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Geopolitics

In Somalia, Where The Black Market Is The Only Source Of Stability

No central bank or state authority to manage the country’s money supply, degenerating schools and universities, no way to know who owns land. Here’s a look at how a stateless country manages to get from one day to the next.

Money changing hands in Somalia
Money changing hands in Somalia
Béatrice Gurrey

MOGADISHU – A man is counting a big wad of faded cash. Inside Mogadishu's gutted cathedral, women with children are hovering around him. The scene could be mistaken for a man sharing the fruit of a hard day's work.

There is indeed a Somali currency, the shilling, but no central bank or state authority to manage the cash supply. Instead, a group of prosperous businessmen have taken it into their own hands to create cash. The currency was divided back in 1991 when six northern provinces seceded to create Somaliland. The Somaliland shilling was born as the currency of a country that is not recognized by the international community.

That same year also marked the end of Siad Barre's 24-year rule, a dictator who brought Marxism and secularism to Somalia. "Before he was overthrown, Siad Barre had ordered bank notes from a Malaysian company that printed in Canada, but it was never delivered, " says Marc Fontrier, an expert in African studies.

Warlords first tried calling the company, and then started ordering printed cash from everywhere. "The system slowly became illegal," says Fontrier. "What also contributed to the situation was the looting of humanitarian aid, and the lucrative deals NGOs made with militiamen in order to be allowed to work." After the death of general Mohamed Farrah Aidid in 1996, the main target of the US operation "Restore Hope" operation launched three years earlier, Somalia's wheeling and dealing turned into full-blown economic criminality.

Western observers often note the business "genius' of Somalis. "Somali entrepreneurs who've made it can get you anything, anywhere, at anytime as long as you can pay them," says one. Another notes that they have done deals with tribal warlords, the Islamic tribunals and even helped the Al-Shabab rebels.

The business of security

A few rich Somali businessmen based in the Gulf or in the US brought the idea of free market to its extreme by only catering to their own interests. "In Somalia, the only stability lies in business," says a humanitarian worker.

At the top of the market is the business of security. Landing in Mogadishu is no simple task. A private company, based in the Gulf, "holds' the airport, explains a regular traveler between Nairobi and Mogadishu. The company is specialized in high-risk areas, operating in Kabul and Baghdad, with the help of former British or American soldiers. "Every time we land we have to pay a tax, even though we're already paying it to the transitional government," says the international commuter who asked not to be identified. Though he's requested a copy of the contract between the transitional government and the company several times, he has never seen it.

Getting official documents in general is hard. For example, what if an NGO wants to hire a new doctor, how do they find out if she has valid diplomas? The school and university system has disintegrated over the past 20 years. Despite a literacy campaign launched under Barre's rule, most Somali children today can't read. Only the wealthy can afford to send their children to school – mostly private. Universities are also private and largely subsidized by Gulf countries that see it as a strategic sector through which they can expand their influence.

Renting a home requires real investigative skills. First, it should be confirmed that the person you're dealing with actually owns the place you're interested in. Land ownership is even more problematic since no valid cadastral maps exist with the outlines of the different pieces of property. Bantu tribes who own land around the two Somali rivers know that if they leave to find food, someone will have taken their land by the time they return. That is why women and children are usually the first to leave their villages for humanitarian camps. As for the number of Somalis who've fled their villages because of the drought, it remains unknown considering there hasn't been a census in 20 years.

Read the original story in French

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