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Somalia Table of Contents


Urban Subsistence and Government Employment

The Somali government and its officials collected grants and bribes from foreign governments and taxes on internal trade that provided substantial wealth to the ruling elite. As of July 1991, domestic trade in the south for the most part had been disrupted. Only small quantities of goods such as fruit, sugarcane, and charcoal moved from the villages to the towns, in return for cornmeal and, since 1988, guns and ammunition. At a national level, armed trucks traveled from Jilib, on the Jubba River, or Chisimayu, to Mogadishu, carrying from the Jubba River area agricultural products such as mangoes and sesame and returning with corn, wheat, refined sugar, and diesel fuel. International trade by sea was at a virtual standstill, but goods were smuggled across the border with Kenya in return for qat primarily. In the north at the same period, the anarchic situation since 1988 had severely curtailed agricultural trade, particularly livestock exports. In addition, those farmers in areas where planting was potentially feasible in 1991, such as around Erigabo and Boorama, northwest of Horgeysa, lacked sorghum, corn, and vegetable seeds, as well as tools, and were hindered by the presence of minefields in many locations. Internationally, goods were smuggled across the Ethiopian border, largely in exchange for qat.

The funds collected in the past on internal trade also provided below-subsistence wages to a number of urban Somalis because for much of the 1980s the government served as the employer of last resort of all secondary-school graduates. Using these revenues, the government also sustained an army that was in continual warfare beginning in 1977, first against Ethiopia, and then against an internal guerrilla movement.

Largely as a result of structural adjustment in the latter half of the 1980s, government employment was not lucrative at face value. A family of six needed an estimated 6,990 shillings monthly for food, clothing, rent, fuel, light, and water. The highest civil service salary was 2,000 shillings per month, of which 525 shillings was deducted for taxes and other charges. The highest take-home pay, including allowances, in government was about 2,875 shillings.

Urban wages that were inadequate to address basic human needs might lead an analyst to expect near-starvation in urban Somalia. However, a 1984-85 household survey in Mogadishu reported that only 17 percent of the city's families lived below the poverty threshold. A November 1986 study in the Waaberi district of Mogadishu found only 7 percent had incomes below the poverty line. Informal observations of urban life in Somalia reported in the 1980s concurred that the population appeared well-fed.

The puzzle of low government wages coupled with a reasonable urban standard of living can be solved by examining the survival strategies of urban families. In the potential urban labor force of 300,000 to 360,000 people, there were only 90,282 wage earners, which suggested that government employment was only one part of a family survival strategy. Many families had one member working for the government, not so much for the salary, but for the access to other officials that enabled the family to engage in quasi-legal trading activities. Remittances from overseas prevented starvation for some families. Many urban families had members who were livestock traders and through franco valuta had access to foreign exchange. Many government workers prospered on bribery from the profiteers in the so-called gray economy. Other government workers could obtain "letters of credit" (the right to draw funds from government-held foreign exchange accounts) allowing them to import goods for sale and for family use. Still other civil servants moonlighted for international agencies, receiving valuable foreign currency for their efforts. These strategies were excluded from most macroeconomic assessments.