The Somalia public: No time for Pessimism or disengagement

Liban Obsiye

Graduate of the School for Policy Studies at the University of Bristol, UK


@LibanObsiye (twitter)

I was awoken from the most uncomfortable airline sleep by a lively discussion-taking place

between other passengers across the aisles during one of my many trips to Turkey from

Somalia. It seems Somalis have become so obsessed with politics that the topic has become a

continuous discussion on land, at sea and, as was evident, in the air.

Before I could compose myself to ask the passengers nearest to me to lower their voices, as I

was certain other fellow travellers were not so interested in the Somali State formation

process, I was struck by a comment made by the passenger sitting next to me. In an angry

tone and while waving his finger, he said, “It is the sole duty of the Government of Somalia

to deliver a better tomorrow for their people.”

While I agreed with the above sentiment, I also encouraged my neighbour to consider the

role of the Somali people themselves in making progress and prosperity possible in their


The Somali people are among the most entrepreneurial, hardworking and resilient in the

world. They have survived and succeeded in remaining on their feet through one of the most

disastrous civil wars in modern history.

The Somali people are

among the most


hardworking and resilient

in the world. They have

survived and succeeded in

remaining on their feet

through one of the most

disastrous civil wars in

modern history.

In fact, it is the initiatives and sacrifice of the Somali public

and business leaders that kept the nation afloat in times of

difficulty. It is also these past efforts that allowed Somalia to

have one of the most competitive telecommunication

industry in the Horn of Africa.

The Somali people have played an enormous role in shaping

their history, for better or worse, both in times of

Government and throughout the period of state collapse.

However, today in a time of an elected Government, there are worrying signs that many

Somali people are excluding themselves from participation in public life and laying the



responsibility of developing Somalia at the door of the “Government” and “The International

Community.” Serious questions to consider are “Who are these two groups? Who do they

represent and why do they exist?”

The answers are simple and painfully rhetorical. The Somali Federal Government and all the

newly formed Regional States represent the Somali people. Their mandates are legitimised by

their constitutional and moral duty to serve the Somali population. As for the International

Organisations, which represent the “international community” on the ground, there is not one

that would not say they operate only in the interests and advancement of the Somali People

and Government.

A simple rule of business that can easily be applied in this scenario is that the customer is

always right. However, having said that, the customer has a duty to inspect, be vigilant and

demand better services, products and ultimately value for money. Some Somalis are

disengaged customers who feel let down by those meant to be serving them and who focus on

complaining in a general way. While that is understandable, for things to get better,

constructively engaging with the processes of Government and Governance whenever

possible has the best chance of getting value for money and the best public services from both

their Government and the International organisations.

There are signs of improvement on the side of the Government, which is working hard to

increase public consultations across Somalia on how Somalia should move forward.

However, these processes cannot always be inclusive or effective for many reasons including

limited public participation, filtering by influential clansmen and weary indifference and

pessimism among some members of the public.

Somalia belongs to no one but Somalis. It is only they who can change the direction of their

country to what they see best serves their needs. This is something that those who

continuously point the finger at the “Government” and “International organisations” must

realise. Yes, there is a certain level of social exclusion for many reasons but active citizenship

is not against the law in Somalia. In fact, the principles and values of community and

neighbourliness have kept Somali society together from the beginning and now communal

and individual responsibility are simply been dumped at the Government’s door. This is

neither feasible nor desirable for development or progress in Somalia. To put it another way,

success for the Government and international organisations is dependent on public




Sadly, the motivations for the increasing disengagement from public life by the Somali

people are many. Some are understandably disillusioned and exhausted. Others do not want

strong government structures that interfere with their old ways of doing things and some are

just plain selfish and want to not assist their communities and Government. All of these

motivations are detrimental to the slow but sure forward march of Somalia and its people.

Indeed, despite the difficulties and the barriers, many Somalis still do speak up and

participate in constructive ways – I applaud their energy and determination.

Somalia can only be as strong as its people’s belief in its progressive, inclusive and

prosperous future. The Somali people can only achieve the socio-economic success they

desire by engaging and shaping their own future. It is always more beneficial to be in the

centre rather than waiting for reforms to reach you in the peripheries from a long distance. It

is therefore paramount that the pessimists within the population are challenged to contribute

and focus on what can be achieved rather than what they think is impossible or whom they

feel is an obstacle and for whatever reason.

2016 is one of most important year in Somalia’s modern history. It is D-Day for Vision 2016

and a time when the next phase of Somalia’s future will be planned. In line with this, as much

as we focus on the views of this so called important person or other, the public must raise

their voices and be present in the arguments, discussions and decisions to be taken on their


While in developed States the argument focuses on Nudging

the public to make the right choices and whether or not citizens

should row or steer Government policies and services, the

Somali people should be pushing and directing the process

together. This is the only way to create the inclusive politics

and strong public centred institutions to drive forward the

people’s hopes of a responsive and responsible State serving

their interests.

Instead of the increasing

pessimism and waiting for the

“Government” or the

“International Community” to do

something, the Somali people,

even within their own tribal

families as is the case currently,

must bring forward the best

MP’s, Ministers, community

leaders and strategies to fully

capitalise on the political and

state building processes.

Instead of the increasing pessimism and waiting for the “Government” or the “International

Community” to do something, the Somali people, even within their own tribal families as is

the case currently, must bring forward the best MP’s, Ministers, community leaders and

strategies to fully capitalise on the political and state building processes. They must return to

the best practices of independent thought and communal action. This is the best way the



Somali people can empower themselves, demand better representation and shape the policies

that impact on their everyday lives.

In all areas of developmental and national priories the Somali public must play their part.

Otherwise Somalia will never recover despite every effort of Government and the

international community.

Even where the public does not agree with Government they must find ways to influence the

process. Like everywhere else in the world, power in the Somali political process rests in the

hands of a few.

It is fair to say that Somalia’s policy making process has graduated from one solely owned by

a dictator before the civil war in 1991 to a fragmented and confusing one dominated by

divisive and short-sighted tribesmen and business insiders. This is cited by many as the seeds

of pessimism and apathy on the part of the vast majority of people.

What is interesting is that those that crowd and suffocate the Somali policymaking process

are not as powerful or sophisticated as the majority of the people think they are. In fact, to

open and infiltrate the corridors of power, this special interest groups uses the publics name

shamelessly for their own benefit.

Tribal elders, MP’s, businessmen (as they mainly are men) and even serving Ministers

legitimise their demands by inferring that they represent their tribal families. Simply put,

whatever favour or concessions this privileged group receives from the Somali central

Government and Regional Member States is secured with the help of those tribal members

that have most likely never met the beneficiaries nor will ever be supported in any way by


Where the special interest group members fail in their endeavours, they will reverse the

situation by claiming discrimination against their clan. Either way, the ordinary Somali

people’s name and influence is used to legitimise policies, ideas and gain favours they are

most likely never to know let alone benefit from on a daily basis.

The “I am reer hebeel (this tribe)” mentality has always been the bread and butter of

influencing the Somali political and policy processes since independence in 1960. However,

it is clear it did not get the average Somali person anywhere. While the more connected

members of the “reer hebeel” got the professional and economic development they sought,

most of the cousins they represented were left in the cold fending for themselves. The

situation today is a continuation of the past and the Somali people, who deserve so much



more, will once again be victims if they do not wake up and unshackle themselves from

ignorance, pessimism and dangerous indifference to the way their country is governed.

Since the collapse of the State and to a large extent before it, the Somalia people view tribe as

a necessary part of their identity. In the absence of Government and in times of poor and

unrepresentative governance, tribe has been a shield and a sword for its members. This does

not mean they benefited meaningfully on a daily basis but that they could hide behind been

“reer hebeel” in times of difficulty for such things as security. Sadly, to this day, many use

tribe in this fashion while hypocritically claiming pessimism with the way Somalia is


The Somali public is clearly caught in a dilemma: uphold the old custom of supporting the

tribe or follow ones best interests? It is arguable that poverty, inter-tribal mistrust as a result

of the disastrous civil war and the on-going State Formation Process make deciding on this

matter difficult at present. However, for Somali society to move forward and for each citizen

to fulfil their hopes, dreams and ambitions by maximising their potential, we must make the

vital transition from been loyal to tribe to oneself and family. This by no means advocates for

a total move away from the strong communal traditions Somalia was built on for centuries

but it demands community be defined more broadly than tribal membership which benefits a

select few to the detriments of the vast majority.

Somalia’s future is been shaped by an elected Government for the first time since the collapse

of the Somali State in 1991. The Government is starting to open up discussions and room in

the governance structures to include public voices on a small scale. Notable examples of this

have been this year’s Somali wide discussions on an election model, the youth conference to

devise a Youth Policy and civil society participating in key national forums like the High

Level Partnership Forums held in both Somalia and partner countries like Denmark and most

recently, Turkey. However, this is not enough and often participants themselves in these

forums cannot be said to be representative of the citizens they claim to speak for.

The Somali population must mobilise themselves to demand better, more and on their own

terms. They must demand to be heard and where Government is unwilling or unable to

provide legitimate platforms for engagement they must create this space for discussion and

public participation themselves.

There is simply too much at stake to be left to the Government to do or to pre-empt without

meaningful public engagement, assistance and direction from the general public. As for



citizens they do not have the luxury of pessimism or apathy in this crucial period of State

Formation: having survived the worst civil war in modern history, they must now take the

lions share in creating a peaceful, progressive and prosperous Somalia for themselves and for

generations to come.

How can the above be achieved? Through all manner of engagements such as lobbying

politicians, community elders and taking direct action to bring to the attention of fellow

citizens, government representatives and international community members what it is the

people need, want and demand. For these efforts to be effective there is a need for unity on

issues and cross-societal consensus building before an action is taken. As well as group

action, individuals are also able to undertake the lobbying they feel can alter their lives and

society for the better.

In many post conflict nations, despite lengthy reconciliation processes, the old elite still

dominates both public and private life and institutions as they maintain the political, cultural

and economic capital. Somalis are lucky in that there have never been the kind of established

elites or oligarchs that can be said to shape other nations. As the old proverb goes, each

Somali is his own prince. Therefore, it would be a tragedy for Somalis in the future to

become subservient non-benefactors of a political process they refused to shape when they

had the greatest opportunity to.

The Somali nation can only be rebuilt strengthened and designed for progress and democracy

by its own people. Government alone will not achieve much no matter how much it wants to.

It is time that the Somali people focused collectively on winning back the politics to firmly

secure influence and shape their own destiny.

Rhetoric of people centred politics is plentiful but to stop this from been the usual soundbite,

the people must place themselves at the heart of politics through collective and unified action.

People legitimise Government and this is the greatest single power in a democracy and for

good governance. It must not be sold, given away cheaply or, in Somalia’s case, freely to

cousins one may never see or even reach through any means after electing them.

2016 promises to be a game changer for Somali politics and society. The Somali people must

wake up, shake off the pessimism, organise, take the initiative, be visible and seize the

historic opportunity to secure a better future for themselves and their fellow citizens. If they

do not do it, it is doubtful anybody would do it for them.


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