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Hope for Somalia?

June 16, 2010


Whenever one hears discussions about failed states, the poster child referred to first is generally Somalia. That ravaged country has endured nearly two decades of violence and instability. Nowadays most of the focus is on the al-Shabaab insurgent group, an Islamic organization that disguises political objectives in religious polemic. Last fall, the group was actively recruiting Somali expatriates living the United States to come home and help them with their so-called jihad [“Somali Case Highlights Specter of Radicalization,” by Evan Perez and Cam Simpson, Wall Street Journal, 25 November 2009]. According to Perez and Simpson, “The recruiting network enlisted about 20 young men, many of them born in the U.S. and having little knowledge of Somalia, to join the al-Shabaab insurgent group in Somalia.” Most recently al-Shabaab was in the news when two New Jersey men were arrested trying to board a plane in New York on the first leg of trip that would have eventually ended up in Somalia where they had planned to become the group’s latest recruits [“Two N.J. men arrested at JFK on terrorism charges,” by Noam N. Levey and Geraldine Baum, Los Angeles Times, 7 June 2010].


Although the two New Jersey men had no previous ties with Somalia, many of the young men that have been recruited do. They believed they were going to Somalia to fight for their homeland. Members of al-Shabaab, however, aren’t really interested in the homeland. If you need proof of that statement, reflect on the tragic events that occurred last December when a “suicide blast at a university graduation in Mogadishu killed several Somali government ministers and an estimated 19 students” [“Suicide Bombing Kills Somali Ministers, Students,” by Abdinasir Mohamed and Sarah Childress, Wall Street Journal, 4 December 2009]. Those 19 students represented hope for Somalia’s future and were the real heroes fighting for the homeland. “The bomber appeared to have been a man dressed in women’s clothing, according to evidence seen by a Wall Street Journal reporter present at the scene, and a statement by the Somali information minister.” How manly and heroic!


So amid all this instability and violence, what is there to be hopeful about? Surprisingly, in a nation that has, for all intents and purposes, been ungoverned for the past two decades, Somali citizens have still managed to cobble together a functioning economy. A recent gathering in Istanbul highlighted another group of Somali heroes — its business people [“Africa Dispatch: Somalia’s Money Men,” by Sarah Childress, Wall Street Journal, 27 May 2010]. Childress reports:

“The nearly 60 suit-clad business executives that showed [up at a United Nations hosted the Conference on Somalia] are a tight-knit group formed amid Somalia’s conflict. Their attendance underscored how robust Somalia’s private sector has become, and the special role they play in nudging the war-wracked country closer to stability. These are the quintessential entrepreneurs. They have survived Somalia’s violence and often thrived in its free-for-all market. Somalia has no taxes, no regulation and clan governance. In that environment, businesses have stepped in to sustain Somalis’ way of life, offering mobile phone service, money-transfer operations and banking. Several have reaped remarkable profits.”

Amid all the trouble in Somalia, these business leaders are like flowers that unexpectedly bloom on barren ground. Officials hosting the event praised participants for their efforts noting “that it’s business people, not politicians, who get things done.” When the Somali executives were asked their opinion on their government, the most general response was laughter. “Government?” one asked. “What government?” One of the purposes of the conference was to help officials from President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed’s shaky administration enlist the support of Somali’s business sector in trying to achieve peace and stability. Childress continues:

“Despite the overt attention paid to this nascent commercial sector, the two sides remained largely divided at the conference. President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed huddled with top officials from the United Nations, African Union and the Organization of the Islamic Conference. Meanwhile, businessmen met several streets away, at another hotel, to discuss their own concerns. Financial goals differed sharply as well. Mr. Sharif wants to persuade foreign donors to keep funding his administration so he can ward off insurgents. The private sector wanted to create an environment to improve revenue and generate greater profits. Executives discussed electricity and internet access. Each industry said they hoped to establish associations to impose regulations to help them meet international standards, and, they hope, pique the interest of foreign investors. Business leaders complain that the government has asked them to pay taxes without offering the regulation or the security they need to grow their businesses. Government officials say they value the private sector’s role. They tried to dissuade the tension, sending representatives to meet with the business leaders at the conference.”

In my discussions concerning the Enterra Solutions® Development-in-a-Box™ approach, I’ve stressed time and again that security and development go hand in hand. Although Childress claims that government and business sectors financial goals “differ sharply,” I’m not sure she’s correct. Businesses need both security and infrastructure to attract the investment they are seeking. Both of those objectives require government support to be effective. The government wants funds to keep functioning and taxes are part of the required support. The government, too, is hopeful that Somalia will one day be stable enough to attract investment. Right now, however, it’s struggling simply to survive amid the chaos. Childress concludes:

“For now, business leaders seem to have adopted a wait-and-see attitude toward the government. ‘We’ve lived 20 years without a government,’ said Omar Jama Hashi, a member of the Somali International Chamber of Commerce and Industry. ‘We can survive another 20 more.'”

As a business leader, Hashi is probably correct: he will survive. Other citizens of Somalia may not be so fortunate. The average citizen in Somalia needs a functioning government that can provide security, infrastructure, education, social services, and an environment in which businesses can thrive. The average citizen also needs a robust business sector that can provide jobs, goods, and services. Business and government have never been comfortable partners; but neither can reach its potential without the other. Tom Robbins once said, “Disbelief in magic can force a poor soul into believing in government and business.” There is no magic in Somalia. Government and business leaders must find a way to work together to secure the country’s future. One thing I’m certain of is that if that future is controlled by the al-Shabaab insurgent group it will be bleak.

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