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Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Somali Banking Starts From Ground Up


By Patrick McGroarty

Abdusalam Omer was named Somalia's top banker in January.
 Abdusalam Omer is a central bank governor without much to govern.

The Central Bank of Somalia doesn't hold reserves in the country's currency, the shilling. There are no functioning commercial banks in the strife-torn country for it to regulate. The 75-strong staff that still turns up for work after two decades of civil war is a motley crew of money men and handymen.

"I don't know why the central bank employs painters," says the 58-year-old who was named the country's top banker in January.

Not so long ago, the Somali-American bureaucrat was working in the mayor's office of Washington, D.C., trying to pull the city back from financial ruin. These days, his daunting task is helping to lead the economic reconstruction of Somalia, the war-shattered country of his birth now in a tenuous peace.

In that reconstruction, he is helped along by global development banks and East African neighbors, who hope to see a stable Somalia help transform the region from conflict hotbed to investment hotspot.

Economists haven't tracked growth in Somalia for years. But investors in the region say Somali money—which has long buoyed real estate and stocks in neighboring Kenya—is finally finding its way back home.

The East African region is already set to expand more than 5% this year, and in years to come a fast-growing Somalia, on the back of renewed construction and infrastructure investments, could accelerate that pace.

On Wednesday, Mr. Omer returned to Washington to lead the first Somali delegation to the meetings of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund since 1991.

Somalia owes the IMF $352 million, but earlier this month it recognized a Somali government for the first time in 22 years and praised its newly elected president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, a former university dean who took office in September.

"With Somalia we're really starting from square one," said Ralph Chami, the IMF's mission chief to the country. "Getting the central bank up and running is paramount."

That is a tall order in the country of 10 million people that snakes around the Horn of Africa. Somalia's government controls little more than the capital, Mogadishu, as African peacekeepers continue to do battle against Islamist al Shabaab militants, who killed about 30 people in an attack on the Supreme Court last week.

Nor can the government collect much in the way of taxes to fund its budget. Duties from the ports and airport it controls are the exceptions.

As for Mr. Omer, he lacks the most-basic tools to help prime growth.

He can't influence the value of the shilling, for example, because the bank doesn't control the bills in circulation. The currency has appreciated 25% against the U.S. dollar since the new government took office due to crowds of aid workers and investors bringing dollars and euros into the country and converting to shillings.

The grimy 1,000 shilling notes were last officially printed in the 1990s. Batches of counterfeit cash, produced by enterprising warlords, have undermined faith in the currency.

Mr. Omer hopes to reprint the shilling by the end of this year, just one of the steps Somalia urgently needs to make the most of new investor interest from Somalia's Diaspora and beyond. He says the government hasn't settled on how much to print or whether to exchange the counterfeit money in circulation along with legitimate old bills.

That move aims to protect people like Nurto Abokar Mohamed, who runs a market stall on the brink of going out of business. She converts much of the $100 her mother sends each month from Saudi Arabia into shillings to buy the sugar, flour and cooking oil she sells at a Mogadishu market. That $100 is getting her as much as a third fewer shillings than it did a year ago, meaning she can't cover the cost of supplies and rent on her stall.

"Within a few days, my business will not exist," she says.

In addition to stabilizing Somalia's currency, Mr. Omer aims to build the standard electronic payment systems that Somalia lacks. He also hopes to soon secure so-called Swift codes for the commercial banks looking to enter the country, so businesses can send and receive money from major banks abroad.

"If they do those things, at least it's a start," says Liban Egal, chief executive of First Somali Bank, who returned to Somali in 2010 after two decades in Baltimore. "You can't do business internationally right now because nobody will touch Somalia." Mr. Egal acknowledges that until the central bank regulates the industry, his company is more of an investment and payments company than a bank.

Mr. Omer knows the road ahead will be tough but sees parallels to his career in the U.S.

He studied economics at Boston College in the 1970s and earned a Ph.D. in public administration from the University of Tennessee in the 1980s. In 1992, he was hired by the District of Columbia's budget office, rising to deputy chief financial officer under Anthony Williams, who led the city back from a deficit of almost $500 million and was elected mayor in 1998.

"In the midst of the most chaotic situations he's able to keep his compass and his strategic goals, and he's sensitive to trying to make some concessions to short-term needs as a way to buy support for long-term priorities," says Mr. Williams.

Mr. Omer says he learned a great deal from Mr. Williams, who had a congressional mandate to hire, fire and tax back to fiscal health a city where trash was going uncollected and revenue checks were going uncashed.

"The difference is that in D.C. there's always money, in Somalia there is no money," Mr. Omer says, adjusting a pair of thick-framed black glasses. "The similarity is when institutions are dysfunctional, things get very grim."

Write to Patrick McGroarty at

A version of this article appeared April 22, 2013, on page C1 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Somali Banking StartsFrom Ground Up.

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