March 5, 2023
March 5, 2023
In late December last year, I coordinated a gathering of stakeholders organized by SPA’s Public Agenda Forum on understanding the challenges surrounding access to government identification documents in Mogadishu. These include passports, birth certificates, driving licenses, and criminal clearance certificates. We wanted to create the space to discuss the underlying issues and explore solutions for improving access to these important public services. These documents are issued by agencies and departments that are under the command of the Ministries of interior, internal security, and transport of the Federal Government of Somalia (FGS), while others are issued by the Mogadishu Municipality.
Officials from the concerned government offices and organizations were approached to participate in the forum as keynote speakers and contribute their knowledge on the issue at hand. However, none of those government officials was willing to participate in the forum, citing various reasons. It was obvious to us that these officials did not want to openly discuss the subject with the participants we invited to the forum, the majority of whom were young people. Furthermore, some of the participants invited to the forum expressed surprise about the forum’s topic questioning whether this was even a topic that could be discussed publicly. From that point, I knew that we were engaging in a ‘taboo’ subject.
Without the presence of a representative from the concerned government authorities, we decided to proceed with the forum. The vast majority of the participants, who were youth, had experienced difficulties accessing these basic government services. They shared the harsh experiences they had with the government offices that provide these services, what they thought the problems were and suggested some possible solutions.
First, the loss of personal records during the civil war and the poor record-keeping systems in place were identified as the main causes of the problems faced by citizens in accessing identification documents such as passports. Although it is a requirement to bring a birth certificate and residence letters from the Mogadishu Municipality each time before applying for a passport—whether applying for the first time or renewing an expired one—the officials at the Immigration and Naturalization Directorate under the FGS Ministry of Internal Security accept only the original documents and do not allow the use of copied ones.
Ironically, since the original document was taken, citizens cannot use a copy of the same document for another purpose and have to go back to the government offices and go through all these processes once again to request a new document. Although the public does not understand why the government offices that issue official birth and passport documents do not record their information, they presume that since these documents were taken away from them, they have to come back and pay in full when they need them again. Subsequently, because of the constant demand for these documents, the public bureaucrats that work in these institutions find ways to get some money during the process, exploiting people’s needs as well as fragile systems.
Second, Mogadishu’s security situation was considered to be another factor that these public institutions exploited. Participants felt that institutions were using the insecurity as an excuse to justify citizens going through all of these red tape procedures that partly seem to be in place to extract daily cash flow from the poor. However, these procedures hardly ever perform genuine security and background checks. In addition, they create new challenges, let alone solving some of the existing problems. These government institutions do not have citizen complaint offices where people could file reports against inconveniences caused by bureaucrats. Instead, they are at the mercy of poorly disciplined public officials who see no deterrent for the malpractices they commit daily.
Third, the capacity of the civil servants in these public institutions, on the other hand, is claimed to be low. Accordingly, most of these servants are hired through familial/clan connections and nepotism, and their capacity, knowledge, and skills are neglected when they are appointed. Furthermore, most of these government institutions lack accountability mechanisms to hold wrongdoers accountable, while they, conversely, are not paid enough, which incentivizes all kinds of bureaucratic corruption in these organizations.
The consequences are severe. People have to stand in long queues and wait long hours to get access to these services. Others must pay bribes or use connections to short-circuit the process, while others miss out on opportunities. Some people’s lives are put at risk because they require immediate healthcare outside of the country and must receive their documents immediately.
Besides discussing the causes of the issues, several suggestions were made at the end of the forum to address these challenges and ease the unnecessary bureaucratic processes people go through to get such services. These recognize that citizens have every right to obtain these documents without obstacles or restrictions.
This commentary and the forum were supported by International Media Support (IMS).