Long before major international pleas for anti-drought funding in Somalia began, or images of the gaunt and hungry started to circulate in the world’s newspapers, Amir Sheikh knew exactly what was happening. For months, the news had been coming to him by Facebook and WhatsApp, by email and over scratchy phone lines from Mogadishu: the country was parched, people were dying. And if money didn’t arrive – lots of it, and soon – things were going to get worse very quickly.
So Mr. Sheikh, who heads up the Somali Community Board of South Africa, did what he always does when he receives news like this from home. He sounded the alarm.
He sent volunteers to talk to business owners in “Little Mogadishu,” a street in Johannesburg’s Mayfair neighborhood crowded with Somali coffee shops and internet cafes, and gathered money collected by small groups of concerned Somali women. He began asking restaurants about hosting fundraisers and reached out to other migrant communities in the city for help.
“It is not hard for us to reach people in Somalia because it is where we come from,” he says. “We are locals, we are not afraid.”
In February, the United Nations declared a famine in parts of South Sudan, and warned that three more nearby countries in the midst of their own severe droughts – Somalia, Nigeria, and Yemen – were precariously close. To stop them from tipping over into catastrophe, the agency’s humanitarian chief said, it needed to raise $4.4 billion by July. Meanwhile, the US, which supports almost one-fourth of the UN’s funding, is reportedly seeking deep program cuts.
“There are people [in need] who we are not assisting because of funding in every country we work in,” says Challiss McDonough, the senior regional communications officer for the United Nations World Food Programme in East Africa. In Somalia alone, she estimates, the agency needs $209 million more than it currently has in its coffers in order to reach the 6.2 million people at risk of famine.
But in a world worn down by what UN humanitarian chief Stephen O’Brien recently called “the largest humanitarian crisis” since the second World War, there is one group that has never stopped giving – Somalia’s diaspora.
A country of 10.8 million people, cut apart by nearly three decades of civil war, Somalia has one of the world’s most scattered populations: at least 2 million people born in the country now living beyond its borders, to say nothing of their children and grandchildren. But beyond its size, the vast constellation of Somali communities spread from Minneapolis to London to Johannesburg stands out for another characteristic: generosity.
Every year, Somalis abroad send about $1.4 billion home – or a quarter of the country’s GDP – making them Somalia’s largest provider of aid. Somali-Americans send an average of $3,800 per year, for example, while Somalis in Germany send more than $4,000 and those in Saudi Arabia send about $1,500.
And that money travels through highly intimate channels, almost always moving directly from donor to recipient with few or no people in between.
“People know exactly what happens to the money they send because they can just call up their relatives in the village and ask what’s happening and where it’s gone,” says Ayan Ashur, the ambassador to Britain for Somaliland, a self-governing breakaway state that is recognized internationally as an autonomous region in Somalia’s north. “It’s a more accountable way to donate because it’s so personal.”
That also means that in times of crisis like the current drought, Somalis are among the country’s most efficient and effective sources of relief, able to identify need, move money, and analyze impact faster than almost anyone else.
During Somalia’s 2011 famine, for instance, personal social networks – including diaspora connections and remittances – became a crucial factor in how well people and communities coped with the disaster, as international aid groups struggled to respond, according to a report from Tufts University’s Feinstein International Center. The better connected you were to people who weren’t experiencing the same crisis, in short, the more likely you were to survive it.
But that also meant that the diaspora, like other aid groups, was at times unable to reach those who need help the most – the marginalized and poorly connected, as well those living in areas controlled by the Islamist militant group Al Shabaab. More than 250,000 Somalis died during the 2011 famine, the worst of the 21st century; half of them were children. And Somalis’ ability to send money home has become increasingly uneven over the past few years, with several banks across the US, Europe, and Australia refusing to make the transfers into the country for fears of being penalized for inadvertently supporting terrorism or money laundering.
Still, for many in the region, waiting for other forms of aid is hardly an option. The United Nations has blamed slow international response, in part, for the 2011 tragedy, and is anxious not to see history repeat itself. Today, 20 million people are living in drought-hit areas of Somalia, Yemen, South Sudan, and Nigeria, according to the UN, which warned last month that it had raised just one-tenth of the funds required to prevent famine.
“Internationally, it took so long and there is still so little” in the way of aid in Somaliland, Ms. Ashur says. “The diaspora has been reacting since November, where we only saw the international community begin to come in around March. I think it’s fair to say this situation would be so much worse if this diaspora had not been active.”
For Brooklyn-based fashion designers Idyl and Ayaan Mohallim and a group of their Somali-American friends, seeing the news from home was like hearing the echoes of history.
“This cycle of famines and droughts has been going on for our entire lives,” Idyl Mohallim says. “We already know too well what the consequences are if help doesn’t get to Somalia sooner rather than later.”
So in early March, she and her friends cobbled together a short video explaining the need for aid in the country, and threw it onto a hastily-assembled GoFundMe fundraising page. They circulated it among friends and family, and by early April, they had raised more than $25,000.
Part of the reason for the fundraiser’s brisk success, Ms. Mohallim speculates, was the fact that the organizers could vouch personally for the charities they had decided to donate their funds to – groups they had worked and traveled with in the past, and whose work they knew well.
“I think people want to be involved but just have no idea how, or feel there’s no way they can change a crisis like that,” she says. “We are giving people both a way to take part and that accountability that the money is going where it needs to be.”
But like Sheikh in Johannesburg and Ashur in London, the organizers don’t feel the work they’ve done is anything newsworthy.
For Somalis, after all, this kind of charity is the norm. In their community, they say, not giving what you can, whenever you can, would be the glaring exception.
“Culturally, this is all very ordinary to us,” Mohallim says.
In Somalia, women defy strict rules to play football
MOGADISHU – (AFP) – Shortly after sunrise, a group of young women arrives at a football pitch in Mogadishu, where they shrug off their hijabs — some changing underneath the billowing veil — to reveal their team kit.
Young Somali men stand nearby, some disapproving but all watching closely, as the women jog up and down, dribble a worn-out ball between colourful cones and do sit-ups, less than 200 metres (656 feet) from a heavily guarded security checkpoint.
The sight of young women playing football is highly unusual in Somalia, due to societal pressures as well as fear of Al-Shabaab.
The Al-Qaeda linked Islamist group launches regular attacks in Mogadishu and considers forms of entertainment, such as football, to be evil, worse still if women are involved.
“It is obvious that we are scared despite the fact that we put on heavy clothes over our shorts and T-shirts (until) we get to the pitch. It is very difficult to walk normally with sports clothes — we never wear sports clothing in society,” said Hibaq Abdukadir, 20, one of the footballers.
She is among 60 girls, who have signed up to train at the Golden Girls Centre in Mogadishu, Somalia’s first female soccer club.
Mohamed Abukar Ali, the 28-year-old co-founder of the centre, said he was inspired to create the club after he realised that Somalia had no female footballers.
“We are… trying to make these girls the first Somali female football professionals,” he said.
However this is not an easy task.
Somali football players of Golden Girls Football Centre, Somalia’s first female soccer club, attend their training session at Toyo stadium in Mogadishu, on March 5, 2018. PHOTO | MOHAMED ABDIWAHAB |AFP
“When the girls have to attend training sessions, we have to organise to pick them up and bring them here and back home after the session because they are girls and we think about their security,” said Ali.
“There are so many challenges, from security to lack of resources… but that will not deter our ambition to establish female football clubs in this country,” he said. “We believe it is the right time and we should have the courage to think differently.”
‘They look naked’
Many of the girls who have joined the club said they had always wanted to try playing football but never had the opportunity.
“I have been playing football for seven months, but my family has only known about it for two months,” said Sohad Mohamed, 19.
“I used to dodge my mother about where I was going because she would not allow me to play football, but at least my mum is okay with it now, even though the rest of my family is not happy.”
In Somalia, it is taboo for women to appear in public dressed in shorts, trousers or T-shirts, with Islamic scholars saying sports clothing is not appropriate Islamic dress for women.
The players wear tights underneath their baggy shorts, and cover their hair, but still face criticism for their dress.
“I come to watch them train but frankly speaking, I would not be happy to see my sister doing it, this is not good in society’s eyes because they look naked,” said Yusuf Abdirahman, who lives near the football field.
Mohamed Yahye, another onlooker, is happy to see women playing football but is also concerned about how they are dressed.
“I think there is nothing wrong with women playing football, the only thing they should change is the dress code, they need to wear something that is not slim-fitting. But as long as their body is not seen, they are in line with the Islamic dress codes,” he said.
However the Golden Girls are not fazed.
“My ambition is so high that I aim for the same progress as those female footballers who play for Barcelona,” said Abdukadir.
A dream of a continental free trade area deferred
DAILY MAVERICK — A dream of establishing a continental free trade area in Africa has slipped back again after a last-minute decision by Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari not to attend the summit in Rwanda where an agreement was set to be finalised. South Africa, the other large economic player on the continent, also has its reservations.
There was a hint of dejection as ministers filed into the beehive-shaped Kigali Convention Centre on Monday morning, in the midst of the rainy season, to hammer out the details of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) agreement.
The special summit was called by Rwandan president Paul Kagame, who this year also chairs the African Union, and talk in the weeks ahead of the gathering was that the agreement only needed a few final touches and that everyone was on board.
It was supposed to be the breakthrough Africa needed before finally rising, and the no-nonsense Kagame was the one to drive this.
The process started in 2012, and free trade was already supposed to have been a thing by 2017, so there was a goal to meet.
Ambassadors had on Saturday already pored over the paperwork, and it was up to the ministers to fine-tune it before the presidents arrive on Wednesday to sign the agreement.
After this, it would have to go through individual country processes, such as parliaments, to be ratified and come into force.
On Sunday, however, news came from Nigeria, which was bidding to host the CFTA secretariat and which chaired the technical negotiations team, that president Muhammadu Buhari had abruptly cancelled his trip to Rwanda.
ThisDay reported that he was already on his way to the airport on Saturday, but was then told to turn back. This was after business groups in Nigeria objected to the signing of the agreement, saying there had not been enough consultations.
They feared that Nigeria would be overwhelmed by business from the outside without Nigerians benefiting from it.
Also, incidentally, the country is having presidential elections next year, in which Buhari might be running again, which might explain the sudden – some would say undue – pressure from within.
Still, Nigerian foreign minister Geoffrey Onyeama arrived at the ministers’ meeting where he possibly had a lot of explaining to do.
Outside of the fight about where the secretariat should be located (indications were that even though both Nigeria and Ghana made a bid for it, it was decided to have it at the African Union’s headquarters of Addis Ababa for now), countries had concerns about the dispute resolution mechanisms in the AfCFTA, and also about whether it would effectively be able to prevent dumping.
That would occur if a country outside Africa used an African country with weak import controls to bring goods in from the outside, using it as a springboard to distribute duty-free to the rest of the continent. Instead of promoting business in Africa, as the AfCFTA is supposed to do, this would undermine it.
South Africa, another leading economy on the continent, also had some reservations about the fine print as well as the Protocol on the Free Movement of People, even though President Cyril Ramaphosa apparently indicated that his pen was ready.
Most of the AU’s 55 member states seemed to have no principled objection to signing the agreement and the legal instruments to establish the AfCFTA, which really means nothing much until it’s ratified by all. This happens when local laws and regulations are brought into line with the agreement through a parliamentary process.
South African officials on Monday morning were still unclear about whether Ramaphosa would sign the agreement or not, although some in the Nigerian delegation seemed to be under the impression that Ramaphosa would join Buhari in abstaining.
Ramaphosa himself was expected to attend the summit, and he even arranged to arrive earlier on Tuesday afternoon to attend an AU-organised business summit ahead of the heads of state gathering where the agreement would be signed.
On Monday, international relations minister Lindiwe Sisulu was left to deal with the negotiations even as South Africa’s brand new administration was still busy settling into the continental body (this is her first summit in her new position, and it’s likely that she would have a few bilaterals with her counterparts from other countries to introduce herself).
There was also reported disagreement on how many states needed to sign the agreement for it to come into force. At the lower end, some said 15 states would be enough, while others wanted at least 37. Leaders could eventually settle for something in between, such as half of the states.
As the meeting broke for lunch on Monday, it still wasn’t clear exactly how many states would sign, but an official involved in the negotiations said it was “a good number” and that he was optimistic.
AU Commission chairperson Moussa Faki Mahammat imparted the urgency of getting the AfCFTA going in a hard-hitting opening speech, and he seemed to urge leaders to come to an agreement:
“Our continent is at a crossroads,” he said.
“What path will she choose? That of maintaining the status quo, which means making cosmetic changes relating to borderline adjustments which have no real impact on the lives of our populations, or that of effecting a paradigm shift which requires us to look far into the horizon for a truly integrated Africa?”
This would be “structurally reformed economically, guaranteeing the freedom of movement and settlement to all her daughters and all her sons, as well as offering, in the final analysis, fulfilling and promising living conditions for her youth, in a bid to reverse migratory flows”, he said.
Rwandan foreign minister Louise Mushikiwabo said in her opening speech that the agreement should enter into force as soon as possible, but “with everybody feeling comfortable about it”.
She said the agreement would be to the advantage of Africa, which could then act as “a global player” to promote the continent’s economic interests and attract investment, create jobs and improve things for the people.
The official line is that the AfCFTA agreement would grow intra-African trade, which is still lower than trade between African countries and the outside, by 55% by 2022, and Africa’s exports to the rest of the world would grow by 6%.
Life would also be better for small cross-border traders.
The agreement would open a market of 1.2 billion people, and is one of the flagship projects of the AU’s Agenda 2063, a 50-year plan for a transformed Africa.
The other projects are the Single African Air Transport Market and the Protocol on the Free Movement of People.
Even though the protocol was still in draft on Monday, AU Commissioner for Trade and Industry Albert Muchanga promised that it would be ready for signing when heads of state meet on Wednesday.
The dream, however, would have to be deferred for a little while longer. DM
In a Man’s Death, a Glimpse of Libya’s Horrors
HRW — A young Eritrean man died on Tuesday in Sicily of tuberculosis compounded by severe malnutrition. His name was Segen.* He was 22.
There is so much about Segen we may never know. Did he prefer to read books or play football? What music did he like? Had he ever been in love? Who did he leave behind?
This is what we do know: Segen was rescued from the Mediterranean on Sunday by Pro Activa Open Arms, a Spanish group, and disembarked in Sicily on Monday. He died in the hospital. He told rescuers he was held captive in Libya for 19 months.
Segen may have been held in an official detention center or by smugglers – in today’s Libya, both are similar and brutal. He may have been held for ransom, or tortured while forced to call home so his family could hear him scream as he begged them to send money. He may have been sold from one smuggling network to another or forced to work without pay.
These possibilities are based on accounts I heard from migrants who escaped Libya. When I went out on a rescue ship run by SOS MEDITERRANEE and Médécins sans Frontières, they rescued many Eritreans and Somalis who had spent many months in captivity in Libya; some were severely emaciated.
If Segen had survived, there’s a good chance he would have been granted the right to stay in Europe; most Eritreans are because of serious repression, including indefinite military conscription, in Eritrea.
Yet European governments are empowering Libyan authorities to stop migrant boat departures and intercept – including in international waters – ones that do launch. All of those on board are then indefinitely detained in Libya.
While implementing policies that effectively trap people like Segen in horrible abuse, European governments are failing to resettle people the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, evacuates from Libya to Niger. Just over 1,000 people have been taken to Niger, but only 55 have been resettled to Europe, leading Niger to ask UNHCR to temporarily suspend the program.
Europe can and should do more. Our governments should focus on ending the cycle of captivity and violence in Libya and help as many people as possible reach a place of safety. Ramping up resettlement is a good place to start.
*Italian authorities registered his name as Tesfalidet Tesfon, but he was known as Segen.
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