Laura Mann reports from the first event of the Rift Valley Institute’s Nairobi Forum for Research, Policy and Local Knowledge – ‘A Somali Spring?’ A link to the podcast can be found at the end of the post.
On October 11th, the Rift Valley held its first ‘Nairobi Forum’. They invited Ken Menkhaus, Amal Ismail, Jabril Abdulla and Matt Bryden to discuss the post-election climate in Somalia. The former Kenyan ambassador to Somalia, Mohamed Abdi Affey, who was chairing the proceedings, joked: “We wanted to show Kenya what it means to be a democratic nation”.
All parties agreed that Hassan Sheikh Mohamud is a man who combines two clean hands with enormous street cred. There is reason for ‘cautious optimism’ even amidst the challenges ahead. Ken Menkhaus argued that it was not the election of this single remarkable man that was important, but the extensive support network behind him. Describing this network as a ‘constructive elite,’ Menkhaus clarified that this was not a mass uprising ‘Somali Spring’ but a civic mobilization of determined professionals tired of warlordism and ineffective foreign interventions alike. These individuals have been on the ground for the past 20 years, building hospitals, schools, universities and private businesses. They have spent the past 20 years “navigating the streets” as Ken Menkhaus put it. They have learnt how to negotiate deals with difficult parties, how to build trust across clans and most importantly, they know how to get things done. Jabril Abdulla added that these negotiating skills are important. The gradual expansion of the state will not just involve institutions, but people, some benign and some less palatable. Getting warlords to engage in politics is one of the key challenges.
Abdulla added that while elites had gotten him elected, there was nonetheless widespread public support behind his victory. He described how the public ‘legitimized’ the election by broadcasting the news on radios and televisions during the week following the election. However he also cautioned that there were some regions that did not share in the jubilation.
Nevertheless, as each of them said in turn, there is reason for cautious optimism.
All presenters highlighted the challenges ahead:
1) The power struggles over the composition of the new state; with each appointment comes a new battle (Menkhaus)
2) Deep/harsh debates over the nature of federalism, especially in the Southern areas that are more mixed (Menkhaus and Bryden)
3) In the liberated spaces, what power will take control? The government, local communities or African Union troops? (Menkhaus)
4) Looming land disputes with the potential for significant foreign investments (Menkhaus)
5) Piracy has moved on land and this will complicate things for the new government (Menkhaus)
6) Getting the task at hand done is a formidable challenge with little money and few working institutions at hand (Abdulla).
7) The harsh unforgiving political climate: The public has enormous expectations and usually gives leaders 60 days before assigning nicknames if they don’t deliver. They have to make immediate noticeable impact in order to placate the name-givers (Abdulla).
8) The new government is young and fairly inexperienced. 55% of the parliament is new, 40% are from the diaspora and 56% hold college degrees. The average age is 45-50.
9) The challenge to dismantle the system of fadl , the paying of favours to civil servants (Abdulla).
The underlying challenge of the government is to change the nature of the political game from violence to political discourse.
Perhaps the most important sense that I took from the event was the strong Somali ownership that hangs over the election. All participants stressed that this is a job for Somalis; international actors would do well to take a few steps back and make space for new Somali politicians to do their thing (this was significant because the majority of the audience was composed of international aid workers and security experts). The presenters also cautioned them not to introduce foreign aid into politics, to be aware of how money for counter-terrorism and security can feed into political violence and that even ordinary meetings with foreign agencies take time that these busy politicians do not have. Amal Islamil stressed that the new government should include women and youth, who have suffered most under state collapse.
At the same time, both Abdulla and Bryden talked about how progress has already been made. The government has drafted a common document and a national budget. The budget is particularly significant as it allows for the procurement of institutional revenue, separate from the system of fadl. These are significant steps and so again, we must say, cautious optimism! Inshallah!
This is reblogged from Laura’s own blog: http://lauraelizabethmann.com/blog/. Laura is a postdoctoral researcher in the Internet Institute at the University of Oxford. She has conducted research in Egypt, Sudan, Kenya and Rwanda.