The crisis in crisis management in Somalia
The Somali government is in trouble. Again. The Turkish government, which has backed the Somali government with direct cash aid, has made it clear that this assistance stopped at the end of 2013 and that there were no clear plans to resume it in 2014. However, the Turkish government’s Cooperation and Coordination Agency reassured the Somali people that their projects in Somalia would continue unaffected. What does this mean? Nothing by the response of Villa Somalia which has yet to officially accept that it was perhaps their silence on the corruption allegations made by Yusur Abraar, the last Somali Central bank governor, against the administration that has led to the freeze in trust between the European Union, Turkey and Villa Somalia. When Villa Somalia did appear to act it was too late, poorly coordinated and simply aimed at character assassination and the defence of the President who was painted as totally innocent and as a result out of touch with the everyday administration of his government.
Listeners of Mogadishu radio, the public broadcaster, can be forgiven for their confusion as their President replied from his holiday spot in Turkey where his family has relocated since he took office, to the rumours that he had died while undergoing treatment. To prove that the rumours were “baseless” as he claimed, he sought to reassure his listeners, the general public and international donors by proudly stating that, “I have not even taken a single aspirin.” This is most likely true but what is certain was that he was alive after the completion of the radio interview. The key problem with this whole embarrassing saga, according to sources close to the President, was that the Presidents team made up the story of a health check-up to disguise the fact that he was going to see his family on a short break. They thought that Hassan Sheikh’s holiday would look insensitive at a time of great insecurity and poverty. However, this backfired through the rumours of his death which could have easily caused a power vacuum and thrown Somalia back into a state of war and anarchy.
Alshabaab’s deadly attack on the Presidential Palace last week which their spokesman stated missed the President only by a few minutes was a global shock. It made headlines all over the world and witnesses have spoken of their horror as the armed Alshabaab members casually walked around the compound after blasting their way in searching for the President to kill or kidnap. The attack claimed many lives and the President defiantly spoke of the war he will wage against a desperate dying animal on the verge of defeat. An animal on the verge of defeat does not usually penetrate the most secure areas of the capital let alone pass through multiple check points staffed by AMISOM and Somali army officers paid handsomely to protect the only institution that actually appears to exist in Somalia: the Presidency. Despite his combative tone, the President’s voice when delivering his long rambling speech was shaky and incoherent. The content seemed poorly thought out. Instead of reassuring the public and other international stakeholders the speech made it clear that without tackling security and AlShabaab first, nothing else would succeed including investment in infrastructure and other development projects.
The President of Somalia’s fatalistic analysis was in line with what his security Minister Abdikarim Hussein Guled had told the world in a public conference which he called with the media a few hours before him. The Minister stated that AlShabaab can kill absolutely anyone and the public should stand together to tackle them. However, his alarmist speech has been interpreted as his Ministry being unable to defend the Somali people especially those in Mogadishu to the point where now many are asking him to resign. The institutional failures and the foreseeable challenge of tackling AlShabaab militarily and legally was disclosed by the President in his speech when he emotionally publicised that his government will no longer listen to the traditional tribal elders who release the AlShabaab suspects they arrest without undertaking a proper investigation. Was this a necessary disclosure? All it did was point to the weakness of institutions and the overarching power of tribe in Somali politics.
On Tuesday (25th February) Hassan Sheikh gave a speech denouncing AlShabaab and reiterating his message that he, his government and their partners on the ground will be beginning an offensive against them. Watch out AlShabaab we are coming is the best possible warning they could have had in advance of any offensive. More amusingly every word the President said was translated to Nicholas Kay, the UN Special Representative for Somalia, who stood large behind him throughout the speech. This not only gives the clearest message that the offensive is not only Somali led but also that without international backing, guidance and support Hassan Sheikh and his government are nothing more than the current tenants of Villa Somalia. This is exactly the Western puppet image AlShabaab has painted throughout their campaign against Hassan Sheikh’s government.
AlShabaab is far more complex and clever than most observers and critics give them credit for. On the outside it is easy to support President Hassan Sheikh’s regular criticism of them as an aimless, confused band of murderers. However, with every attack in Mogadishu, they have benefitted from the government forces over reaction in arresting innocent civilians, torturing them and regularly abusing them until an “influential tribal or government member” can rescue them according to a recent victim. Those that are found innocent or guilty have an equal chance of disappearing or being released without explanation or compensation if they do not have a powerful advocate in government. The wrath with which government forces deals with innocent civilians and those they suspect of terrorism, especially after attacks, undermines any pretence of justice, fair trial or anything that would give the government any more points for moral conduct than AlShabaab. The effect of this is an erosion of trust of government and its capabilities to protect and provide for the citizens and an understanding that AlShabaab is always present even if in disguise.
The most frustrating aspect of government in Somalia is that the core members of the administration both in political and administrative roles live in a bubble that does not seem to burst even after what most reasonable people would see as catastrophic failures. Villa Somalia, the only genuine existing Somali institutions as it is a building which houses policy makers and administrators, has remarkably been inept at grasping the importance of perception and symbolism in the politics of a tribally divided nation surviving on aid. More frustratingly, it is members of the core executive, including the President, and the civil service and special advisers, who continue to create crisis’s with their poor communication, silence and ill thought out policy choices.
There is no government in the world that does not suffer setbacks or has to deal with crisis regularly. Think of President George Bush Junior’s shocked face when he was first notified of the twin towers attack whilst reading to children in a primary school. Think of the daily battles of the Greek government which has had to live with austerity measure after austerity measure forced down their throat by the IMF and the European Union member states as punishment for not managing their public finances. Government and the authority and leadership that accompany it are a challenge in themselves that if exercised wrongfully can cause and sustain a crisis as was illustrated in Ukraine this week.
The Somali government does not have the institutional capacity of any of these nations at present but it is wrong to think you always need it to manage a crisis effectively. Even with the best systems in place, some of the greatest PR companies around the corner and institutional funding for implementation of change on the ground, the American president Barack Obama is struggling with managing the diplomatic and political fallout of the NSA spying revelations. Instead of focusing on institutional deficiencies when it comes to crisis management, the Somali government should be exploring ways to and avenues through which to communicate early and clearly to any future setbacks.
Yusur Abraar is a ghost haunting the Somali government and this week (Tuesday 25th February) the former Somali Minister of Foreign Affairs Mrs. Fawzia Adam strongly denied allegations made against her that she pressurised Yusur to open an account in Dubai for the purposes of laundering public finances. Regardless of the validity of this allegations perceptions clearly count as much as evidence in a country with a historical precedence for corruption, poor leadership and a lack of accountability across government and institutions. Reuters and the London based Financial Times, both media giants with global reach and influence, reported the story through the use of a letter drafted by the former and the first female Somali Central banker. Instead of replying early, Villa Somalia kept quiet and allowed a few critical MP’s to slander Yusur in an attempt to dent her credibility even using court documents obtained from America alleging that she had gone bankrupt. This issue would have been far better resolved and firmly buried had the President simply acknowledged her concerns and ordered an independent inquiry and then later relied on the outcomes to remedy it. How much more confidence would this have given to Yusur and the partner nations, including the most patient Turkey, who now are wary of giving any aid directly to the Somali state through Villa Somalia? Would this not have communicated the government’s zero tolerance rhetorical commitments better than the regular sound bites that are heard from the President and the executive on fighting corruption?
When dealing with crisis that are by their very nature sudden and catastrophic, the Somali government, especially its executive leadership needs to plan better, consult and put in place mechanisms which enhance public trust and confidence in them and the institutions they aspire to create. Where the government has made mistakes it simply needs to own up but where it is sensitive, especially with regards to security and the institutional weaknesses and disparities when dealing with the likes of Alshabaab, they need to be discreet. This is because although the President meant well and was angered by the interference of tribe in the process of arrest and prosecution of suspected terror suspects, by disclosing it he has undermined his government’s efforts in the eyes of the people and laid bare their weaknesses. In moments of difficulty the public look for leadership and guidance and if those tasked with fulfilling this are incoherent, fearful and perceived as incompetent public worry will only escalate. The different messages from various Ministers falling over each other to comment further deepen the crisis.
President Hassan Sheikh appears to have arrived at the wrong time in history for his style of gentlemanly politics. The president is capable and understands the challenges ahead and the importance of public perception. However, to manage a crisis he needs the most qualified people advising him on the way forward and alternative policy solutions. At present the very 4.5 tribal system with which Somalia is governed can pose a challenge of independence on any inquiry commissioned by the President. Indeed his opponents would always say that any inquiry would be politically motivated but to lead inevitably is to choose and the President should always side with reform and transparency in times of crisis. Sheikh Sharif, Hassan’s predecessor, was brilliant at crisis management and reassuring the public that he was working in their interests. He embraced them and regularly mingled with them even when AlShabaab controlled most of Mogadishu. This is the type of crisis leadership and confidence building the Somali people seeks from the President today.
Crisis management is not academic but an art that only improves with practice. President Hassan Sheikh must learn from the attack on his home which was intended to get rid of him. He must communicate early and appropriately action his commitment to tackling corruption through promotion of greater transparency in all government matters and as well as streamline and unify the governments positions through the appointment and use of only one official spokesperson for all the key Ministries communication with the public. Despite the constraints of 4.5, the President must further summon the courage to dispose of all those incompetent and corrupt officials that are nothing more than rent seekers serving themselves and their tribal elders’ interests when they should be working towards rebuilding their nation. Ironically this show of force and steely determination may eventually lead to the creation and adherence to a collective cabinet responsibility which promotes the government’s agenda for change and Hassan Sheikh’s hopes for reform and progress.
In managing crisis the President theoretically is not alone and should work with partners who are willing to assist such as AMISOM and the UN. However, ultimately responsibility to lead through crisis and to create a better Somalia rests with him. The achievement of Hassan Sheikh’s treasured six pillar plans without first mastering the art of leading through difficulty which is a must for any Somali leader of any capacity, is futile.
by Liban Obsiye & Sakariye Hussein