We are told that the 20-year madness and bloodletting in Somalia has been fuelled by clan turf wars, criminality, Islamic Jihad, piracy, and even national resistance against foreign powers (the USA, Ethiopia, African Union Peace Mission, and lately Kenya).
A less talked-about driver for the conflict, is the desire to create a Greater Somalia; the rebirth of pre-colonial Somalia that includes the Ogaden region of Ethiopia, Djibouti, and northeastern Kenya. The five-pointed “star of unity” in the Somalia flag represents this idea – the Somali ethnic groups in Djibouti, Ogaden, Ethiopia, northeastern Kenya, and Somalia itself.
For this reason, like the Jewish nation that is bigger than the Israeli state, the Somali nation too is much bigger than the Somali state (Somalia).
That is why, for Djibouti, Ethiopia, and Kenya, the rise of a Greater Somalia is an existential threat.
The irony about this is that Somalis are already one of Africa’s most successful people. They certainly are its most enterprising.
Even before the flare up of xenophobic attacks against other Africans in South Africa in 2009, locals who were angry that they had “taken away” their businesses had been robbing and killing Somali shopkeepers.
While other African immigrants have largely been spared since then, the attacks on Somali business people have continued.
The common thing about immigrants everywhere in the world is that they tend to work harder than the “natives”. They also often succeed spectacularly, which brings on deadly jealousies. From Germany where Jews were slaughtered in their millions, to Kenya where the prosperous “immigrant” Kikuyu populations in the Rift Valley were killed and chased off their lands in the 2008 post-leection violence, to the Bunyoro region of Uganda where the workaholic Bakiga were even banned from standing for local office, the story is the same.
The thing about the Somali is that they tend to confine themselves to business. In Kenya today, the Somali have taken over the real estate market. They are also snapping up restaurants. In Uganda, they are doing the same. They also own some of the best malls.
The evening or “parallel degree” programmes have become the new rage with African universities. To see just how Somalis are remaking several East African societies, one needs to go to the University of Nairobi.
Of every 10 students in the evening degree programme, it is estimated that four are Kenyan Somalis. That is 40 percent. There are so many Somalis in the evening programme, that during Ramadhan when they have to pray in the evenings, classes are delayed! That is mind-boggling, considering that Somalis are, actually, still marginalised, the wealth of its business elite notwithstanding.
According to the 2009 Kenya Population Census, the country had a population of 38,610,097.
The Somali have shot to the 6th largest national group, from close to bottom of the pile at the last census. The census found that the largest 13 ethnic communities by numbers are Kikuyu at 6.62 million, Luhya 5.33 million, Kalenjin at 4.96 million, Luo 4.04 million, Kamba (3.89 million), Kenyan Somali (2.38 million), Kisii (2.21 million), Mijikenda (1.96 million), Meru (1.65 million), Turkana (0.99 million), Maasai (0.84 million), Teso (0.33 million) and Embu (0.32 million) .
The population of Somalis was so controversial, a recount – that has not yet been done – was ordered in the northeast. So while Kenyan Somali account for 6 percent of the population, they are 40 percent of the evening degree programme at Kenya’s leading programme. This means that in the next generation, Kenyan Somali will be by far the single modest educated group in Kenya.
Why have Somalis been so successful in Eastern and South Africa (not to mention in the USA and Europe)?
First, unlike the other African Muslims in East, Central, West, and Southern Africa, they are extremely frugal. I have a Somali friend, who is one of the richest people in Uganda, but he drives a ramshackle car whose door often flies off when he hits a pothole.
Secondly, while East and West African Muslims are notoriously polygamous, Somalis are not. A serious Sheikh in Nigeria, Uganda, or Kenya, will have six wives. Most Somalis are largely monogamous – or will allow themselves two wives. That way, they don’t squander their wealth splitting it among many households and bribing quarrelsome wives.
Also, the Somalis are the African group who seem to have learnt the most from the first East Asians who came to Africa at the end of the 19th and start of the 20th centurires. The East African Asians managed their costs through the large family living under the same roof, even when children got married, thus reducing their rent, electricity, and other costs. The Somalis also remain quite close knit as families, and support each other.
That support system thrives because, unlike other African communities, it has a ruthless enforcement mechanism. A Somali clansman will lend another money to start a business or give him credit, and if he doesn’t pay back, some musclemen will visit him and either break his legs, or chop off his head.
You don’t find many broken-hearted Somalis who have been cheated out of their wealth by relatives the way you would a Muganda, Kikuyu, Hausa, or Luo. Business risk among the Somali is thus fairly low.
The Somali in the Diaspora, those back in Africa, and the rich and poor ones keep a level of contact alien to most other Africans. This enables knowledge sharing, and a global exchange of business ideas and opportunities.
A Somali friend was transferred to work for the UN in Nairobi two years ago. When I had dinner with him, he told me was going to shop for a TV and other electronics the next day. I asked if he was going to the Duty Free Shop.
He looked at me, a little puzzled, then said; “No, I am going to shop in Eastleigh”. Eastleigh ,a bustling business district in Nairobi, is the heartland of Somali business in East Africa, and is reputed to be the unofficial central bank of Somalia.
Prices there are incredible. Kenyans are probably the only Africans who, when they visit their relatives in Europe and North America, often carry western made products like sneakers as presents. That is because, a genuine Air Jordan sneaker from Eastleigh, will be far cheaper than at the cheapest store in London or New York.
Even the accomplished Somali smuggling network, is not enough for explain that difference in price. If power and wealth are some of the factors driving the long-conflict in Somalia, then it is no longer productive. Somalis have already won Eastern Africa.
© Charles Onyango-Obbo / twitter@cobbo3