Somali transnationalism could launch East Africa’s economic growth

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By Tom Odhiambo

Somalis are probably the most widespread peoples of Eastern Africa. They are found literally all over Eastern Africa. One can say that the Somalis have redrawn the map of modern Eastern Africa, bringing their cultures, religion, social ways but most important, their commercial dreams and skills to strange places.

Today, Brexit has muddied the waters of regional integration. People in Europe are worried that the dream of the rise of Europe as a global force will collapse. But what many ignore is that there are millions of people across Europe, beginning with Britain, who are very connected to each other that despite the so-called exit of Britain, will keep interconnected economically, politically, culturally, spiritually and transnationally. In other words, ordinary people are always ahead of the politicians and bureaucrats in overcoming the limits of immigration and borders.

This ability to realign the maps and border points is something that East Africans should seriously consider. For citizens of the various countries have crossed mountains, valleys, hills, rivers and villages to see their relatives or friends across the borders; trade with others; or simply adventure. Today, the Somalis of Eastern Africa – if we allow that phrase or category – are proof of that the colonial imposition of borders can’t stop people from seeing their friends or starting new relationships away from their villages or trading with strangers.

Somalia may not be an easily recognizable nation-state for those who aren’t Somalis. Even in Somalia itself, the regional divisions mean that the process of national integration – if there will ever be an agreement within and without Somalia that there is need for such – is as contested today as it was when the colonialists declared it a state. Yet, Somalis are probably the most widespread peoples of Eastern Africa. One can say that the Somalis have redrawn the map of modern Eastern Africa, bringing their cultures, religion, social ways but most important, their commercial dreams and skills to strange places.

There is a Somali shopkeeper somewhere in Western Kenya; Somali truck drivers have delivered oil to the interior of Eastern Africa, from the coast of Kenya, for ages. In the process, they have helped established shopping centers along the road, mosques and settlements. They have settled in some places but in others, they have always been passersby, happy to stop, park the truck, have a meal, a shower, a nap and move on to the next place. Unlike other itinerant traders, they may not leave a Somali name in these spaces and places, but they get remembered for having been pioneers.

Today, the Somalis may claim ancestry in Somalia, Kenya, Djibouti, Ethiopia, the Indian Ocean Islands, Tanzania, Zanzibar and beyond. They are also in Australia, India, northern America, China, Europe and Southern America and in the Caribbean islands as well. How would a mere border stop such people from doing business?

This is why Eastern Africa may need this pioneering spirit of the Somalis to reignite the Eastern Africa community. If the politicians are still bickering and negotiating over tariffs and rules of trade, the rest of Eastern Africans may learn a lesson on how to break through these artificial barriers and connect the region, first, through commerce, then politically, if the need arises. But the commerce angle must be pursued to its logical conclusion. Why?

Because millions of Eastern Africans still lack some basic goods. For instance, whenever one hears of starvation in parts of Ethiopia, Eritrea or Somalia, one may also find that there is food rotting in stores or markets in parts of Uganda or Tanzania. This is the problem of regional interconnectedness. It simply means that we can’t move goods and people (and services) in time and economically, in the region. It means that there isn’t a system that allows flow of financial resources in the region that would enable traders to move money from one place to another. It seems as if there is no trust in the banking sector that would make it possible for credit to flow between countries. It is as if Eastern Africans haven’t heard of the hawala system.

Yet, the Somalis have always traded and exchanged goods and services and credit on the basis of trust. They have relied on the interconnectedness of family, friend and community across borders to supply goods (and services) that benefit both them and their host communities. Their settling in new places, far away from home, is based on mutual trust between them and the strangers among whom they set home and shop. This trust is what Eastern Africans need to build in order to reinvent the spirit of regional integration. For, if the people are willing to do their thing, who are the politicians to stop them!

Why do I say this? Because across the region are shops, petrol stations, schools, clinics, shopping malls and neighbourhoods, that are testimonies to the Somali spirit of adventurism, investment, thrift and commerce. Some of these investments are in places where the Somali Investor is the only ‘foreigner’ at the market centre or in the locality. How does this happen? Or why is this possible? Because these are people who had never been confined in or to a region before the Europeans arrived on their shores; they had known the freedom of expansive land. The border was the place yet to be reached but not some demarcated zone.

Today the Somalis may claim ancestry in Somalia, Kenya, Djibouti, Ethiopia, the Indian Ocean Islands, Tanzania, Zanzibar and beyond, in Africa. You will find them in Australia, India, northern America, China, all over Europe and southern America. Even in the Caribbean islands. How would a mere border stop such people from doing business? And in a world where money opens all sorts of doors, what obstacle would stop a Somali from pursuing his or her dreams. I know this sounds almost stereotypical. But it would be naïve not to see the Somalis as probably the most adventurous of all Eastern African communities.

Shouldn’t any serious regional corporation then study this spirit of Somalis, if its intention is to integrate the various countries into one block? Shouldn’t we really be talking of economic integration, followed by cultural understanding and acceptance – as it happens in places away from home where many Somali traders have settled and thrived – before we begin to think of political oneness? If such a policy route were to be taken, wouldn’t it be possible to seriously invest in the region – and Somalia – and create jobs and economic opportunities for young people and therefore involve them in reconstruction of their countries rather than have them become anti-state militants? There is something in the Somali trader that can help Somalia and Eastern Africa emerge from years of underdevelopment. We just need to learn about it, from it and adapt to it.

The writer teaches literature at the University of Nairobi. Tom.odhiambo@uonb.ac.ke