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Thursday, 15 November, 2001, 17:04 GMT
Somalia: The land of opportunity
Worker at Nationlink factory
Companies like Nationlink say they can try whatever they want
By Stephane Mayoux in Mogadishu

Mogadishu's international airport is closed. Children use it as a football pitch, goats graze on it and part of the runway has been mined by a warlord.

We usually pay because if you fight, you will either kill someone or get killed. And anyway at the end of the day you won't do any business

Nationlink Managing Director Ahmed Dini
The harbour is unusable because two opposing factions still disagree on how to share its potential revenues - any ship attempting to dock would be shelled.

Roads are in chaos and the currency, the Somali shilling which loses half of its value every year has all but been replaced by the US dollar.

After 10 years of civil war Somalia lies in ruins.

But amid the destruction, a quiet economic revolution is taking place.

Getting connected

One of the companies making it happen is Nationlink, a telecommunications firm that has grown into one of the country's largest businesses.

Nationlink workers
Mogadishu now has a competitive telecoms sector
Nationlink now has 15,000 fixed line customers and 1,200 mobile phone users.

Mogadishu has three competing mobile-phone networks. Their users can call anywhere in the world for only one US dollar a minute.

The Nationlink switchboard is a small but frantic place where three full-time operators field hundreds of calls six days a week.

Potential new customers inquire about their services and current users report faulty lines.

Harsh climate

But every time Nationlink technical staff walk out onto the streets of Mogadishu, the reality of Somalia catches up with them.

As Managing Director Ahmed Dini explained, that reality is not easy.

Nationlink Managing Director Ahmed Dini
Nationlink's managing director would like to see a stable government
"Throughout Somalia we have 200 people looking after our business. They are all armed," he said.

Mr Dini said that someone somewhere will always ask for money if a job needs doing, say the company wants to install a new cable in Mogadishu.

"You can do two things. Either fight with them or pay. We usually pay because if you fight, you will either kill someone or get killed... and anyway at the end of the day you won't do any business," he explained.

But in a country with no law-courts, few rules and no government, Somali business-people turned to traditional customs to enforce business commitments.

If one of Nationlink's customers cannot pay, one of the company's employees will call on his clan-elders, his family, sometimes the local Muslim sheikh to make sure his debt will be paid up.

Amazing paradox

For Mohammed Elmi, head of HornAfrik, a multi-media company operating a television channel, a radio station and a web-site from Mogadishu, there is an amazing paradox in Somalia.

"After years of civil war, the only thing that binds people together is an instinct to trust each other across clan boundaries to do business together."

Barakaat hoarding
Barakaat is now Somalia's biggest business
"Somalia is a virgin land. There is no lack of opportunity and every business idea seems to be viable," he said.

A perfect example of a Somali company for which everything seems possible is Barakaat.

Started with a money transfer, Barakaat is now Somalia's largest business, having developed into a fully fledged bank.

It had built the country's largest telecommunications network and currently invests in farming projects, construction ventures and hospitals.

However, last week it was labelled as a terrorist organisation by the United States.

It rejects the accusation but is desperately struggling to cope with the consequences.

Answering to the people

"We answer the needs of the people. We are always ready to invest," said Mahmoud Mohammed, one of Barakaat's senior consultants.

After years of civil war, the only thing that binds people together is an instinct to trust each other

Mohammed Elmi, head of HornAfrik

"We are getting a lot from the people. And we have to return some of what we get to the people."

Somalia is an Islamic country and Islam instructs its followers to give away a share of their earnings to the poor.

In fact, once a week hundreds of people queue up in front of some local businesses to receive money.

In the absence of any sort of government, business-people often play the roles usually expected of the government.

But they are not necessarily happy to carry on doing so.

Security, trust, responsibility

Both Ahmed Abdu Dini and Mahmoud Mohammed are desperate to see a Somali government in full control.

Nationlink hoarding
Over 1,000 mobile phone users subscribe to Nationlink
"There is no excuse for no government. The only positive thing is that you can try whatever you want. But we spend a lot of money on security," Nationlink's Mr Dini said.

It's not often that you hear of businessmen talking about wanting to pay taxes.

But in Somalia, there is no government to pay them to.

Instead they adhere to three basic self-imposed rules - security, trust and responsibility.

To hear the full programme, tune into African Perspective on the BBC World Service at 0930 GMT on Friday 16 November.

Click here to listen to the programme


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