From: Berhane Habtemariam (Berhane.Habtemariam@gmx.de)
Date: Fri May 28 2010 - 08:16:12 EDT
Africa Dispatch: Somalia's Money Men
27 May, 2010 - 8:07:52 AM
By SARAH CHILDRESS
ISTANBUL-At this swanky conference on Somalia over the weekend, the most
important guests didn't hold lofty posts. At least one lacked a college
degree. But they represent some of the most powerful-and moneyed-players in
Somalia: its business leaders.
The United Nations hosted the Conference on Somalia, and it was predictably
high-class. Participants gathered in marbled five-star hotels scattered
across the city, all with breathtaking views of the Bosphorus, the strait
that divides Asia and Europe. They chatted about Somalia's problems over hot
and cold Turkish dishes and at least a half-dozen types of dessert.
At the conference, there were the usual participants-Western, Arab and
African diplomats, United Nations officials and of course the Somali
government. This time, however, a different sort of guest also was invited.
The nearly 60 suit-clad business executives that showed 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
Officials from the United Nations and the African Union went out of their
way to note the contributions the private sector has made to Somalia. At a
UN-hosted luncheon over the weekend, one official told participants that
it's business people, not politicians, who get things done. He was rewarded
with nods and appreciative laughter.
The private sector is skeptical of this administration, considered by the
international community to be the first viable option in 20 years. Most
businessmen laughed when asked their views on the government.
"Government?" one asked. "What government?"
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.
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."
- Each week, Africa Dispatch will take a snapshot of a different African
place, offering a ground-level view of change on the continent.
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