September 25, 2023
September 25, 2023
Somalia is slowly recovering from decades of chaos. Since 2012, when the first non-transitional parliament and president were (s)elected in Mogadishu, the country has managed to hold indirect federal elections and undertake peaceful transfers of power. However, in this commentary, I contend that Somalia’s public sector continues to be crippled by a lack of creative ideas and initiatives that are needed to undertake much-needed reforms and address the country’s many policy challenges. A donor-dependency mindset and weak state-society relations characterize governmental institutions. Nowhere is this more evident than in the neglect of key public infrastructure and public premises in the Buulaburte district, which has suffered from a series of al-Shabaab attacks. What I observed during a visit to Buulaburte in early August 2023 reveals the stark difference in how the community has managed the reconstruction of private and the state of public premises damaged by the successive al-Shabaab attacks.
Al-Shabaab attacks in Buulaburte have damaged key public and private infrastructures. These have included the historical bridge (built around the 1930s) that connects southern and central regions, the city’s local government building, and the district court. The first attack occurred when an al-Shabaab suicide bomber parked an explosive-laden vehicle in the middle of the bridge on 19 October 2022. The explosion did not entirely demolish the bridge. However, it created a hole that made it impossible for vehicles to cross. The explosion happened simultaneously with another similar attack targeting the Jalalaqsi district bridge that same day. These attacks happened during the peak period of the Macawisley forces’ takeover of al-Shabaab-controlled areas in the Hiiraan region. These attacks were supposedly aimed at cutting off their movements and limiting any Macawisyey and government forces’ advances to the eastern part of Hiiraan.
The second suicide explosion in Buulaburte happened on 14 January 2023. It was a huge explosion that damaged buildings in the city. Residents suspect that the attackers aimed again to blow up the bridge and missed their target as they could not pass through the narrow street on their way. When the public in the area where the vehicle was stuck ( near the mosque) realized that it might be carrying an explosive device, they screamed and fled the area. Security forces opened fire at the vehicle. The suicide bomber drove the car towards the security forces and eventually exploded in between the historic Buulaburte mosque and the district administration offices. In both explosions, dozens of people died and properties were destroyed. The second suicide explosion severely damaged the mosque, the district administration offices, and the district court as well as surrounding businesses and houses.
Since these attacks, the private businesses, houses, and the mosque in Buulaburte have all been reconstructed. Individuals rebuilt their businesses and houses. Local and diaspora Somalis also collected contributions and rebuilt the mosque. They initially planned to build a new two-storey mosque, but the organizers ended up reconstructing the old mosque, which is working well currently.
This stands in contrast to what has happened to the government buildings damaged by the attack. None of the government buildings – the district administration headquarters and the district court – as well as the bridge, have yet been rehabilitated. The local government has no office to work from, and during my visit, there were no signs of any initiative to rebuild these public premises. Similarly, despite a visit of a high-level delegation led by the federal ministers of interior and planning, federal MPs, and Hirshabelle minister of interior to the Buulabirte bridge to assess the damage on 29 October 2022 (ten days after the explosion), the federal, state, and local governments have not achieved any meaningful progress in repairing this vital piece of infrastructure.
On the contrary, a committee made up of local traditional elders and the business community took the initiative to rehabilitate the bridge. They formed a committee, contracted an engineer, and started collecting money from the locals as well as the diaspora. As of writing this commentary, the committee was making progress in the reconstruction of the bridge although they believe the bridge would need further investments.
The federal, state, and local government’s failure to rehabilitate and invest in Buulaburte’s public infrastructure illustrates three realities about public sector governance in Somalia. First, there is a lack of government initiative to address public policy challenges. It is rare across different levels of government to see incumbent politicians and civil servants coming up with initiatives to address policy matters and improve public services. Ideas often have to come from other sources. All too often the role of government representatives is to endorse, ask questions of, or sometimes sabotage the initiators. If the initiative involves spending financial resources, the government representatives mostly at the local and state levels are usually preoccupied with working out how they can be paid for providing authorization and approval for duties that they themselves have the responsibility to fulfill.
Second, the dependency mentality is pervasive among government officials. When I asked a federal minister about the government’s efforts to restore the important Buulaburte bridge, he talked about the federal government budget’s heavy dependency on donor support, and how most of the domestic revenue goes to the security sector. He noted that the government was waiting for financial support from international organizations, which had pledged to rebuild the Buulaburte bridge. Although the local committee valued the initial rebuilding costs at less than $50,000, government officials don’t believe they can take the lead in addressing public policy and service challenges like this. Politicians are willing to dole out huge amounts of money for election campaigns, but when it comes to public service, the funds, often come from other sources, primarily the international community.
Third, there is the problem of poor state-society relations. The public’s perception of the government is not positive. Even if authorities come up with a plan to take the lead in addressing public policy matters that require financial contribution from the public, citizens have limited trust in government-led processes. This is evident during humanitarian emergencies where religious sheikhs and the business community are often entrusted to distribute money and in-kind support collected by the Somalis to help those affected by the humanitarian crises. This gap and mistrust emanate primarily from the past misuse of government powers and how officials have often enriched themselves at the expense of the public over the past decades.
The local initiative to fix the Buulaburte bridge and the continued neglect of key local government offices damaged by al-Shabaab attacks clearly show how Somalia’s modes of governance are deeply entrenched in a dependency mindset, limited or lack of government-led initiatives to address important policy and service issues and poor state-society relations. The liberation of large rural areas from al-Shabaab, the huge demand for stabilization, the exit of ATMIS, and the possible completion of the debt relief process by the end of 2023 would all add extra pressure to Somalia’s governance challenges. While the ongoing security operations, taking back the security responsibility from ATMIS, and ending the long process of debt relief are crucial developments for Somalia, properly recruiting and training administrative cadres who can deal with the post-al-Shabaab and post-debt era is equally important. This has to start with changing the dependency mindset, institutionalizing merit-based recruitment of civil servants, enhancing accountability among government institutions, and empowering citizens to elect their representatives. While civil society actors such as the Somali Public Agenda can write and publish analyses and studies that elaborate on the governance dynamics in Somalia, history will judge how far the incumbent federal, state, and local government officials address or fail to address these challenges in Somalia.
Mahad Wasuge is the Executive Director of Somali Public Agenda.