From a failed elite to a farce in Somalia [Op-Ed]

Published: September 3, 2014

From a failed elite to a farce in Somalia
The Somali regime has failed to stop al-Shabab attacks on state institutions, writes Samatar [EPA]
Two years ago Somalia’s current members of parliament and the president were nominated through a corrupt process. Somalis willingly ignored the scandal ridden affair and accepted the emerging dispensation hoping that a decent leader would emerge who would have the wisdom and courage to lead the nation out of the failures of the previous twenty-five years.

Somalis were exuberant when it became apparent that the president was new to politics and was not tainted by the civil war. The president and his team faced daunting challenges such as re-establishing state institutions from scratch as a result of the endless years of civil war, hostile external interventions, and little revenue sources of its own. But the new regime had one vital asset at its disposal: the goodwill of the Somali people who were impatient for progress, and intolerant towards another failed leadership.

This essay has two objectives. It evaluates the regime’s political performance and its ability to sustain public support over the last two years; and postulates what can be expected during the regime’s remaining two years.

Wasting goodwill

The new president proclaimed six pillars as the political anchors of his team’s national agenda, although he or his inner circle never elucidated the details of the pillars or the regime’s plan for translating them into functioning systems. In the absence of a clear political strategy and given the constitutionally enunciated division of responsibilities between the president and the prime minister (PM), the public assumed that the first real signal of the new regime’s seriousness would be revealed by the quality of the appointed premier.

At the end of the required 30 days nomination period the president’s pronouncement of his candidate deflated the hopes of most Somalis, as they saw the new PM as a decent person but one who lacked the perspicacity and the courage to clean up the political rubbish that had accumulated over the decades.

For some people it was difficult to comprehend the rationale behind the president’s choice, but the majority of the public recognised that he wanted a pliable man that would allow him to usurp the duties of the PM. For nearly 18 months the public watched as the PM and his cabinet twiddled while the president dominated the political agenda. Meanwhile, the president and his team surrealistically were mesmerised by their rhetoric and imagined that the country was marching towards peace and reconstruction – but the regime accomplished little of consequence. As a result, public sentiment began to wane with every passing day, but the president and his team kept up the political charade until their ineptitude exposed the rudderless morass they were in.

Rather than honourably admitting his political failures, the president scapegoated the PM for underperformance and concocted a scheme with his allies in parliament to remove the PM. To his credit, the PM fought back for the first time during his premiership. He claimed that he had fulfilled everything that was asked of him by the president and had upheld all their private agreements. After a bit of a political drama, the president managed to get the parliament on his side, and the parliament voted the PM out of office.

The newly appointed premier chose a cabinet several times larger than the previous one. Such a bloated cabinet signalled that the president’s team prioritised their self-serving political agenda of rewarding their clients rather than any endeavour to rescue a nation gasping for survival. Eight months have lapsed since the formation of the new government, and the available evidence shows that overall conditions have not improved.

Three things exemplify the regime’s frightening incompetence and the politics of “fortuna“.

First, repeated al-Shabab attacks on the parliament house and the presidency patently show a regime that is incapable of protecting the vital organs of the state. Such security breaches, and the regularity with which MPs and prominent personalities have been murdered in Mogadishu, are indicative of the rot at the heart of the state.

Second, among the chief responsibilities of the regime is to guide the country towards a constitutional plebiscite which would usher a new governance order. Little progress has been made advancing this constitutional process, partly because much of the country is not in the hands of the government. However, even in areas where it has some degree of control, as in the capital, no initiative has been made to involve the population through civic education. Consequently, regional warlords and potentates have opportunistically driven the reorganisation of the country. The most recent conflict between Puntland and the national government over the attempt to create a new region in central Somalia presages the political catastrophe that is looming in the absence of enlightened and able leadership.

Third, central to the corrupt process which produced the current regime was the acceptance of tribal identity as the principle factor of political representation in parliament. The hope was that merit and competency would become the criteria used to select professional employees of government. Unfortunately, tribal identity remains the main yardstick for making public service appointments. Such an approach has become an insidious barrier to institution-building. The top leaders of the regime are deeply implicated as they assemble relatives and friends in their offices. The most heartbreaking sign of such political venality was the appointment of a pleasant but incapable person as Somalia’s most strategic diplomat in Washington DC.

Treacherous road ahead

Somalia was supposed to have a permanent rather than a transitional government as a result of the parliamentary and presidential selection process which took place in 2012. Not surprisingly, the new order had two major liabilities: a) it was financially bankrupt and virtually depended on the disingenuous international community; and b) it inherited little institutional capacity.

The only asset it had was the goodwill of Somalis. Nurturing public support and using it as a shield to make difficult but necessary decisions would have made confronting the capacity and finance problems more feasible. Unfortunately, the regime squandered this precious resource because it chose to indulge in corrupt politics.

Consequently, it has become exceptionally vulnerable to the manipulations of devious international actors and local opportunists who are invested in a fragmented Somalia. Such a trajectory can only deepen the humiliation of Somalis who were once the proudest Africans and only a divine miracle can transform the regime.

Abdi Ismail Samatar is Professor of Geography at the University of Minnesota, a research fellow at the University of Pretoria, and member of African Academy of Sciences.

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