every essence. The sun doesn’t hold on to the skies when it’s time for the moon to dazzle your eyes. Man’s ignorance is his only prison, when every word is laced with poison and thoughts of treason.  Understanding oneself is long forgotten, replaced by addiction to the false illusions that they call freedom.

Insatiable hunger to feed the obsession with the dollar, thoughts contaminated, and basic human emotions intoxicated so we stagger to oblivion. Night and daydreaming, the scene keeps repeating, around me I see humanity frozen, in slumber deeper than animal hibernation. So every sunrise I am shovelling arctic snow, trying to ascertain the truth with me deep down and below. Equality and justice has no gender or skin tone, and those who truly desire it seek no throne.

I wonder if I could once again see this world through the eyes of a child, when everything was a wonderful reality and not memories retained in a mental file. Who knew all the while fear would become a tradition. Cowardice has us willing to accept lies, obey and listen, in school they precede me to worship a man made system. In university they asked me to take an oath and maintain the enslavement of the following generation. Capitalise on the warmth of your desires, let the lesser humans make up the coal for your fires.

We elect our tyrant masters by ticking a piece of paper, then turn around the next day bewildered by their behaviour. Only a fool would build a sand castle by the shore and ask the sea to respect its door.  If all men are equal then why do I carry the weight of your wars and interest? Ask yourselves the fundamental questions; only death has no medicine, together we can withstand and push back the evils that they bring. Hope is eternal even a caged bird never forgets to sing.

- Hamza O Egal

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Filed under Admin, Art, Somali diaspora, Somalia

“The war is changing, not over”: Roland Marchal on Somalia after Afgooye, part two

In part two of our interview with Roland Marchal, find out why the war in southern Somalia is changing but not ending, and why the road map process may soon run into trouble. For part one of the interview, click here.

It seems that you are quite cautious about the current TFG offensive, and the prospects that it will be over soon. So military victories and territorial gains are not the only story there is to tell?

The question is, and we see that everywhere, what kind of political answer you give to the population after having beaten Shabaab. In Beledweyne and Baidoa, two big cities that have been taken from Shabaab, the Ethiopians promoted their friends, their allies. That makes a lot of sense. But if you don’t have local reconciliation with clans that explicitly supported Shabaab – because they had some good interest to do that, some very real interest beyond the jihaadi rhetorics – if you don’t do that, then sooner or later you create tensions and new problems come up. 

That’s what happened in Beledweyne. Beledweyne is an unsettled city because of the very old problem of who should rule the place, the Galjaal or the Hawadle clan. This problem has not been resolved by the Ethiopians; they basically gave power to the Hawadle, and as a consequence you now have a whole clan that shifted its support to Shabaab again. Now people don’t care very much about Beledweyne because it’s not the capital city, but the situation there is not quite as the postal card would tell you. 

Baidoa is the same. It’s a complicated story because the dominant clans of the area had different agendas, but the simple fact that you give priority to one section of the clan against another means that tensions are growing. You have of course some terrorist attacks that will kill one, two, three people, but that is not the key issue. The key issue is that socially there is a discontent that is growing, and that may express itself at the right time, either by organising new armed groups that will be supported by Shabaab, or by providing new recruits to Shabaab directly. And of course it’s the same question in Gedo, Lower and Middle Juba, considering what Ethiopian and Kenyan troops are doing there.  Continue reading

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Filed under Al Shabab, AMISOM, London Conference on Somalia, Somalia

“The war is changing, not over”: Roland Marchal on Somalia after Afgooye, part one

As if last week’s feature story in Vanity Fair had not been enough to convince us that things are changing in southern Somalia, AMISOM has launched a military offensive to the north of Mogadishu from which, it claims, Shabaab “may never recover”. But Roland Marchal, a leading specialist on Somalia at CERI, is much less convinced that Afgooye will be a turning point in the fight for southern Somalia. In part one of his interview with Focus on the Horn, he talks about the humanitarian aspects of the TFG’s current offensive, and why al-Shabaab is not going to split anytime soon.

How should we interpret the current military offensive around Afgooye and the recent successes of the Transitional Federal Government (TFG)? Is the balance of power in southern Somalia really shifting?

What we see in Afgooye right now is not so new, it has been in the pipeline for some time. It comes as a consequence of the withdrawal of Shabaab from Mogadishu in July last year, and of course as a consequence of the Kenyan intervention, which in turn created the conditions for a new intervention of the Ethiopian army. The real issue is whether AMISOM, when attacking Afgooye, will get support from Kenyan forces in Lower Juba, and also whether there will be increased activities of Ethiopian troops in Bay and Bakool, so that Shabaab won’t be able to gather reinforcements on a large enough scale to create the conditions for a tough battle around Afgooye. 

A second, more political issue is the fact that in the Afgooye area, the population has been very supportive of Shabaab. It is very uncertain how the population will react, in the medium term, to the end of Shabaab rule. If the TFG is able to provide security and radically change the patterns of banditry and insecurity of the 1990s, then maybe the population of the clans living there may shift their support from Shabaab to the central government. But if that is not the case, then these populations will keep supporting Shabaab, and that may create new problems for both AMISOM and the Somali government.

And there is a third, humanitarian issue. It is getting too little attention right now because people in the TFG feel confident about the military campaign. But I believe that we have to be very alert about the humanitarian implications of what is going on right now. The Afgooye area is one of the most productive agricultural areas of Somalia, and the rainy season just ended. So is the current battle – which is going to last, it is not going to be over in a couple of days – going to disturb and disrupt farming activities? If yes, the consequences would be an increase in the price of most basic foodstuffs and, again, increased vulnerability of IDPs in Mogadishu and elsewhere, people who are slowly recovering from the drought and the famine of last year. So I hope that AMISOM headquarters have a very clear vision on how to contain those humanitarian dynamics and make sure that the population won’t suffer much as a result of the current fighting. Continue reading

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Filed under Al Shabab, AMISOM, London Conference on Somalia, Somalia

Who is the Somali diaspora?

This post is contributed by Maimuna Mohamud, a current graduate student at Oxford. Reflecting on the London Conference on Somalia of 23 February, 2012, and a follow-up seminar on reactions to the conference held by Dr. Laura Hammond of SOAS on 3 May, 2012, Maimuna shares her thoughts on the challenging role and definitions of the Somali diaspora.

From the perspective of a Somali-diasporan-young-woman, the London conference on Somalia was already a failure long before February 23rd.  Not only that I felt a general sense of pessimism, there were also initial sentiments of anger and frustration.  For some unknown reason, my state of ‘conference fatigue’, which has conveniently served me in the past, was replaced by an unprecedented desire to act.  So I resolved to do something—finally.  Armed with a hot latte, I sent urgent Facebook messages to my ‘comrades’ asking them to join me in a demonstration in London. Our mantra would surely be: NO MORE CONFERENCES.  Unfortunately, there were no replies.  My generation, except for two Bulgarian friends, was in a state of conference fatigue.

Yet, there was a glimpse of hope. Prior to the conference, a series of consultative meetings with the Somali diaspora were held as part of an initiative “to elicit their thoughts on the way forward for the country”, wrote Dr. Laura Hammond in an article for the Guardian.  At the 3 May seminar, Dr. Hammond also shared the reflection that the “level of consultation with diaspora was unprecedented.” But was this a remarkable shift, a departure from business-as-usual and conference politics often associated with Somalia?

I held my breath and waited.  As I followed the developments I recalled the role my father played in many previous conferences. Years ago, he would often travel to attend numerous meetings and conferences in Nairobi and Djibouti.  During the 1990s, our habitual residence in Cairo served as a location from which my father would patiently wait for the next conference to consult. To apply a classic scholarly definition of diasporas, he maintained imagined as well as material links with ‘the homeland’.

Surely, then, he was a diasporan who travelled to attend consultation meetings.  So, wasn’t he part of diaspora consultative processes? Continue reading

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Filed under London Conference on Somalia, Somali diaspora, Somalia