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|A Nomadic Background May Explain the Resilience of a Somali Economist|
Abbie Wightwick (Western Mail, August 6, 2001)
Born into a wealthy Somali family in 1948 and educated with the elite, Eid Ali Ahmed never imagined he would spend his life running from a regime that sought his ruin.
Things should have been good. British Somaliland, as it then was, was a British protectorate, but there was opportunity. Eid, a Muslim nomad by birth, had a happy childhood divided between the bush, a house in the city and an English-run boarding school. Half a century later, he believes his nomad experiences helped him cope as a military coup and civil war forced him into exile.
The second eldest of nine children, he wanted to become a banker. He achieved this but also ended up thousands of miles away as a refugee in Wales.
Eid's family was full of hope in 1960 when Britain gave independence to the north - British Somaliland -and it merged with Italy's former colony in the south. The new country was named Somalia and peace appeared to reign.
"We lived in the capital city of the north, Hargeisa, and in the bush as nomads. In school holidays I went into the interior with the camels and livestock. It was a very good life. For three months we looked after the camels and played with the camel boys," Eid recalls.
All this changed in 1969. As Eid, now 21, celebrated nine O-level passes and his first job as a trainee banker, a military coup rocked the country. The elected president was assassinated, Parliament shut down and General Siad Barre seized power. Within a year Barre declared Somalia a socialist republic and nationalised the economy, including banks.
Eid had hoped his job in the Hargeisa branch of Grindlays Bank would secure him further education in Britain. With the building now surrounded by gun-toting soldiers this seemed unlikely.
However, in 1970 Eid got a scholarship with the British Council for a nine-month accounting course in London. Barre's authorities gave permission for him to leave for one year only. As he settled into London it became clear that the situation back home was deteriorating. Eid decided to stay away.
In 1971 he visited relatives in Cardiff and enrolled on a business HND course at Newport College. With no means of support he struck almost impossible good fortune - the former head of his secondary school had retired to North Wales. Richard Darlington offered to pay his former pupil's fees.
By 1973 Eid had completed the course, but Somalia was suffering under a floundering economy, drought and starvation. Determined to get a degree, Eid got a place at university in the USA where it was easier to find work to fund his studies. Working as a porter and assistant librarian he graduated with a BSc in accounting and a BA in economics from the State University of New York in 1976.
Back in Somalia he was a wanted man. He had been gone far longer than a year. So he took a job with Citibank in Saudi Arabia. As his career took off, Eid's family in Somalia was struggling, and in 1978 his father died. Yearning to return home to help his family, Eid was in a dilemma. If he went back he would be arrested.
The next year Barre announced an amnesty for all those wanted for leaving the country without permission.
"I did not know if I trusted the amnesty, but I had no choice. I went to the neighbouring county of Djibouti and walked to the Somali border from there. I was shaking. I was still not sure," Eid says.
"When I got there I went to Hargeisa. When I went home I was crying. I had studied abroad and worked in Saudi Arabia but money is not everything. I sat down in my home and cried.
"There was no electricity. Hospitals had not been repaired for years and there were no supplies. Women were giving birth by torchlight in dreadful conditions. The coup had been peaceful, but the country was starved of money. It was deliberately devastated. I was shocked."
Eid decided to stay and help his family and country. After returning briefly to Saudi Arabia, he resigned from Citibank in 1980 and flew back to Somalia, as he hoped, for good.
Almost immediately he and two friends, Adan Warsama Said and Ahmed Hussein Abby set up the secret Hargeisa Group. Its initial aim was to organise communities to run self-help groups. It was launched with doctors, teachers and intellectuals opposed to Barre's rule. "We knew the government would not allow this group or its ideas but we still wanted to do it. We had no choice, whatever the consequences, even if it cost our lives. Without it we had no life either. The government was setting clan against clan," Eid says.
"Although the government eventually knew who we were we decided that even if we were thrown in jail people supported us. There would be a riot if we were arrested."
The group's members agreed to "live like donkeys" - Somali for keeping a low profile - and hope for the best.
During this time Eid set up a business importing farm equipment from Britain. In April 1981 the Somali National Movement, dedicated to toppling Barre, was launched in London. Eid joined.
Soon afterwards things began to go badly wrong. On October 28, 1981, Eid flew from Somalia to Djibouti to collect goods for his business. Eight days later some of his friends, including Adan and Ahmed, were arrested and jailed. Over the next few days a total of 30 were caged by Barre's army.
"My friends phoned and said, 'Don't come back'. I was extremely lucky but also felt guilty." As predicted the jailings prompted riots, but the prisoners were transferred to Mogadishu for trial - most were sentenced to life or 20 years.
The next few years were lonely. As a refugee in Djibouti, Eid continued his business, Hanad Enterprise, but was often distressed by news of murders or jailings across the border. He spent his spare time campaigning for his friends' release through Amnesty International and other human rights groups.
To make matters worse, Somali refugees in Djibouti were being targeted. In 1985, Eid was betrayed and his business bankrupted. It was no longer safe to stay. "In your 20s and 30s you think you are untouchable and we had no choice but to try to improve things," he says. "Fear is dehumanising. You are alone. You have nothing. I was also guilty that friends were in prison and I was not. I thought they would be angry." Heartbroken and afraid, he returned to Cardiff in 1987, applied for refugee status and was given British citizenship. The following year was a turning point. Civil war broke out in Somalia; his mother fled to Ethiopia and 10 friends from the Hargeisa Group were released from prison after international pressure. They wrote to Eid thanking him for his help.
As the 1980s closed, Eid found life hard. He could not find work and was worried about his mother. In 1989 she made contact from a refugee camp in Ethiopia. She eventually became a British citizen in 1995 and now lives in Cardiff with Eid and his wife Sabra, also a Somali refugee.
In 1991 the Somali National Movement toppled Barre, but skirmishes continued. Eid, no longer a wanted man in Somalia, hopes to visit next year, but says his life is here now. In 1999 he was appointed development and finance manager of the Welsh Refugee Council and was seconded to the National Assembly as a consultant on refugee and ethnic issues this year.
Building a new life is hard, he says, but his nomad background helped him adapt. "Being a nomad, I am always picking myself up and moving on. It makes you resilient."