Somali "Government" to Regulate Only Thing in Somalia That Actually Works: Cell Phones


We've all been there—you're in charge of an increasingly irrelevant African government, you don't even live inside the country, and shilling for money from the international community is just hard. So what's your next move? If you're Somalia, the answer is clear: Telecom regulation.

The Transitional Federal Government (TFG)—an aspirational title, at best—has always been a bit out of touch with its people. Like most pretenders to the Somali throne, the government is composed of unelected Somalis who are returning from years in the diaspora—25, in the case of the prime minister—and the government has actually been based in Nairobi since it was chased out of the country a few years ago. They're promising to return to Mogadishu this month, but the prime minister was last spotted speaking to local wisemen and attending a native cultural gathering in his ancestral village of Buffalo, New York.

The concerns of the Somali cabinet seem to be less regulatory and more budgetary. The government, after all, isn't providing security, so it has to pretend to do something for its money. In 2006, with the aid of American advisers and weapons, they aligned themselves with Ethiopia (Somalia's sworn enemy) and tried to expel the incipient Islamic Courts Union (ICU). But in a textbook example of blowback, the mildly Islamist ICU morphed into the much more vicious al-Shabaab insurgency, which the TFG is battling to this day.

Mobile telephony is one of the few industries that has weathered statelessness well, so it's not surprising that the TFG is seeking to bring it under its wing. Unhindered by regulation and state-imposed monopoly, Somalia has some of the lowest domestic and international rates in all of Africa—an international call costs just 30¢/min., far less than what American cell phone companies charge. And while it's easy for Westerners to write off cell phones as a frivolous first-world luxury, they are a vital link for hitherto unconnected pastoral Somalis. From checking prices in nearby markets to transferring money easily and safely, cell phones are a tremendous tool for lifting people out of poverty. But as the most functional and productive actors in the Somali economy, the network operators are also juicy targets for a "state" looking for domestic revenue to augment its meaty paychecks from the international community.

Telecommunications in Somalia may be a little rough around the edges—interconnectivity agreements are incomplete, and the nation lacks a reliable fiber connection to the outside world—but it's been an amazing success story for a nation that's more commonly depicted as a poverty pornstar. The fledgling state's attempt to leech off the industry is an interesting case study in modern state formation and predation, but it's hard to see what ordinary Somalis are going to get out of this deal. Perhaps the Transitional Federal Government should work on assuring the basic security needs of its citizens before it kills the goose that laid the golden cell phone.