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Somalia's diaspora is known for economy, but now they could play political role

National constitutional convention in Mogadishu, May 2018. UN Photo

EDITORIAL - Somalia’s journey from state collapse in 1991 to revival, argued Finance Minister Abdirahman Duale Beileh at a recent forum in November, is routinely associated with negativity: Refugees, collapsed systems, insecurity and humanitarian assistance; even when there are better things happening.

Today, about two million Somalis live abroad, according to various estimates from the World Bank and the UN Development Programme.

Some may be refugees, but others are skilled workers in the academia, business and corporate world; sending home millions of dollars a year. In 2015, the World Bank estimated that Somalis abroad sent home some $1.6 billion, supporting at about a quatre of the GDP. The amount has since risen to $2 billion.

Interestingly, despite Somalia appearing to rejuvenate itself over the years, the number of the diaspora continued to grow, according to one study by the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs. In fact, it is estimated that at least every Somali person living in Somalia knows and relies on someone living abroad and who continuously sends home money known as remittances.

Dubai, London, Minneapolis, Nairobi, Oslo and Toronto are listed by the Department as some of the cities with the highest population of Somalis. So important are the remittances that in one interview with UN’s bulletin magazine Africa Renewal, the Chief Executive of money transfer service known as Dahabshill Abdirashid Duale said the economy of Somalia could collapse without remittances.

“Remittances remain a lifeline for many Somalis. They help Somalis in many different ways,” he told the magazine.

“As long as there is peace, people will keep on coming back to their homeland. Remittances are set to keep flowing, as are other investments.

Hussein Arab Essa, Somali Federal MP representing Somaliland, and once former Deputy Prime Minister during Sheikh Shariff Ahmed’s Presidency, explained the importance attached to the diaspora.

“Somalis are one people. The diaspora sends money home. In fact, there wouldn’t be a Somali economy without diaspora,” he told Garowe Online in an interview on Wednesday.

“It is what is sustaining families. It is their lifeline because the Somali economy is no longer creating any new jobs or opportunities.” Mr Issa was educated in the US and returned to Somalia to take up his political roles.

Remittances and returning diaspora, however, were not often wholly welcome. One study by the UNDP found that while the diaspora promoted humanitarian work, education, healthcare and reconstruction through private sector investments, some locals though complained returnees could take over jobs due to their skills so there was some element of mistrust

So what has changed since the UNDP study was done in 2012? Beileh, an economics professor who spent years abroad argued Somalia is now “new” on everything.

“Everything that we have today (in Somalia) is new: The fact that we are collecting taxes is new, the fact that we know who is working for the government by name and by account number is new…diaspora coming back is new, with their skills and their money…,” he told the Brookings Institution in November.

The Somali government, from the President, Mohamed Abdullahi Farmaajo and his Prime Minister Hassan Khaire, to his cabinet, is actually full of returning diaspora, some of who hold dual nationality.

“They are returning with much-needed skills and competence. “The fact that the current President and the Prime Minister were once diaspora themselves is indicative of how easy it is for the diaspora returnees to rise to power in Somalia,” Yasir M. Abdirahman, a Political Consultant on Somali affairs told Garowe Online.

“Over the last few years, the attitude of Somalis has started to change. They are not leaving the country in masses as before and are now speaking up. In fact, they are also supportive of the limited role of diaspora returnees. It is an ongoing discussion.”

But in all aspects, the diaspora is also a political issue. The UNDP study showed Somalis may be sending money home, but may not be organised abroad, leading to ‘different diaspora’ mostly due to clan and political leanings back home. Yet at home, some of them are accused of perpetuated the very clan differences, to extend personal ambitions.

“The diaspora brings in a fresh type of thinking. The disappointing part is the current executive, made up mostly of diaspora returnees, has chosen a system of 1970s’ Somalia,” lamented Mr Issa.

“That is not a system of leadership you expect from those who have been in the diaspora, where there are better leadership prototypes, a better democracy. In fact, the irony is that local politicians seem to be suggesting better solutions as seen through the formation of FNP,” he added referring to the coalition known as the Forum for National Parties.

In October, parties led by former Presidents Hassan Sheikh Mohamud and Sheikh Sharif Ahmed together with four other political movements came together to form the FNP.

It was the first time in Somalia’s history for a coalition to be made and political leaders associated with the group say they want to show Somalia’s diaspora can work with local leaders to break clan-based barriers.

“The diaspora has had good networks abroad, they have made good investments at home. Some have lived in countries with better systems to learn from,” Mohamed Hassan Idriss, another Federal MP from Jubbaland state said.

Mr Idriss who have lived in the Netherlands and currently serves as a member of the Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation argued FNP could help transcend clan politics by offering a new type of ideology.

Both Ahmed and Mohamud were educated outside the country (Libya and Sudan, and India and the US) respectively. But FNP argues the fact that they remained largely at home, in the political arena shows those returning from the diaspora can contribute better politics at home.

“During Sheikh Sharif Ahmed’s time as President, most returning diaspora actually invested their money,” said Essa referring to President Ahmed’s time between 2009 and 2012. Ahmed had been the leader of the Union of Islamic Courts from 2006 which supporters say helped guard Mogadishu from extremists before the transitional government stabilised.

“Right now, people are returning, but they are holding onto money. Hotels, shops owned by returnees are closing down. Why? Because they are being double-taxed, for the very first time in history,” he said without clarifying. A recent report from VOA Somalia though revealed Shabaabs had been taxing traders as well.