Abdi Latif Ega

In the global imagination, the conceptual idea of Somalia derives from the notion of the uncanny, fantastic and primitive savage. The mainstream media has managed to frame this oriental construction of Somalia using the dehumanizing nomenclature of “pirates,” “warlords” and “terrorists.”  These caricatures are exhumed from a long-dead history and then projected as marauders of our twenty-first century conscience.

It began with Black Hawk Down operation, then carried on following the manhunt for three mysterious figures accused of bombing the East African American embassies in 1998. They had supposedly sought ayslum  in Somalia. A decade later, a drone attack targeted one of the accused bombers yet no one saw the body, as much as these gruesome events are paraded trophy-like on the news. Anything goes and is justifiable under the auspices of the War on Terror - including the suspension of the rule of law, by the rule of exception. Somalia has faced this again, again and again. The idea of collective punishment is something too well known and almost internalized, even by Africans themselves.

The most recent decision by the Merchant Bank to stop processing Somali money transferring organizations in the United States should be construed as part of this continuum. The Merchant Bank out of California processed 80 percent ($250 million) of the funds being transferred by these businesses. Their claim that it’s “too risky,” is based on compliancy concerns regarding U.S. Treasury Department regulations. There is no evidence to corroborate this worry about “risk” or anything else to substantiate the bank’s response.

In the decade after 9/11, the treasury, the F.B.I and American intelligence agencies have been keenly watching—with something of a forensic eye—Muslims in the United States. From student organizations at American colleges to the money transfers of Muslim citizens to their families and friends abroad, government surveillance knows no bounds. Despite it all, they haven’t found much—here in the States, or abroad.

Constant surveillance and heavy-handed regulations have, during the past decade, brought forth no high-profile case, nor even a consistent prosecution of these so-called financial backers of “terror.” Those prosecutions that have been undertaken mainly target lone operators processing insignificant amounts. Most famously, the government nabbed an old Somali lady in the United States that was discovered to be harboring a “tremendous” amount of cash intended to fund terrorist activities. In fact, her holdings amounted to a few thousand dollars.

When we consider the larger economic impact of the Merchant Bank decision, we see that this is not just a simple mater of compliance. It is a matter of market aggression. Traditional U.S. money corporations like the Western Union, Money Gram, and Barclays will almost certainly step in to fill the void left by the small Somali companies, and make billions of dollars in the process. To be sure, there has been a noticeable proliferation of Western Unions in virtually every Post Office in Nairobi, and the banks of Addis Ababa.  Their vigorous media campaigns and sponsorship of huge Africa-wide events suggests they’ve already effectively muscled in to new territories. Before 9/11, their presence was unnoticeable, if not absent all together.

Private business has long found it difficult to penetrate into indigenous money transferring markets which thrive virtually everywhere along Africa’s eastern horn—from little village stores, in places long forgotten and dismissed by neo-liberal capital, to the very centers of power across the region. But these outposts have never been abandoned by local people, who have continued to find ways to transfer money despite dislocation and war. And they have done so across vast territories, from the utterly remote Haud region--where displaced Somali pastoralists move across the borders of Somalia and Ethiopia—to the town markets of central Kenya, where mama mbogas (produce hawkers-turned-electronics-dealers) transfer capital through the hawala system, along with partner Somali businesswomen  make frequent trips to Dubai.  These networks also include retail store collectives  who send a representatives to China to purchase goods on behalf of an entire mall, often to the tune of millions of dollars. These are only a few instances of how intricate this money flow is in relation to not only the remittances to families, which constitute billion plus dollars annually, but also to the internal flow between people and businesses.

In essence, the network of money transfers not only constitutes the humanitarian lifeblood of the region, but also represents the human face of local and transnational economies in East Africa, and indeed, beyond. Yet the popular portrayal that these networks are ad hoc and unmanageable results from great prejudice towards the continent, and that western ideas of modernity will save the day. President Obama has pledged money to resuscitate an anarchic Somalia in the name of fighting terror. And all the while, the US Treasury Department has been choking off the Somali hawalas, actions that have been met with widespread indifference from Somalia’s neighbors.

Despite its dreadful reputation resulting from the caricatures and mischaracterizations about its people, a large part of Somalia has been peaceful and safe and prosperous. Somaliland, Puntland, and even the capital Mogadishu, known mostly as the setting for Black Hawk Down, has been enjoying something of a recent resurgence. Stability, democratization, and a growing economy, based in part on networks of money-transfer, are returning to these areas, and the Somali reputation for business acumen is alive and well throughout the East African region. All of this suggests that it may be time to consider Somalia through a new lens, one which emphasizes the indomitable spirit and resilience of its people—a people who have seemingly—to quote Fela Anikulapo Kuti—“cheated death.”

Image via CBS Minnesota. 

Abdi Latif Ega is a long-time resident of Harlem, New York. Guban is his first novel in a series of novels on the Horn and specifically Somalia, from the medieval times until the present. The author self identifies as an African-American originally from Somalia. He studied Jazz theory and Performance, and has an undergraduate degree in History and English. Abdi is currently a PhD candidate at Columbia University. He is currently working on The Doorman, a novel set in Manhattan.