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by Liban Obsiye
August 4, 2012 (TSR) - The role of the Diaspora in development is well documented and proven. Members of the Diaspora who leave their homelands for others for many different reasons be it economic, social or political have always played a major role in the affairs of their homeland. The Irish, Indian and Chinese Diaspora members living all over the world can be credited with taking back their expertise, wealth and rich networks to advance their nations into potential future superpowers. President Obama’s visit to the Republic of Ireland was not just diplomatic but arguably a source of future votes back home as an estimated 30 million Irish descendants live in the USA.
This is no different for the Somali community who have been without a functioning central government since the collapse of the Siad Barre regime in 1991. Due to civil war an estimated 1.5 million Somalis are living abroad. Their impact on their homeland is much celebrated in academic, media and political circles with senior British and American diplomats and ministers seeing them as the future stabilisers of their troubled nation.
In a roundtable discussion with the British International Development Minister Stephen O’Brien in Bristol in the run up to the 23rd February Somali conference in London, participants were told that the Diaspora were key to Britain’s future plans for Somali peace, stability and development. This was echoed by American embassy officials in Britain in a high profile meeting in the same city a month or so later.
In line with their views of the Diaspora both the British and American governments are supporting and actively financially assisting, through different mechanism, the unstable political leadership of Somalia which is dominated by Diaspora members from the western world such as the Prime Minister Abdi weli Mohammed Ali who is an American citizen and the Mayor of Mogadishu Mohamed Ahmed Nur who is British.
Whether this support is a genuine attempt at assisting and returning western educated technocrats to rebuild their former nation or a ploy to exercise influence after peace or both is a matter open to debate. However, what is obvious is that too much faith has been placed in the Diaspora by politicians who do not understand Somalia and the Somali people’s struggles in their new home nations.
The Somali Diaspora despite their disproportionate political presence in different regions of Somalia are still appointed along tribal lines to their posts. The idea that a fair, open and accountable recruitment process is in place for the leaders of tomorrow in Somalia is an absolute myth. The tribal 4.5 system which used to allocate funding and government posts in line with often false tribal numbers is still in place and is being promoted today by the new constitution that many within Somali feel uneasy about.
For the Diaspora members to make a real difference they need to be recruited on their merits but the prevalence of the 4.5 system ensures that those from smaller tribal families still lose out to less qualified, more connected members of the larger tribes who seem to dominate central and local government posts all over the Somali territories. The obvious consequence of this is that parliament and key decision making bodies will still not be representative and regardless of individual merit, the Diaspora member’s tribal family and its position in Somali society will determine what they become and how and to what extent they contribute.
On a more personal and communal level, unlike the other Diaspora groups such as the Nigerians, Ghanaians, Indians and Chinese, the vast majority of the Somali community living abroad did not leave their homes as migrant or highly sought after skilled workers but as refugees. Many, especially those in Europe, America and Canada have yet to still find their feet and themselves become self sufficient.
Most do send home their contribution of the estimated $2 billion dollars that is sent every year to friends, family and for business purposes to Somalia but they are not wealthy or influential enough as a community to be able to connect with the networks that govern and the powers that be in their new homes that can assist them in contributing to their home nation (most feel this way about Somalia despite acquiring other nationalities).
There is a great amount of hope that the young second generation western Somalis will play a greater role with their better education and access to more influential and financially rewarding professional employment but relying on this group is far too risky as most have had very little contact with Somalia and know very little about it.
Many members of this group also do not speak fluent Somali often preferring to communicate in their own mother tongues such as English, Swedish, Dutch and Arabic. Some second generation Somali westerners do have enormous interest in their ancestral homeland and campaign for it but very few want to relocate their permanently, especially young women as they feel they will be constrained and discriminated against by a strong, enduring patriarchal culture.
The Diaspora might have been a tool for future governmental leadership if they were able to self organise and take co-ordinated action. But the reality is that aside from been dispersed all over the world, not being very well integrated into their new societies, speaking different languages and living under different political systems, they have different regional political ambitions with Somaliland nationals (as they see themselves) wanting to end the political union with Somalia which they feel can no longer continue after the crimes of the Siad Barre regime against them. In official meetings groups from both sides can be seen exchanging abuse and blaming each other for the collapse of the Somali state.
The best of these disheartening, farcical shows was played out in Chatham House on 8th February when British government officials welcomed Somali community members for a consultation which turned into a accusation match of which tribe committed the most atrocities with Somaliland supporters attacking Somalia and an Awdal state supporter passionately refusing to be part of what he saw to be a one family Somaliland nation and opting to unite with Somalia with the hope of his region becoming a self governing autonomous region like Puntland.
Rather than being the architects of a new, united Somalia it appeared as though these participants were more tribal and divided than those they wanted to help back home.
Most I speak to in Somalia about the Diaspora paint a less than the knight in shining armour image stuck in western policy maker’s minds. Most feel that better educated Diaspora members return to take their jobs, dominate and award their friends government posts and speak for them despite having very little in common with them.
“In Mogadishu and Hargiesa, they live in the best homes and create homelessness because poor people can’t afford to pay the rents they pay,” said one Somali journalist. “They also invest in businesses and monopolise services creating unemployment and suspicion.”
“Private schools open for their children and they do not give anything back to the country but buy houses and take their money with them back to Europe,” added another. “Locally we call them Dayuuspora.” Although the derogatory nature of the term does not allow one to explain it, simply put Dayuuspora is a reaction of anger against what many of those still living in Somalia see as a new group of colonisers who are returning to govern them badly, privatise their meagre public services which they are often tasked with shaping and escape to securer shores when things go wrong.
There is very little the international community can do to convince Somalis who have lived through and endured arguably some of the worst fighting seen anywhere in the world, to willing accept their chosen Diaspora members as current and potential leaders. The fact that the Diaspora members are still engaged and interested in their home nations affairs and contribute vast amounts of remittance money which keeps the Somali economy and families alive is admirable. However, if the Diaspora members want to play a key role within Somalia they must gain legitimacy by talking and negotiating with the Somali people directly.
They must work with them and not see themselves as above them because they have been parachuted in as a result of their western passports. It must be made clear to them too that Somalia only needs one president and just a handful of ministers not the entire politically active Diaspora. More importantly, they must come with a willingness to learn from the real experts on Somalia, its forgotten people, and ditch their arrogance and high and mighty western degrees and expert reports written in the comfort of safe distant shores at the airport.
AUTHOR: Liban Obsiye