Journal of the Anglo-Somali Society

Autumn 2001 Issue No. 30


Somalia: Inspiration for a Novel
by Veronica Li

I was the World Bank's loan officer for Somalia in 1987-88. When I applied for the post, I did not have the faintest clue as to what Somalia was about. After six years of working in the Bank's East Asia Region, my division chief advised me that in order to get ahead, I needed to diversify my experience. I looked up the Vacancy Information Service, spotted this vacancy which suited my qualifications, and applied. Never could I have guessed that Somalia was going to be the inspiration of my first novel, Nightfall in Mogadishu.

The World Bank is a United Nations affiliate. Its official name is the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD). It was established after the Second World War to assist in the reconstruction of war-tom countries. Since then, its emphasis has changed to the "D" part of its name-the development of its member countries by providing loans for productive purposes. In 1960, it added a soft-loan component, the International Development Association (IDA), which is funded by contributions from developed countries. IDA lends to lowincome countries with a small service charge, but free of interest.

When I joined the Somalia team, the Bank's lending to the country was at its peak. Since Siad Barre renounced "scientific socialism" and embarked on a program to liberalize the economy, the Bank, together with other western donors, responded with large amounts of aid. The economy picked up, but at the same time, the government's debt was mounting and its dependence on external aid was inordinately high. There was a great imbalance in the economy, and the reforms that were supposed to correct the imbalance were implemented by fits and starts. The government would move one step forward, doing just enough to keep aid money flowing, but the moment heads were turned the other way, it would take two steps back.
My First Visit

I visited Somalia for the first time in the spring of 1988. This was the most exciting trip of my life. Everything about Somalia fascinated me: the nomads and their fierce independence, the government officials who were more accessible than any other I knew, the people on the streets who conducted their business without paying me any attention, and the women in their graceful costumes. Mogadishu was a quaint but charming city, with its blend of cultures and magnificent view of the Indian Ocean. Crime was unheard of, and I felt safe walking around by myself any time of the day or night.

Underneath the euphoric first impression, however, a sinister picture was also forming. There were reports of corruption, misuse of donor funds, and political oppression and unrest. The signal I got from my more experienced colleagues was that these things happened, and it wasn't our business to look into them. The World Bank was an economic institution; politics wasn't our concern. Corruption happened everywhere, and if we made loans only to clean governments, we would be out of business in no time. In those days, corruption was a taboo subject in the Bank. It was not until the 1990's that the Bank recognized that governance was an important factor in the effectiveness of aid and opened the discussion on corruption.

In the meantime, the Bank's assistance to Somalia went on at full speed. Back home in late 1988, I woke up to the news of the bombing of Hargeisa. In the aftermath of an uprising, the government sent in its planes and bombed the country's second largest city to ruins. Consultants working on Bank-financed projects narrowly escaped and told harrowing stories of the violence. The staff in Washington was horrified, but as a lending institution, our mission was to lend. We had targets to meet. Our activities in the northwest came to a halt, but in the rest of the country, it was business as usual.
This was when I decided that something was wrong. The Bank may not be directly paying for the bombs and bullets the government uses on its people, but for every school the Bank pays for, the government has that much savings which can be used for other purposes. In other words, money is fungible. Fortunately for me, I was offered a job in a different division. I ducked the moral dilemma facing me and went to work in another country.
The Bank remained engaged in Somalia until the day the government collapsed. Through my colleagues working on Somalia, I followed closely the events that led to the final explosion. The Somali tragedy moved me deeply, and ever since then I have been searching for answers. An editor once told me that a person should not write about an experience until at least ten years after the event. He was right, and I should have listened. I made several false starts at capturing the story, but lacking the perspective of objective distance, I fell short of my goal. Several years ago, after I had left the Bank and had all the time to pursue my hobbies, Somalia was nagging at me again. I pulled out an old manuscript and started to rework it. I have finally realized what the story is. It is not about me, or the World Bank; it is about Somalia.

 

Veronica Li's Nightfall in Mogadishu

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Nightfall in Mogadishu

(A thriller)

Copyright © 2006 Veronica Li. All rights reserved.