Profile: Why Jeremy Deller is Britain’s Bard
Published in The Independent on Sunday, 6 October 2013
The heavens crack, fountains of flame light up the night, a few cowled, huddled figures flee the apocalypse across arid rock: John Martin’s epic painting of the fall of Sodom and Gomorrah is the opening image in Jeremy Deller’s powerful new exhibition, opening at Manchester Art Gallery on Saturday. And it sets the tone. For Deller, fresh from the Venice Biennale where his installation in the British Pavilion was widely acclaimed, the painting does not depict a mythological event in the ancient Middle East but starkly renders the horrors Britain had conjured by inventing the Industrial Revolution.
John Martin painted the work in 1852, when the reality of what we had done to our earth, to our towns and to the labourers now condemned tospend their working lives in the factories was sinking in.
“Within a 20 or 30 year period the Industrial Revolution just happens – there are no regulations and there is this trauma, the inversion of order,” says Deller. The earth is on fire and there are these hellish scenes on your doorstop. But it’s producing money for you…It’s impressive but it’s frightening at the same time – you read accounts of people from France going to Manchester in the 1860s and they cannot believe what they are seeing.
“Then there is this moment, which I find interesting, when people take stock of what has happened and realise that they have probably let things happen too quickly and things have gone too far…”
That delayed recognition is at the heart of the new exhibition, which borrows the title of Karl Marx’s work on the nature of capitalism. First there is the giddy, euphoric experience of radical social and economic change. And then there is the belated shock and dismay at what the revolution had brought in train: the destruction of the environment, the creation of hellish towns, the transformation of peasants into automata. Around the time that Martin painted Sodom, a chastened British parliament commissioned reports into the condition of life in the new industrial towns. The investigators came back with photographs of labouring women swathed in filthy rags, staring numbly into the camera.
These distressing early photographs are displayed in the exhibition, alongside John Martin’s ‘Sodom’ painting, a similarly apocalyptic painting of kiln fires and billowing factory chimneys in the Black Country, but also an apparently unrelated photograph of a heaving Eighties’ disco. Later we see the smoking stage set of Judas Priest’s “Live in the East” show from 1979 juxtaposed with an equally smoky scene of an early 19th century steel rolling mill. Further on an Amalgamated Engineers Union banner from 1890 is set against a text message sent to workers on zero-hours contracts that reads ‘Hello, today you have day off’.
“Now with the digital economy we find ourselves in a situation comparable to the mid-19th century,” says Deller. “We’ve spent 20 years enjoying the internet and now we realise, God, all these people know all these things about us. They know my buying habits, where I’m going to be going on holiday, all this.” We wake up to find ourselves utterly dependent on a system which knows every detail of our waking lives.
Since his first show in 1993, which was set in his family’s home, Deller has taken on the mantle of a sort of national poet, selecting and juxtaposing many strands of British experience in a way that gives his oeuvre the feel of a collective autobiography. “Why are we the way we are?” he asks. “What made us like this?” His posture oscillates between social historian and thunderstruck child.
Trained as an art historian, the 2004 Turner Prize winner is distinct from his BritArt contemporaries in that, as he puts it, “I don’t have the same art making and producing skills as them.” Instead he thinks, conceives and commissions, explores and discovers, selects and juxtaposes. “I’m an artistic curator,” he says. “Artistic curators can put a bit more of themselves in the show. They can take liberties with everything in culture. An academic curator would have an idea of the show and then they would make it whereas I had a vague idea and I made it and the idea developed. This is more of a personal wander, not a straight line, more a meandering, a sort of musing on something.”
His most famous work, seen again in last year’s Hayward Gallery retrospective, remains a filmed re-enactment of the Battle of Orgreave, the crucial battle between striking coal miners and police in 1985 that presaged the miners’ ultimate defeat and humiliation. Deller presented it as a tragic epic whose bruises and lesions are still raw.
In “All That Is Solid…” he returns to the miners – or rather to one in particular, Welshman Adrian Street, a defiant eccentric who fought off fellow miners trying to cut his long hair down the pit, fled to London, pumped lead and reinvented himself as a professional wrestler. Then in 1973 he returned to his village and posed, in the show’s most remarkable image, with miners covered in dirt from the pit, as well as his miner father, with whom he did not get on.
“I know him very well,” says Deller. “He’s a great cipher for change. The image of him with his father is a metaphor for the changes going on in Britain. It shows this is what Britain was and this is what Britain will be: this shiny, clean, fame-based economy. He’s like a one-man band, just doing it on his own.
“He and his dad had a terrible relationship. His dad was a prisoner of war of the Japanese [and] then he came back and went straight down the mines. He had been traumatised and was quite brutal with his son. So this is the image of Adrian returning to show his father, the miners and Wales ‘this is what I’ve made of myself’. He’s a totally self-made man. “
Street escaped his fate in spectacular fashion – today he lives in Florida – but he was marked for life by his first trade. Likewise rock bands like Judas Priest, Black Sabbath, Happy Mondays and Slade were the products of the industrial towns their members came from: their music reflected the brutally insistent rhythm of the metal-bashing factories and their shows were inspired by the garish brightness of a welding shop. In the exhibition, Happy Mondays pose in 1987 on a return to their roots in industrial Salford; next to that image Deller displays singer Shaun Ryder’s family tree going back to the early 19th century, with generations of miners, millwrights, weavers and cloggers, revealing how deep his roots are sunk in that landscape.
We may break away, Deller seems to say, but the Industrial Revolution, which transformed Britain before any other country, was an apocalyptic and traumatic event which changed everything. And we are still living in its shadow.
Barefoot Reporters + Laloo and Silvio Head for the Exit
World View, published in The Independent 3 October 2013
The row over British press regulation is growing ever more baroque, but in India the issues are starker and simpler.
As everywhere else, India’s mass media are in the hands of the wealthy and powerful and their views and interests are carefully respected by those who work for them. The diet of news is carefully cooked and rationed.
But if the middle class suffer from information rationing, outside the cities there is widespread famine. Hundreds of millions of Indians fall outside the pale of conventional news. They lack televisions and computers and live in regions where there are few newspapers, and fewer still who are able to read them. In central India’s tribal belt, stretching from eastern Gujarat in the west right across to Jharkhand, a few hundred miles from Calcutta, in the east, the great majority are illiterate.
It’s not that there is a shortage of news, as such. Much of the tribal belt has been caught up for years in a Maoist insurgency which has attracted widespread support, given the atrocious levels of governance and justice. In response the authorities have relocated tens of thousands of villagers into camps surrounded by barbed wire and drafted local people into a militia force called Salwa Judum to fight the insurgents. The Maoists are blamed for frequent massacres of police, the militia is widely hated for punishing villages blamed for siding with the guerrillas. The ordinary tribal people are stuck in the middle.
But at least they can know find out what is going on, thanks to a revolutionary way of gathering and broadcasting news. Capitalising on the fact that there are 78 mobile phone connections for every 100 Indians, and even in the countryside the figure is 20 per 100, a former BBC journalist called Shubhranshu Choudhary from Chhatisgarh, the state at the heart of the insurgency, has set up a phone-based news provider which, for the first time ever, goes to the very heart of the country.
The reporters, who can be anyone at all – let’s call them barefoot reporters – ring a number at Mr Choudhary’s centre, located outside the city of Bhopal. The call is promptly returned, the caller says his piece, which is recorded, edited, and fact-checked by trained journalists at the Centre, and then goes live. You can hear it on the centre’s website, cgnetswara.org, or read it in Hindi or English, or alternatively you can simply call up and listen to it on your phone.
In this way, ingenious locals helped by foreign tech experts leapfrog over shortcomings in education and infrastructure and purchasing power, and find ways of enabling millions of the poorest people in the world to learn about what is going on in the world. All thanks to the humble mobile.
The same device is being used in Somalia to overcome the fact that the world’s most disastrous failed state has neither banks nor banknotes. Today mobile phones are used to pay for everything one can imagine, from hotel wage bills to a twist of salt in the market to car parking charges at the airport. Returning from Somalia to London and fishing out a bit of paper bearing a picture of the Queen to pay for my coffee, I felt like a relic of the past.
Mind you, the freshness of the technology in use by India’s new media has not made the journalist’s work any less hazardous. CGNet became the first Indian medium to broadcast in Gondi, a tribal language with about two million speakers. But the journalist responsible, Lingaram Kadopi, was arrested in 2010, accused of being a go-between for protection payments by Essar, a mining firm, to the Maoists. He is widely believed to have been set up: his supporters, including Amnesty International, say the charges against him were concocted.
In Britain, mobile phone technology allowed tabloid journalists to hack into the voicemails of the rich and famous, precipitating Britain’s press regulation crisis. In India the same technology has given millions of the nation’s poorest insight into what is going on around them for the first time ever. However that fact is probably of little consolation to Mr Kadopi, who is still in jail.
Another India currently detained at the pleasure of the Indian state is arguably more deserving of that fate. When I was this newspaper’s India correspondent 16 years ago, a case known as the ‘multi-crore fodder scam’ was our daily bread. India’s most colourful political loudmouth, Laloo Prasad Yadav, at the time Chief Minister of the state of Bihar, was accused of masterminding the embezzlement of 377 million rupees – about £3.7 million at today’s rates – to buy fodder for non-existent cattle. Powerful, ruthless and immensely popular, it seemed unlikely that Yadav would ever be nailed, but today he was given a five-year sentence.
Meanwhile on this side of the world, Silvio Berlusconi, Europe’s answer to Mr Yadav, has failed miserably in his attempt to blackmail a pardon for his crimes out of President Napolitano by pulling his party out of the ruling coalition: for the first time ever, his lackeys defied his will. As I predicted two weeks ago in this space, Mr Berlusconi has amazed us for the last time. It should be pointed out, however, that the worst Berlusconi will suffer is being confined to one of his huge palaces; while Yadav’s prison cell is reported to have every possible amenity.
Ataturk abolished the Islamic Caliphate – look what happened next
The Independent, 29 September 2013
There are few things more profoundly dead than an ex-empire, but around the time that the Soviet empire came apart at the seams I became aware that the ghosts of a much older one – that of the Turkish Ottomans – were still haunting its former domains.
It was in the spring of 1990. All Europe’s communist dominoes had already fallen over, the most recent being Romania, whose dictator Ceausescu had just been executed. The only one left standing was tiny, reclusive Albania. Every half-serious newspaper in Fleet Street wanted a bite of it, but foreigners were barred from entering, not only journalists but even ordinary tourists. The only foreigners admitted were archaeological enthusiasts who were occasionally permitted to undertake study tours. And so it came to pass that the next scheduled archaeological study tour was strangely over-subscribed. Of the 20 or so who signed up for it – claiming a range of occupations from farmer to advertising copywriter to ballet dancer – almost all were journalists, as our unlucky tour guide soon discovered. The exceptions were a clean-cut couple who turned out to be professional Christians, and four Pakistanis from Dewsbury. All six shared a common mission: to restore the faith – variously Christian and Muslim – to atheist Albania.
I had no idea that Islam had got as far into Europe as Tirana, let alone that its embers had survived being stamped on for many years by Enver Hoxha, Albania’s communist dictator. But it was in Albania’s grim and impoverished streets that I got my first whiff of the Ottomans: the beguiling reek of Turkish tobacco and coffee, the pungent kick of slivovitz. What we wrote about were the country’s modern hallmarks, the horrible housing estates and ubiquitous concrete bunkers. But what took one by surprise and lingered in the memory were the intricate old lanes of a town like Girokaster, the compact but handsome old stone mosques built, one learned, by colonisers from Istanbul for whom Albania was just as dismal a backwater as it was for us.
Albania was on the frontier, as much for the Ottomans as for the Russians and later for the EU. And as Eastern Europe slowly emerged during the 1990s from its communist purdah one discovered that the unique fragrance of Ottoman civilisation lingered much closer to home. Greece, every corner of disintegrating Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Romania, even Ukraine, all had been under Turkish control for centuries. They had been conquered and colonised by the Ottomans – by Suleiman the Magnificent to be precise – before the English had gone anywhere.
And what makes us scratch our heads in puzzlement about that vanished empire is that, although the Ottomans were Muslims, and the figure we think of as the Muslim pope, the Caliph, was identified with Istanbul, large populations of Christians and Jews continued to live and prosper right across the Ottoman Empire. After 150,000 Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, they were formally invited to make new homes inside the Ottoman Empire. True, the infidels faced higher taxation than the faithful, but for centuries the Ottoman version of Islamic rule was distinguished by pluralism and peaceful coexistence. The now sadly beleaguered and diminished Christian communities of Syria and Egypt and Iraq bear witness to that.
That is one of the reasons why BBC-2’s new series, The Ottomans – Europe’s Muslim Emperors, fronted by Rageh Omaar, has such a timely feel. We know so little about this extraordinary dynasty, a single family ruling an empire that at its peak encompassed half of Europe and most of north Africa and that lasted from before the Peasants’ Revolt to the age of aviation; and most of what we know is wrong.
We vaguely recall that old Ottoman bogeyman: the savagery of the moustachioed Turk, the two Sieges of Vienna when the shadow of the Prophet fell across the whole of Europe. Just as vaguely we know of the luxurious, exotic aspect, the Emperor’s harem with his Christian concubines, the hookah, that whole lush, sensual, decadent world summed up in the word ‘oriental’. But the far richer and more interesting reality eludes us.
The Turks came swarming across the Anatolian plain like so many other fierce, rootless, horseborne Central Asian nomads both before and after them. But when these predators got down off their horses and started to learn new things from the people who resisted them, they began to amount to more than the destruction they wrought. In the case of the Turks they converted to Islam then ran up against the Byzantines in what was then called Constantinople, the eastern arm of the divided church of Rome.
They exchanged the swooping, looting and slaughter of their nomadic past for more polite modes of competition as they ate into the declining Byzantine possessions, taking their rulers as ‘honorary hostages’, forcing them to create a Turkish quarter inside the capital. It was a long game of wits, strength and cunning, during which the invaders gradually absorbed much of the Byzantines’ civilised arts. The fatal blow was struck not by the Turks but by the treacherous Catholics of the Fourth Crusade, who occupied the city in 1204, fatally weakening the empire and hastening its final overthrow two and a half centuries later.
Thus began the Ottomans’ Golden Age, stretching from the end of our Hundred Years’ War to the declining years of Charles II. Under a succession of brilliant emperors culminating in the extraordinary Suleiman, they conquered half of Europe and the whole of north Africa bordering the Mediterranean as far as Morocco. They also gained control of the Islamic holy sites of Mecca and Medina, and after the conquest of Egypt the Ottoman Sultans adopted in addition the title of Caliph, asserting their leadership of all Muslims.
Suleiman was rightly called Magnificent not only on account of his vast turban and his conquests of Hungary and Belgrade but also because he was one of those rare warriors who was many other things too, an artist and a great patron of the arts, and a poet. But it was the name by which he was known within the empire, Kanuni Suleiman, which is most relevant and resonant today: Suleiman the Law Giver. The Ottomans were bound by Sharia law, but Suleiman understood how inadequate that archaic charter was to regulate the affairs of a modern empire. The act of theft, for example, in Sharia law involves simply placing a hand insider another’s property and removing something, while more sophisticated forms of theft such as counterfeiting, let alone copyright violation, were outside its norms. Suleiman presided over a new system of laws which respected Sharia while taking account of the developing nature of Ottoman civilisation – a legal system that endured for centuries.
As with other empires both before and since, it is easy to sentimentalise the Ottoman centuries. There was no ‘multiculturalism’ in our sense: there was no doubt about which religion was on top. The stability of the administration rested on the barbaric custom of kidnapping Christian boy children from the Balkans year after year, converting them to Christianity, and turning them into soldiers or civil servants, depending on their gifts. In either case their orphaned condition meant that they had no ambitious relatives waiting in the wings, threatening the power of the ruling family, and the Sultan advanced them according to their abilities, regardless of how humble were their origins. “The shepherd who rose to become an illustrious grand vezir was a figure that never ceased to fascinate European observers,” wrote one authority. Thus on the foundations of a brutal tradition was built Europe’s first functioning meritocracy.
But the real tragedy of the Ottoman Empire is not the way they ruled, but what happened after they left. Everywhere one looks those lands are or have recently been in flames, from Bosnia to Iraq and from Tunisia to Syria. And wherever one looks that precious Ottoman legacy, the cohabitation and interdependence of different faiths, is under mortal threat.
If toleration of other faiths became a hallmark of Ottoman rule, it was not obvious in the empire’s early days. Pope Benedict XVI, now in retirement, brought the wrath of the Islamic world down on his head in September 2006 when, during a scholarly sermon at the University of Regensburg, he quoted comments by the late Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus, who became an ‘honorary hostage’ of the Ottomans in the 14th century. The Christian emperor chastised Islam for its reliance on the sword: “Spreading the faith through violence is something unreasonable,” he said. “Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul…Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.”
Manuel’s comments were understandable in the context of the 14th century and they are unpleasantly resonant again today, in countries from Afghanistan to Saudi Arabia, where Muslim zealots appear to believe that the rule of terror is pleasing to God. But they would not have been correct during the Ottomans’ long heyday, when Christians and Jews and other minorities as well practised their beliefs openly and without fear. And because the Ottoman Sultans were also recognised as Caliphs, the supreme religious as well as political leader, throughout the Islamic world, that model of peaceful co-existence was for many centuries the norm.
In fact the rise of fanaticism can be traced directly to the end of the caliphate in 1923. Kemal Ataturk, the Turkish hero of Gallipoli, buried the Ottoman Empire with little ceremony when he took power after World War I, abolishing all its symbols from Arabic script and the veil to the fez. The caliphate was, in his nationalist, secularising view, just another antiquated hangover from the long, humiliating decline of what had been known for nearly a century as ‘the sick man of Europe.’
But the caliphate’s abolition had an impact far beyond the borders of Turkey: it removed a central point of reference for Muslims everywhere. W.B. Yeats was not thinking of Islam when he wrote his famous lines, “Things fall apart/the centre cannot hold,” but that was the effect of the caliphate’s downfall.
It was especially devastating far away in India. Up to that point, Hindu and Muslim freedom fighters had been in lockstep against British rule. With the caliphate gone, Muslims suffered a fatal blow to their prestige, as well as the removal of the ancient source of religious authority. Within a few years the Muslim League had parted company with Congress and was demanding a separate state for the subcontinent’s Muslims, which two decades later became Pakistan.
Other consequences of Ataturk’s decision continue to roll around the world. Afghanistan’s Taliban are as far removed than from the suaveness and sophistication of the Ottomans as one can get: many of their leaders were illiterate, and the rule they imposed was notoriously intolerant and rigid. Their interpretation of Sharia was brutally reductive, as if the only way to righteousness was to re-create the conditions of life that prevailed while the Prophet was still alive. What gave them their confidence to impose such brutality on the poor, suffering Afghans? It is the fact that there was no figure of authority to challenge them. To justify his rule, their one-eyed leader, Mullah Omar, usurped the title of Caliph – Caliph of the Emirate of Afghanistan. One of the symbols of legitimacy of the Ottoman caliphs was a cloak allegedly worn by the Prophet, kept locked away in an ornate chest in Istanbul; one day Omar, standing on a Taliban pick-up truck, produced a Prophet’s cloak of his own, though how it had survived 1500 years in such excellent condition was not explained.
The Ottomans, absolutist rulers though they were, developed laws that both Muslims and Christians could live by, and sustained a model of Islamic moderation which prevailed until the Caliphate’s destruction. For that reason they are much missed. Since then, from Kandahar to Somalia and from Tora Bora to Mali, “mere anarchy is loosed upon the world”:
“The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity…”
World View: Qatar’s treatment of migrant workers + La Grande Bellezza: The Independent, 26 September 2013
Qatar has become the showcase for what an autocratic and fundamentalist Islamic regime can achieve, given huge oil revenues and the ambition to stun the world. The Qatar Museum Authority with its annual $250 million purchasing budget, the Doha Forum, a magnet for world leaders, and Aljazeera, a world class TV news channel, are all impressive achievements. FIFA’s extraordinary decision to award the 2022 World Cup to the emirate was another.
But if Sheikh Hamad and his son Sheikh Tamim, who took over from him in June, are so avid for the world’s attention and esteem, why are they so careless about the conditions in which the foreigners who keep the place going are forced to work?
An investigation this week revealed that thousands of migrant workers from Nepal suffer appalling abuse in Qatar’s construction industry, with nearly one dying every day during the recent summer months, many more forced into virtual slavery by iniquitous contracts, many others complaining that they have not been paid for months and dozens squatting in the Nepali embassy, put in limbo by their employers’ refusal to allow them to go home.
Sheikh Tamim bin Hamid bin Khalifa Al Thani, to give him his full title, may consider that the working conditions of the penniless infidels who have built his kingdom from nothing is too petty a matter for him to bother about. But he would be wrong.
The Nepalis are brought to Qatar under an Islamic system called kafala: they may only enter the emirate if they have a sponsor, and once they are there they are effectively his chattels, with no freedom to change employer, to go home or anything else. And as they owe hefty sums to the middleman who arranged their employment, they must work for nothing until the debt is repaid. They are effectively slaves.
This is a grotesque corruption of the kafala concept, which defines both a host’s duty of hospitality to his guest and the relationship of an adult to a foster-child. The western idea of universal rights may be alien to Islam, but in its place there is strong emphasis on the duty of the powerful towards those in their charge. But the way this traditional relationship is abused in Qatar makes the old British imperial system of indentured labour look positively enlightened.
It may be objected that this is nothing to do with us, we don’t share the same religion let alone the same form of government as Qatar and there is no reason for the Emir of Qatar to listen to anything we say.
But in that case, where are the Islamic voices raised in protest against the abuse of this system by an ostentatiously pious regime which has none of the usual excuses of post-colonialism or poverty to justify its behaviour? Thanks to the success of OPEC, the oil-rich states cut themselves off once and for all from their former colonial oppressors. The price they pay is that now they must be judged on their own terms. The time is long past when they could take refuge in colonial oppression to justify the moral defects of either their rulers or their subjects.
Two centuries ago, William Wilberforce opened a new chapter in the history of the Christian west by identifying slavery as an institution that was inherently odious in moral terms. Something similar needs to happen in Islam. If this religion is, in the eyes of the non-Islamic world, to mean more than the butchery of innocent women and children doing the weekly shop in Nairobi or emerging from Christian worship in Peshawar, or the obligation of women in Britain to walk the streets in black-out, it is time to hear Islamic voices raised in defence of what are so often advertised as Islamic values when the people contravening those values are themselves Muslims, and wealthy and powerful ones at that.
Is this a creed worthy of the respect of those who do not share its beliefs, capable of inspiring reform and inculcating moral rectitude? Or is it merely a flag of convenience for people whose real values, as opposed to those they so loudly proclaim, are splashed in blood from Delga to Maaloula and from Mogadishu to Woolwich?
If you find Michael O’Leary’s new penitent posture unconvincing and fear being bumped off Easyjet for a rash Tweet, take your spare cash round to the nearest decent cinema and catch La Grande Bellezza, the new film by Paolo Sorrentino which is Italy’s hope this year for a Best Foreign Film Oscar. It’s better than a trip to Rome – it’s the most ravishing evocation of the place ever to reach the screen, outdoing all previous efforts because it meets the challenge of reproducing Rome’s beauty head on, with a wide screen and luscious colour and dazzlingly lovely locations.
As a result it encapsulates, frame by delirious frame, the ridiculous quandary of the hero, played by Toni Servillo, a social butterfly whose only claim to fame is a slim novel written many decades before. Surrounded by beauty of this intensity, what can you do but surrender to it? When you are no more than a votary in this peerless, city-wide shrine to beauty, what can you do with your life but fritter it away? It’s not a problem most of us face, but for anyone who knows Rome, it rings a bell.
published in The Independent, Monday 23 September 2013
by Peter Popham in Hargeisa, Somaliland
Once upon a time Shamis Abokor was Somalia’s hottest pop singer, belting out songs of love and longing as she gyrated decorously before thousands of adoring fans. Then she suffered a disastrous stoke and for the past 16 years she has been confined to her tiny cement home, cared for by relatives. Today at age 78 she is bedridden and semi-paralysed. But she survives with dignity thanks to one thing and one thing alone: her daughter in the UK who sends her hundreds of pounds home every month, via a Somali money transfer operator (MTO) called Dahabshiil.
A few streets away in his tidy, windowless office, Ahmed Aliubaxle, is a symbol of why Somaliland, the self-declared independent republic in the north-west, is so different from Mogadishu and points south, still racked by civil war. His father emigrated to Birmingham, made some money in property and sent it home where Ahmed used it to import used vehicles from Dubai, re-selling them here. He is now the boss of a major freight forwarding firm, moving everything from wheelchairs to construction equipment across the world. But as Somaliland, like the rest of the country, has no banks, he depends on Dahabshiil for his firm’s growth. “Without Dahabshiil I would have no way to get cars from Dubai or a generator from China,” he explains. “The only way would be to fly to China with a suitcase full of dollars.”
Across town on a dusty hillside, Alima Abdi’s little grocery shop is no more than a window in a stone wall, but as she says, “It’s how we eat.” When her husband was killed in the war, she and her five children could have ended up on the streets. Fortunately her sister, working in London – “I’ve no idea what she does,” Alima confesses – remitted small sums enabling her to set up the shop and generate a little income. Today she still sends $200 per month. It is the family’s lifeline.
Shamis, Ahmed and Alima are three of the millions of Somalis who owe their survival to “the economy of compassion”, the relatives abroad who send regular sums month after month and year after year. The total remitted is believed to be around $1.3 billion, around one half of Somalia’s national income, and far more than any other item – dwarfing international aid, for example. At least 40 per cent of Somalis depend on these payments: the true figure may be much higher, because the remittances are often divided among numerous relatives. Somalis in the UK alone remit some $500 million per year.
Things are looking up in Somalia: with a federal government shakily in power in Mogadishu and violence significantly reduced, today in Brussels Somalia and the EU co-host a conference of international donors, intended to chart a new course to peace and prosperity.
But in two weeks, on 30 September, those hopeful prospects will be thrown into jeopardy when Barclays closes the accounts of 250 UK-based Somali MTOs, including Dahabshiil, which is much the biggest of the lot.
In a letter to Dahabshiil and the others dated 8 May, Barclays announced that the accounts would be closed on 30 July. “Acceptance and eligibility criteria have been amended for customers in this sector,” the bank announced, “which unfortunately means we will no longer be able to provide banking services to businesses that fall outside of these.”
For everyone involved in helping to haul Somalia back from the brink after its years of civil war and famine, the disastrous implications were immediately clear. Simon Levine of the Overseas Development Institute commented, “The famine of 2011 is largely over, so we’re back to the situation where one in seven young children are so skinny that they are classified as ‘acutely malnourished’…If Barclays pull out of Somalia and there is no way to send money, what happens when families whose kids are already malnourished lose a quarter of their income? And what happens to the economy, to jobs, to investment when a quarter of the money just disappears? There is a risk that the consequences could be even worse and much longer lasting than the 2011 famine itself.”
For the international aid community, this was far from being an abstract issue: the severing of the remittance pipeline threatens to spark a new Somali emergency, with all the evil consequences seen in recent years. And the effect on the agencies is even more direct than that, because in the absence of banks, they depend on the MTOs to funnel aid money to their Somali projects. Ninety-five percent of them, including Oxfam, Care International and World Vision, use Dahabshiil, as does the United Nations.
There was nothing rash of OR ill-considered in selecting Dahabshiil. Founded in 1970 in Burao, near Hargeisa, its head office is in east London, while in Somalia it has 268 agencies in every corner of the country. Inside Somaliland, where its dominance is overwhelming, it describes itself as a bank and fulfills all a bank’s normal functions. With 5,000 employees spread across 150 countries, this family-owned company has become big and profitable enough to keep abreast of the ever-changing regulations of the banking sector in Europe and the US. During a 15-year relationship, Barclays has regularly acknowledged that Dahabshiil is fully compliant with industry regulations.
As a UK banking industry insider confirmed, it is US not British regulators who are setting the pace in the crackdown, following the massive fines imposed last year on HSBC ($1.9 billion) and Standard Chartered ($330 million) for facilitating money-laundering. “The main pressure is from the US regulator,” he said. “They are the ones on the hunt.”
The irony is that, just one month before Barclays’ announcement, Dahabshiil received a ringing endorsement in the US. Seeking a solution to transparency problems with Somali MTOs, in April a US Bank spokesperson said, “We are pleased that we may have recently found a solution with one remitter – Dahabshiil…We are currently in discussions with this remitter to ensure all parties understand the terms and requirements necessary.”
The Barclays bombshell provoked a storm of protest and concern, and Barclays responded by extending the deadline to 30 September. But it has so far refused to contemplate a U-turn. Writing to Oxfam, Anthony Jenkins, Barclays CEO, said, “There are a number of serious concerns about the operation [of MTOs], with the sector at particular risk of being used for the transmission of the proceeds of crime, for money laundering, and for terrorist financing. This risk is exacerbated by a lack of transparency on who the remitters and end receivers are in transactions.”
Last week in Nairobi, Abdirashid Duale, Dahabshiil’s chief executive, commented, “It’s all to do with fear. The banks are worried about Somalia because all they read is bad news about piracy, Al-shabab and so on – but they never go to Somalia to see for themselves. They fear that some day, something might happen, and ever since 9/11 Somalia has been harassed and stigmatised because of that fear. But the fact is that all the 9/11 terrorists used western banking institutions…We are not asking any favours. If any company broke the law, they should face the law.”
Mr Duale has drafted a set of proposals to address the banks’ fears: improving the institutional capacity of the MTOs in technology and compliance systems, setting up third-party monitoring and certification inside Somalia, helping the Somali government to introduce biometric scanning to remove uncertainty about the identity of recipients, and setting up a fund which would effectively insure Barclays and other western banks against massive financial penalties. He also agrees on the need for greater collaboration between Somali MTOs. “We Somalis need to work together,” he commented, “or we will die together.”
But so far there is no indication that Barclays will grant the MTOs a year of grace to find other solutions, as Oxfam and others have demanded. So if the big firms like Dahabshiil have to close in the UK, what solutions are open to Somalis who want to maintain the lifeline to their families?
The obvious answer is going back to the old-fashioned, unregulated, hole-in-the-corner hawala firms, which rely on the trust between members of the same Somali clans. “Somalis will find a way,” commented Ed Pomfret, Oxfam’s Campaigns and Policy Manager in Somalia. “We’re asking Somalis to pack suitcases with cash and carry it to Mogadishu. For a government dedicated to fighting money laundering, that doesn’t make any sense.”
In Hargeisa Shukri Haji Ismail, Environment Minister in the Somaliland government whose extended family relies on remittances from Britain and the Gulf, commented, “My message to Barclays is, before shutting the accounts, come to Somalia and see how the people are benefitting. Somalis are still suffering, and they have suffered enough.”