Post-war reconstruction: rebuilding technology

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By Peter Wanyonyi

During the Arab Spring series of uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa five years ago, a common theme ran across the various countries involved – indeed, they all seemed to be acting to a pattern. A small group of angry citizens would begin protesting, the protests would draw more participants, the government would react with disproportionate force, the activists would reorganise using social media, the subsequent protests would be bigger than ever, the government would panic and block social media websites, the activists would still organise using email and text messages, the government would get mightily spooked and disconnect the internet, and in short order the government would fall.

The story gets sadder, as the fall of governments in the Middle East and Northern Africa did not result in the expected move to democracy and freedom. Assorted warlords would grab political power, they would impose medieval laws and customs targeted at curtailing the very freedom they pretended to be fighting for, and censorship would become the new norm. And at the very centre of the censorship would be technology.

Somalia has experienced one or other aspect of this sad process in the past, but there are marked differences along the way. While it is true that various warlords took over different parts of the country in the chaotic days during and after the civil war, Somalia was lucky to be spared the relentless technology censorship and stagnation that the Middle East and Northern Africa are witnessing, largely because of a happenstance of history: in the 90s, technology in Somalia was like technology in the rest of Africa: non-existent. There was therefore nothing to censor, more or less.

Ten years after the start of the civil war in Somalia, intrepid businessmen began making forays into technology, with telecoms the main attraction. This was a good place to start, for the post Siad Barre government – again, like virtually all post-independence governments in Africa – had relied on a corrupt monopoly to provide telecoms services, and that monopoly had failed miserably. The anarchy in Somalia at the time was, paradoxically, the very environment needed to spur an astonishing success story: telecoms.

The citizens were divided by war, many emigrated to neighbouring and far-off countries, and keeping in touch quickly became difficult for families. Until telecoms exploded onto the scene, and didn’t look back: today, Somalia has one of the most competitive telecom sectors in the world, with seven networks competing for customers in mobile voice, fixed line and data- internet connectivity.

Tariffs are among the lowest in Africa, but massive challenges remain, and these must now become the focus of the Federal Government of Somali and the various parties that make up regional leadership in the country, and who are not always allied to the government in Mogadishu. Rebuilding technology in Somalia has so far been an ad-hoc affair, but it needs to be coordinated centrally if these challenges are to be met and if technology is to play its part in rebuilding the new Somalia.

The first challenge is the statistics of technology adoption and usage in Somalia. The penetration rate of mobile phones is 58%. This lags behind other countries emerging from war on the continent: the penetration rate is 62% in Mozambique and 65% in Angola. The difference between those two countries and Somalia is a basic one: regulation and security.

Whereas Mozambique and Angola have relatively established regulatory bodies mandating service obligations for telecom operators, Somalia still has not given life to the National Communications Act of 2012, which facilitates the establishment of a national telecoms regulator. In virtually all countries around the world, telecoms and post services were originally grouped together under one ministry, usually charged with managing “communications” across the country. However, as telecoms grew and mobile telephony as well as internet penetration exploded, it quickly became clear that a one-size-fits-all ministry cannot manage both posts and telecoms.

As a result, the telecoms regulatory stage of any country can anecdotally be surmised from a quick government responsibility check: if telecoms in that country are still part of a ministry that handles both posts and telecoms, it points to a relatively backwards regulatory environment – and so it is with Somalia.

The second challenge is one that occupies post-war reconstruction policy analysts the world over: re-establishing security in a region or country with a violent recent past and a complete mistrust between various population groups.

This is made worse in Somalia by the inability of the government to project force meaningfully beyond Mogadishu and other principal towns: two years ago, militant groups “banned” mobile internet access in Somalia, and many telecom companies were forced to comply because the alternative would have been attacks on their telecom facilities outside Mogadishu.

The combined effect of these two main challenges is that technology companies – which require access to internet connections – are forced to focus on the main cities in the country, denying people outside those cities any real connectivity to the outside world, and also denying the sector the possibility of exploiting its enormous potential in the country.

The lack of a central regulator means frequency allocation is a dicey affair: there’s lots of interference when frequencies overlap, leading to poor service quality.

The national spectrum in the country is not managed at all, meaning that pretty much any telecom operator can set up shop and sit on any frequency they like. However, some frequencies are best suited for voice while others are best suited for data, and a national regulator would be best placed to sift these out and enforce optimal frequency sharing.

This is not happening in Somalia, and the result is that although people have mobile phones and can access the internet in the main population centres, this access is sub-optimal and can be much, much better if managed centrally.

Rebuilding technology sectors requires extensive training and re-training of personnel. Children that have grown up in war and have not had formal education are difficult to train into engineers and technicians. Somalia is lucky in one aspect in this respect: its vast diaspora has many skilled technical people, some of whom are willing to go back home to lend their skills to the rebuilding effort.

Again, however, the absence of a centralised government effort to attract and retain such talent makes it difficult to predict with any certainty where the technology sector will head. It has been left to investors to judge the levels of risk involved and use this personal judgement as the basis upon which to decide whether to invest in the country or not.

This is not good enough. Many countries in Africa are benefitting from connectivity to the rest of the world thanks to high-capacity fibre cables off the continent’s coasts, as well as initiatives like the free internet offerings of Western technology companies like Google and Facebook.

This is in turn opening up new revenue and job streams for those countries, and in places like Kenya one finds entirely new economic sectors based totally on mobile connectivity.
Somalia is yet to get onto this bandwagon, and it now behoves those in political authority to midwife the required reforms – structural, security, and legislative – that will facilitate the next boom in telecoms and technology in Somalia.