For geopolitical purposes it is easy to argue that Somalia is one of the most strategically placed territories on earth. The 3000 kilometre long coast line is the longest in Africa and gives immediate access to the international trade route of the Gulf of Aden. Its soil is believed to be rich in unexploited oil, gas and other minerals. History however, shows that natural resources often are a curse and a reason for foreign interference and internal conflicts.
Colonization by Britain, Italy and France divided people and shattered society. The first years of independence in the 60s were positive and prosperous, with the liberation party dubbed as “Africa’s first democrats”. Following the 1969 coup the country spiralled into two decades of dictatorship. The resistance against Siad Barre eventually overthrew his government in 1991, which was followed by civil war that led to a complete state collapse. During the civil war both conflict and survival were linked to a society structured according to clan lines.
A globalized nation
The civil war caused mass emigration and today Somalis can be found in practically all corners of the world. The diaspora has, thanks to the clan system, remained intimately connected and heavily invested in the homeland. Their remittances create a lifeline to the ones remaining and fuel a consumption driven growth.
Since the turn of 2010, the security situation as well as the stability of state structures has gradually improved, leading to the return of the diaspora. One such returnee is Yahye Yousef. He explains that he wanted to be part of the rebuilding and he had an idea how. Through support from Forum Syd he is building his company Pure Living which sells affordable and long lasting water purifiers. The company allows him to combine making a salary while combating water born disease. But Yahye admits relocating wasn’t all smooth sailing.
It certainly hasn’t been easy. I knew very little of this country and how to deal with government departments, how the clan system worked in the market and so on. Without contacts you will get nowhere. Society here is governed by trust. No one will trust your product, but will trust the person who introduces it.
The many layers of democracy
Stateless for decades and with a complex mix of several colonial systems alongside clan-based systems makes the terrain hard to navigate for an outsider. The parliamentary democracy is however stabilizing and functions parallel to and integrated in the clan system. The democratic processes within clan structures are, albeit patriarchal, thorough, extensively used and highly respected.
Successful mobilisation and political advocacy must take into account influential clan structures. Suleiman Tukele works at civil society organisation Amal and work with peace processes in the contested territory between the breakaway states Somaliland and Puntland. In order to reach politicians it is crucial to win over the people first.
The conflict is very much a political conflict but our entry point is the communities living in the area. If the elderly are convinced of peace, they will influence their respective politicians. That is how we reach the political level [of peace negotiation].
It is not enough to win a war; it is more important to organize the peace. -Aristotle
Women’s role for sustainable peace and development processes have by research been proven time and again. According to research available, women should be put in the driving seat of every situation pre and post-conflict. But power, wealth and patriarchy have a tendency to prevail over knowledge.
When tension rise, it is men that will gather around a table and organize a conflict. Yet, under the radar it is women who every day mitigate the conflict
Fadumo is a field officer at Amal and she explains how women’s position prompts different approaches to solutions. Women are responsible for the household and as such they have the closest relationship to natural resources. They collect the fire wood, they collect the water and it is them who negotiate the limited access to resources on a daily basis. When questions of dispute arise they are often negotiated and settled between the women of different groups, outside of male involvement.
NGO Amal is making inroads towards peace through the clans populating the contested territory between Puntland and Somaliland. Fadumo stresses the importance of increasing women’s influence over peace processes. Further, she explain how the role of the diaspora in this case work contrary to peace establishing efforts as remittances are channelled to fund the conflict.
Towards a violence free society
Conflict and violence affects women different to men. Societal violence that is exacerbated by structural violence of poverty reaches women on a household level.
In a part of Hargeisa a group of women are fighting domestic violence when organising for dignity and safety. Through income generating cooperatives they secure food on the table, which lessen the dangers associated to a hungry husband. Koos Awdahir is the group’s chairperson and a human rights activist.
We have become providers, that alone decrease violence, but it also gives us a stronger voice in our community.
The stronger voice is needed when advocating for policy changes and new ways to fight crime. The last years have brought several new legislations that improve the lives of women. The women in Hargeisa make sure to take advantage of the improved legislations for victims of sexual violence, which compared to the traditional courts led by clan elders more effectively brings justice.
The traditional court’s […] only solution is to marry the victim off to the perpetrator. This model poses no real risk for him and it certainly doesn’t break the norm. Now we go to the police and report all rape cases. We have put several men behind bars for 15 to 20 years!
Koos and her fellow activists seem quick to abandon the system of the traditional court they have always known. The willingness to venture into a formal legal system is also an indication of the trust the women feel for the still weak state and its legal arm.
Legislative developments are many in today’s Somalia. Recent passed legislation for example concern freedom of press, bans on sexual violence and certain forms of female gender mutilation. The fast pace legislative change is perhaps not surprising when a state is being rebuilt from scratch. But another reason is the insights, experiences and lessons learned brought in by the diaspora. Their experiences are incorporated into the emerging state machinery as a majority of parliamentarians are former diaspora.
Connected and committed to change
The diaspora does not only contribute to the changing political landscape. The market is also characterized by their presence. Ahmed Amin has just relocated from the UK together with his family, with three children all born in Wales. His repair business has brought world class technological skills to Somaliland.
The technology and phone sector is growing so I knew there was a market demand. For half a year I researched which actors are world leading in the industry and I started partnerships with businesses in the Middle East and India.
With his distinct British accent he narrates how he seeks to advance skills for young people through trainings led by Indian tutors; according to Ahmed the best in the business. So far he has employed ten young people and is hoping to create employment for the first 15 students within his own company.
The country and indeed the region are fast to adapt technological innovation. Cell phone money transfers have existed far longer here than in Europe and Somaliland was first in the world to introduce iris detection as way of identification in its last election. Although new on the block, Ahmed and his company deliver service of international standards.
For instance, just a few days ago I had a customer who had tried to have his phone repaired in Italy without success. It took us only 30 minutes to fix his phone.
The private sector is thus enforced with capital, skills and wider networks but the diaspora also add new market approaches, as attested by one of water purifying company Pure Living’s employees Mustafa Abdullahi.
I used to be a social activist, volunteering to uplift my society. Today I do the same, I work for social and health development but with the difference that I now get paid! […] that is what the diaspora brings –new approaches to work and development.
A challenger to traditional development cooperation
The Somali people are indeed a great asset to the nation building. The clan system offers possibilities unparalleled to other large diaspora groups in the world, as it allows people to maintain political and influential presence. The very same system assists to maintain commitment and identity loyal to the greater Somalia.
Although in many ways positive, the return of the global citizenry doesn’t come fully free of friction. Diasporas’ many years, or whole lifetimes, spent abroad will create gaps of contextual understanding. Awareness gaps that for example maintain conflicts as funding is channelled to forward clan positions, as experienced by NGO Amal. Returning with higher education and income presents issues of class conflicts. Clashes between what are perceived customary tradition and, rightfully or not, influences from the West have the potential to create tension in a fragile state.
Friction free or not, the role the diaspora plays for development in Somalia is increasingly receiving credit. The journey of Somalia sheds light on the so far highly untapped resource that diaspora and migrants represents in the world of development cooperation. In Somalia, Forum Syd is a travel companion whose interest is to strengthen civil society, increase gender equality and contribute to a private sector that is guided by concerns for human rights and environment.
*The developmental work of Forum Syd in Somalia is funded by Sida.