Category Archives: Diasporas

Kenya’s security crackdown and the politics of fear

By Anna Bruzzone 

Kenya Army Vs. Al Shabaab (Thanks to Gado Cartoons)

Kenya Army Vs. Al Shabaab (Thanks to Gado Cartoons)


Since the beginning of Operation Usalama Watch, on April 2, Kenyan authorities have sternly maintained that the ongoing terror swoop is not targeting any specific community and have called on all Kenyan citizens to support it. National media have mostly served as the government’s sounding board in what is depicted as an unprecedented effort to flush out terrorists and their sympathizers from the midst of Kenyan society. The conflation of terrorism and immigration issues has been emerging as the backbone of a policy of fear that aims to separate “genuine” Kenyan citizens from internal enemies and has been successful in polarizing public opinion. The ongoing security crackdown risks not only benefiting al-Shabaab, but also restricting the scope of citizenship and democracy in Kenya, which is likely to engender further tensions and contribute to instability in the region.

Troubling situation on the ground

Operation Usalama Watch started on April 2, when the police arrested 657 people in Nairobi’s Somali neighbourhood of Eastleigh, following three blasts in the area on March 31 in which six people died – among them were two Somalis. A week earlier, an attack by armed gunmen on a church in Likoni, in Mombasa County, had left six people dead. It remains unclear who perpetrated these attacks: Al-Shabaab hasn’t claimed responsibility for any of them. Over the last three weeks, more than four thousand people have been arrested in Eastleigh – most of them are “ethnic” Somalis (Kenyan-Somalis, Somali refugees or “aliens” from Somalia, and Somalis with foreign passports) – and 173 suspected illegal immigrants have been deported to Mogadishu. According to figures released by the police and published by the Daily Nation on April 17, 1136 suspected illegal immigrants, most of them Somalis (782) and Kenyans (247), were screened at Safaricom Stadium in Kasarani between April 4 – the stadium was gazetted as a police station five days later, on April 9 – and April 16. Since April 18, 281 refugees have been deported from Nairobi to Kakuma and Dadaab camps. These alarming numbers, however, are only part of the story.

During the security crackdown, which was conducted first in Eastleigh and then in the Nairobi neighbourhoods of South C, Lang’ata, Kawangware and Kasarani, security forces raided houses at night without search warrants, asking for bribes, looting cell-phones, laptops and gold jewelry, harassing people, and arresting those who were unable to “buy their freedom”, according to dozens of testimonies we collected in Eastleigh’s main shopping malls (Madina, Amal Plaza, Eastleigh shopping centre, and Garissa Lodge) on April 14 and 15. At one point, more than six thousand security forces – Administration Police (a paramilitary security unit), General Service Unit (a paramilitary wing of the Kenyan police), and blue grey berets (Kenya Air Force, from Moi Air Base) – swooped on Eastleigh.

According to dozens of personal testimonies we collected, from women, men and teenagers, people were arrested randomly, on the streets, in shopping malls and during home raids at night, no matter what type of identification document they had: Alien card (either valid or expired), Kenyan ID, refugee mandate, papers attesting the person’s ID was being processed/renewed, foreign passport with a valid visa, or no papers at all. According to the same testimonies, any identification document was liable to be dismissed by security officers as fake if the holder refused or was unable to pay a bribe. Bribes were said to be proportional to the ID’s type: a small bribe for a Kenyan ID and a big one for a refugee mandate or an Alien card.

We also collected numerous stories about people who were detained without being prosecuted at Kasarani Stadium, Pangani and other police stations beyond the 24-hour limit fixed by Kenyan law. Heavily pregnant women, as well as women with newborn and very young babies, were among those who were detained. Inside Madina Mall, on April 14, three shops were closed as their owners, three young women aged seventeen, nineteen, and thirty (the latter with a two-year-old child), had been deported to Mogadishu on April 9 as illegal immigrants after having been detained at Kasarani stadium. One of the two younger women arrived in Kenya with her family when she was a kid while the other one was born in Kenya. The thirty-year-old woman is an Ethiopian-Somali who had never been to Somalia before. Among those who were detained, there was also a Kenyan-Somali journalist (name withheld) who was arrested as soon as he tried to film detainees inside Kasarani stadium. The journalist, who had manage to sneak into the stadium after security officials had denied him access, was detained for three days, first at Kasarani before being transferred to different police stations, even though he had a valid ID. He reported of people being humiliated, deprived of basic care, and of suffering women and sick children being denied treatment.

In its latest report, Human Rights Watch has strongly criticized the ongoing security crackdown, accusing Kenya’s security forces of mistreating Somalis and denouncing very poor detention conditions at Pangani police station. On April 18, the police confirmed the death of a woman, later identified as forty-year-old Seynab Bulhan from Eastleigh, who was awaiting deportation at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. Kenya Police Service spokesperson Zipporah Mboroki denied it happened in police custody, but gravediggers affirmed the police escorted the body to the Muslim cemetery in Kariokor, where it was buried at night. Fear and unpredictability have been the prevailing feelings in Eastleigh for the last three weeks; the very same feelings that Somali refugees and “aliens” had been trying to escape by leaving their country.

Playing on fear, polarizing society: a risky game

Kenyan authorities have dismissed criticism of the ongoing swoops by describing it as ungrounded “claims” by “a section of the public”. At the same time, unconditional support for the government’s security policy has been turned into a matter of loyalty. At the beginning of the operation, on April 4, speaking at a pass-out parade of hundreds of new police officers at the Kiganjo Police training College in central Kenya, President Uhuru Kenyatta stated: “A lot has been said and we will not talk any more. All we are requesting is for Kenyans to back us in whatever we are going to do”. On a similar note, on April 5, reiterating that no community was targeted in the swoop, Administration Police spokesman Masoud Munyi pointed out that “any right thinking Kenyan should in fact be happy about the move by the police to get rid of criminals”. Mr. Munyi also dubbed accusations that the police conducting the swoop were taking bribes and harassing residents as “false” and “meant to tarnish the image of the police force”.

Although the approach adopted by Kenya’s security forces in conducting the crackdown is not new, the communication dimension of Operation Usalama Watch is quite unprecedented, more reminiscent of Kenya’s state-controlled media in the 1970s and 1980s. On the Heels of Terror, a “documentary on terrorism” prepared by the National Police Service and aimed at solidifying support among Kenyans for the ongoing security operation, aired in prime time on all major TV stations, KBC, KTN, Citizen TV, K24 and NTV, on April 15 and 16. Featuring thrilling background music and a gripping voice over, the two-part video was a eulogy of the Kenyan police. It praised the rapid and effective response of security forces to the Westgate attack, without the slightest reference to the blunders, looting and friendly fire that were exposed by some media. Terror attacks in Kenya were largely portrayed as a clash of religions – “Where is your freedom of worship?” wondered Eric Kiraithe, a security expert and serving police officer in the “documentary” ’s first episode – overshadowing the fact that Muslims and Somalis were among the victims of the Westgate attack, as well as of the grenade attack on Machakos bus station in March 2012 and the attacks in Eastleigh over the last two years. Four words, written in big white capital letters on a black background, were described as the connections between the perpetrators of the Westgate attack: Al-Hijra (Kenya’s Al-Shabaab affiliate), Al-Shabaab, Somalia, and Al-Qaeda. De facto, Somalia was equated with three terrorist organizations. The enemy-from-within rhetoric was the most salient feature: “That man you knew can take up a firearm and be the terror next door”. This argument was used to justify exceptional measures as “terrorism is not like any other ordinary crime” – the key message being: “It’s high time we say enough is enough”.

Newspapers also contained pieces lending support to Operation Usalama Watch. In an opinion piece published by the Daily Nation on March 20, Mutuma Mathiu, Managing Editor at Nation Media Group, wrote: “every little, two-bit Somali has a big dream to blow us up, knock down our buildings and slaughter our children”. Mr Mathiu’s conclusion for the article was: “We are at war. Let’s start shooting”. On April 11, the Daily Nation published a vitriolic piece by the newspaper’s columnist and satirist Kwamchetsi Makokha, in which the author directly linked the eighty-four terror-attacks that have gone off in Kenya since 2011 to the presence of Somalis in the country. Mr. Makokha blamed the Kenyan government for allowing “these relatives of al-Shabaab to invest in the country, constructing tall buildings, trading and practicing their religion oblivious of the poor pay the police receive”. The author also made allegations in relation to the “true loyalties” of both Somali refugees and Kenyan-Somali citizens: “Kenya has continued to host thousands of Somalis in camps, where, overfed on rations, they plot how to harm their hosts. (…) Some have even acquired primary and secondary school certificates and university degrees to give the fiction of their Kenyan nationality a veneer of believability, but they do not fool anybody about where their true loyalties are”. Although Mr. Makokha did emphasize later that it was satire, the decision to publish such a piece in the current context was irresponsible to say the least. In fact, most readers did not recognize the satire – it did not go far enough beyond the reality of the current political climate in Kenya.

The fact that Kenya’s leading newspaper agreed to publish such opinion pieces, containing clear incitements to ethnic hatred, is a wake-up call. This call, however, has remained unheard by the Chairperson of the National Steering Committee on Media Monitoring, Ms. Mary Ombara. On April 16, responding to social media reactions to the security swoops in Nairobi, Ms. Ombara (who is also the Director of Public Communication at the Information and Communications Ministry) condemned the “hate speech on the ongoing police crackdown on crime and illegal immigrants” and labelled it as “a threat to national security and cohesion”, but she didn’t raise any concern with the highly controversial opinion pieces published by the Daily Nation. By polarizing (manipulating?) public opinion, the communication dimension of Operation Usalama Watch risks jeopardizing Kenya’s social fabric.

The Kenyan government has used the threat of the internal enemy to justify the ongoing police crackdown. Even more problematically, the rhetoric of the enemy from within, which is a corollary of the terrorism-immigration nexus, is being used to shape and promote a particular notion of the “good citizen”, i.e. the one who is supportive of his government, whatever it does. Following this logic, the risk for critics of being labelled as enemies is just one step away. In this context, the government’s proposal to register all citizens afresh in a new digital database, which was publicly announced on April 15, sounds controversial. According to Interior Cabinet Secretary Joseph Ole Lenku: “We must know who is a Kenyan and who is not” – here is the real million-dollar question.

Political myopia and worrisome implications

From a political perspective, Operation Usalama Watch is likely to further marginalize and alienate citizens in Kenya’s poorest areas, namely the Coast and the North. In these areas, the presidential vote went largely to Raila Odinga during the latest elections, in March 2013. The Coalition for Reforms and Democracy (CORD) leader, who is currently attending a two-month political forum in the US upon invitation by the African Presidential Centre of Boston University, has repeatedly condemned the security crackdown in Nairobi over the last three weeks. Mr. Odinga urged the Jubilee government to halt “the indiscriminate harassment of a particular community”. He also warned the government not to engage in acts that mirror the manner in which Kenyans were handled during Britain’s repression of the Mau Mau uprising and the Wagalla massacre in which hundreds of Kenyan-Somalis were killed by Kenya’s security forces in 1984. Raila Odinga, who formally accepted the Supreme Court’s endorsement of official election results in 2013 but has continued to claim he was a victim of wrongdoing, might benefit politically from this ill-advised security crackdown.

Although the government’s policy of fear has been successful in overshadowing the mean achievements of the Jubilee Alliance in combating corruption and improving basic standards of living, the ongoing swoops may deepen the rift between President Uhuru Kenyatta and Deputy President William Ruto. The latter’s United Republican Party (URP) did especially well in the North in the latest elections, namely in Mandera, where successful electoral politics strategies led to a swing to the Jubilee Alliance. According to interviews with local journalists, during a meeting with Kenyan-Somali MPs in the days immediately preceding the beginning of Operation Usalama Watch, President Uhuru Kenyatta blamed the impending crackdown on Deputy President Ruto. According to the same sources, when the National Assembly Majority Leader and Garissa Township MP Aden Duale threatened to withdraw support for the Jubilee government on April 4 over what he termed arbitrary arrests of his people and a section of North Eastern and Muslim MPs threatened to do the same a few days later, Uhuru Kenyatta reiterated that Mr. Ruto was pressuring him,. This political game might cost dear to the Kenyan President, especially because Raila Odinga is eager to see the Jubilee Alliance collapse.

The silence of the international community (with the exception of the UNHCR, which has repeatedly expressed “concern” over mass arrests and the ongoing crackdown on Somalis) may be interpreted in at least two different ways: either Kenya’s anti-terror strategy has succeeded in changing the fortunes of Kenyatta and Ruto, drawing them closer to western governments, or, these same governments are waiting for the Jubilee Alliance leaders to get bogged down and drown in their own mistakes – which might revive the ICC cases against them. The op-ed “Graft is Kenya’s Achilles’ heel”, which was signed by seventeen Chiefs of Mission in Kenya (among them were the British High Commissioner and the US and Europe Ambassadors) and published by the Daily Nation on April 13, devoted only two short paragraphs out of twenty-two to security issues. Instead of criticizing the swoops, the Chiefs of Mission stated that “the best way to combat terrorism” was to have “well-trained and honest security forces” and that international partners were “ready to help” Kenya achieve that goal. This statement seems to be very much in line with what has been western governments’ approach to security and anti-terrorism in Kenya for the last decade. The ongoing security crackdown, however, should raise questions about the validity and effectiveness of this approach.

The weak response of the Somali government in the face of the ongoing crackdown has further undermined President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud’s popularity, which is at its lowest level since September 2012. The Somali President, who visited Nairobi on April 7, and attended the reception of Kenya Airway’s first Dreamliner jet at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport with his Kenyan counterpart, didn’t make any public statement on the crackdown on Somalis and was blamed for continuing his busy foreign travel schedule as if nothing had happened. Villa Somalia’s silence and the controversial role of Somalia’s Ambassador to Kenya Mohamed Ali Nur “Americo” – who has been blamed for acting as a “broker” and standing on the side of the Kenyan security forces, rather than with his people – have fuelled a conspiracy theory over the cause of this complacent attitude, suggesting that the Kenyan and Somali government might have a hidden agenda over the Jubaland issue. President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud may already have too many problems at the domestic level – he is also at loggerheads with the Prime Minister, Abdiweli Sheikh Ahmed – to be willing to engage in a diplomatic battle with Kenya. Whatever the reason might be, this lack of sensitivity and political acumen is severely undermining the Somali government’s credibility and serving al-Shabaab’s interests.

From an economic perspective, if the current trend of plummeting business revenues in Eastleigh continues, not only the Somali community, but also Kenya’s economy, at both the national and regional level, will heavily suffer. Eastleigh is a commercial hub for East-Africa, which provides goods and services to local and regional consumers at prices well below the market average. Somali investment, which has been constantly increasing in Kenya for the last two decades, has significantly contributed to the growth of Kenya’s economy.

From a security perspective, the opacity that has characterized the response by Kenya’s security apparatus to terror attacks since 2011 can hardly contribute to rebuild public confidence in security forces. Without a serious security sector reform, the current surge in number of police and paramilitary officers – in the month of April alone, about seven thousand new officers have joined the police force – is unlikely to yield fruit. In the face of the ongoing crackdown, Raila Odinga publicly wondered why “the government has inexplicably refused to form an inquiry into how the attackers in Westgate got there”. Former Deputy Speaker and Lagdera MP Farah Maalim stated on Citizen TV that the Kenyan government knew more than it was saying about the recent terrorist attacks and wanted to blame Somalis to distract attention – this seems to be a widespread conviction among numerous Somalis and Kenyan-Somalis, who hold this as a fact. Summoned by the Anti-Terrorism Police Unit on April 17 to respond to allegations that his remarks on Citizen TV constituted hate speech, Farah Maalim maintained his position and added that the approach the government had taken to fight terrorism would escalate the situation.

Although it is difficult to determine and assess the different political agendas, one thing is clear: al-Shabaab is the likely winner – as Cedric Barnes, Crisis Group’s Horn of Africa Project Director, rightly pointed out. The ongoing crackdown on Somalis, the merger of terrorism and refugee issues, as well as Kenya’s social polarization and democratic erosion are benefiting al-Shabaab, both militarily and politically. All these factors are likely to increase, instead of reducing, the terror threat in Kenya, which is very serious. Moreover, they risk fuelling dynamics of violence and conflict in the region. By playing on fear, the Kenyan government is playing with fire.


Anna Bruzzone is a Junior Research Consultant at PRIO and PhD candidate at the University of Warwick.


Filed under Al Shabab, Diasporas, Eastleigh, Kenya, Somali diaspora, Somalia, Uncategorized

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!”


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


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

Politicking about Ethiopian Cuisine with The Simpsons

By Alpha Abebe

Screenshot taken from video. Copyright: FOX Inc.

Screenshot taken from video. Copyright: FOX Inc.

As a child of the 80s and 90s growing up in North America, I was rather accustomed to hearing about Ethiopian conflict and famine on the news. However, one afternoon while my mother was watching The Young and the Restless in the living room, something caught my ear. A character casually suggested that the couple head to an Ethiopian restaurant for dinner. My adolescent mind was blown. How did the writers hear about Ethiopian food?! And who among them had the gumption to actually try it? Oh, and I sure hope they didn’t see the kitfo! Hitherto, I had only known Western and Ethiopian social spaces to exist separately, and the notion that the two could overlap truly fascinated me.

On November 13, 2011 an episode of The Simpsons aired, entitled “The Food Wife“. It featured a 3.5-minute segment where the family wearily stumble upon a Little Ethiopia enclave, but eventually find that they thoroughly enjoy the tastes and textures of Ethiopian cuisine. As foolishly entertaining as the show can be, The Simpsons is both a repository and icon of American pop culture and often provides great analyses on issues of contemporary global importance through satire. There’s much to learn from that two dimension dysfunctional family.

The following lines are taken from the opening scene of the segment, where Marge is horrified when her car breaks down in a dark and seedy part of town.

Bart: “Um, mom. Where are we?

Marge: “Nowhere scary” [as she hurriedly locks the car doors].

And later on in the segment when the family runs into some other non-Ethiopian characters at the restaurant:

Marge: “So did all of your cars break down?
Lisa: “Mom! They’re here on purpose. They’re foodies.

I presume that images of the neighbourhood were inspired by Los Angeles’ Little Ethiopia strip, however the details mirror similar establishments found in other metropolitan cities across North America. Fairfax Avenue/Olympic Boulevard in Los Angeles, the U Street corridor in Washington, D.C., and Danforth/Greenwood in Toronto. These are all small but vibrant enclaves, lined with Ethiopian restaurants, convenience stores and clubs. Continue reading


Filed under Diasporas, Ethiopia, Film review

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

What does Ethiopia represent in the 21st Century?

Ethiopia’s flag bearer Yanet Seyoum holds the national flag as she leads the contingent in the athletes parade during the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games. Photo courtesy of Reuters.

by Alpha Abebe

When Kenenisa Bekele, Tirunesh Dibaba, and Dejen Gebremeskel take their marks at this year’s Olympics, and that start gun goes off, it is more than their personal careers on the line. Millions of people in Ethiopia and the diaspora will hold their breath, bite their nails, yell at their TV screens, and (hopefully) cheer in jubilation in heroic displays of nationalism. The Olympics has a way of creating patriots overnight, even drawing in the most apathetic and cynical of the lot. For a few days every four years, the nation feels like less of an ‘imaginary community’ as Benedict Anderson so famously argues, and more of something very real, visceral and tangible. But what will people (and I) be cheering for above and beyond the incredible athleticism and dedication of these Ethiopian athletes? If (ahem…when) the Ethiopian flag is raised above the Olympic podium, what will those colours represent to the world?

I struggle to think of another country whose historical global image is as diverse and contradictory as Ethiopia’s.

This is meant as a statement, not necessarily a critique. Besides, all countries are dynamic, heterogeneous social and political constructions…right? So any effort to represent a country as something more stable and coherent than it is involves some level of fantasy, fiction and often subversion. But national images, however constructed and confused as they are, do matter. They matter in public diplomacy, they matter for tourism revenues, and they matter to individual identities. Unlike pop-stars and retail companies, countries cannot simply hire consultants and marketing firms to whip up a compelling global brand. As regimes rise and fall, geopolitical interests shift, economies grow and collapse, and culture does what it does – evolves – new layers and dimensions are added to Ethiopia’s self and global image. This generally evokes one of two responses – creative adaptation and innovation, or desperate attempts to hold on to things past. However, if there was ever a case to find the middle ground, it is with Ethiopia. It is a country with such a rich (albeit contested) history that is worth commemorating. Yet, social, political and economic conditions are rapidly changing the country’s landscape, as well as its position within the world.

Coming to grips with what Ethiopia represents in the 21st Century must involve a willingness to engage with the inevitable tensions between the past and the present, the personal and political, and the local and international. Continue reading


Filed under Addis Ababa, Diasporas, Ethiopia, Nationalism

Generations of East African diasporas in cyberspace

Photo credit: Alpha Abebe

By Alpha Abebe 

It should come as no surprise that diasporas and the internet are such good bedfellows. They are both in the business of obscuring national boundaries and building long distance relationships. Independently, they often coalesce into deterritorialized communities, facilitate collaboration, and become sites of fierce contestation. Brought together, they work in much the same way. Scholars and commentators caught on to this long ago, and have been examining the social, political and economic impacts of diasporas online. Debating Eritrean independence, the 2005 Ethiopian election, Oromo nationalism, Harari identity politics, the London conference on Somalia – many of the processes that have shaped these constructs, events and movements happened online in virtual spaces created by the diaspora. The extent to which this has facilitated the circulation of progressive or regressive discourse and action is up for debate in each case. However, what has become clear is that the internet has and will continue to play an instrumental role in connecting the East African diaspora to issues of the Horn.

As a new generation emerges from the offspring of East African migrants, they too have created online spaces to negotiate their relationships to their countries of heritage. In many respects, they have entered into this scene far more equipped – more access to resources, more tech savvy, more platforms, etc. However, their social, political and economic ties to these countries would appear to be less direct, begging the question – what does their web presence look like? As you would imagine, it is quite diverse. There is, where one can buy a stylish Horn-of-Afro-centric tshirt and share dating advice on the same website. Then there is, an aggregator of Oromo and regionally related news stories. is an online magazine often profiling the stories of Ethiopian-Americans who have found mainstream success. (currently on hiatus) was a pioneer in many respects, and created platforms for political debate, showcasing of art, and building community among young Ethiopians and Eritreans in the diaspora. Add to this the vast number of virtual spaces, including websites, facebook pages, twitter feeds, etc. that mobilized a rapid humanitarian response to the recent famine in Somalia, among a generation of people in the Somali diaspora – many of whom have never stepped foot on the continent. Finally, there is, a new player on scene, created to challenge mainstream narratives about the Horn through the stories and contributions from people in the diaspora.

As new generations of East African diasporans create their own cyber spaces, there will be many new and old questions to ask. What role do these spaces – including this one – have in shaping issues on the ground in Africa? How are communities formed online, and what are the politics of these communities? How are people mobilized online, and what social movements emerge? How do old and new axes of privilege intersect, how are they challenged, and how are they reproduced? In a region as dynamic as the Horn, and the increase in size and visibility of its diasporas, I suspect we will be returning to these questions frequently over the next several years.

Alpha Abebe is a current PhD student at Oxford. Please see more information about her work here.


Filed under Blogging, Diasporas