Today from Hiiraan Online:  _
Ads By Google
Fixing the dysfunctional government machinery

by Liban Obsiye & Abdihakim Yusuf
Thursday, March 21, 2013

Ads By Google
It was a sign of hope to see both the self declared Independent state of Somaliland and the Republic of Somalia in the same week take steps towards forming a functioning civil service. Proud graduates in Hargiesa, already government employees, paraded their Civil Service Institute certificates after the successful completion of their training and in Mogadishu on Friday 1 March 2013 would be diplomats boarded a plane for South Africa to begin the process of becoming architects of future Somali foreign policy. This caused much excitement among the watching public in the country and in the Diaspora but this is premature.

The Civil service is the genuine mind and engine of government. It is where those appointed on MERIT, who are politically neutral and working in the national interest advice government and implement policies. They mainly work in departments, although many more work locally within communities, led by a Cabinet Minister and also write speeches, draft polices and evaluate them after. Most national civil services like that of Britain and its former colonies such as India and Pakistan are hierarchical, if not as efficient and effective. While Civil servants are allowed to vote they are not allowed to stand for political office nor are they to support extremists groups. Political neutrality is crucial to the post and even when governments fall the same civil servants remain to work with the new administration. This is important because they give policies and politics continuity and where policies have been successful regardless of the political persuasion of its initiator, they continue with it if allowed to by the new government.

The power and influence of the developed nation’s civil service especially at the senior levels is not disputed and critics have argued in the past that they wield too much power. Some have even gone as far as suggesting that they have a hidden agenda while others have referred to them as wise counsellors. On occasions under the past Tony Blair administration in the United Kingdom, where the civil service clashed with government, they were sidelined by Special Advisers appointed directly by the Prime Minister himself. Yet despite this, bureaucrats, both those who sit in high office and those on the front line (street level bureaucrat) play a crucial role throughout the policy process. It is their abilities, skills and service that keeps the nations running. It is they who offer much needed assurances to the public, businesses and international community.

The self declared independent state of Somaliland has had peace for over two decades now and as such has established, with the help of the United Nations, a civil Service academy. All the government Ministries have civil servants both in the offices and on the ground. However, to say the public administration of Somaliland is any better than that of Somalia simply because of the peace is wrong. Both are equally weak, flawed and without real reform can hamper the development of future and existing institutions. More than anything today, both require strong institutions that drag them from their political insignificance in the eyes of their poor public in desperate need of leadership and change.

Somalia has been and parts of it still remain a war zone controlled by Al-Shabaab. Getting anything done requires full control of the country but while this is a long term goal other key factors hold back the creation of an effective civil service. These include very weak institutions that do not even have an internal mail system and where key people have to rely on speaking in the corridors to relay policy concerns and donor outsourcing of key government functions to their national NGOs. This further weakens institutions and does not allow for the few competent civil servants to get the practice they need in doing their job with the available resources. However, the nation’s capacity in the short term will be hampered by an over reliance on donors. If it is able to escape this, the future of institution building, human capital development and economic growth in Somalia will be far brighter. This is the same for both Somaliland and Puntland, an autonomous region which is part of Somalia, as despite their long peace, they are economically still heavily reliant on international handouts distributed by aid agencies and not their civil servants.

The benefits of a strong and effective bureaucracy are illustrated to a great extent by Somalia’s neighbour Ethiopia. This to many would be surprising as this nation was for the most part of the 20th century stereotyped as one of the poorest and most dysfunctional of all in Africa. However, creating a civil service that was fit for purpose was one of the strategic goals that the subsequent Ethiopian governments were struggling to establish since Emperor Menelik II who in 1907 established the current civil service regime modernised by Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. As soon as Meles took over the reins of power in the country he launched the Ethiopian Civil Service College as machinery to produce skilled and capable professionals within a short period of time. The primary objective of this college was to reform Ethiopia’s civil service and more precisely, to create bureaucrats that could execute his socio-economic vision for his nation. Since 2005 Ethiopia has been implementing a Business Process Reengineering program. Many believe that this helped Ethiopia to improve the competence of service provision of its institutions and as result of that Ethiopia has become one of the fastest growing economies in Africa. Whatever the view of critics, Ethiopia under Zenawi won the trust of donors who give it budgetary support today and help them strengthen their institutions. The best example of the growing sophistication and effectiveness of the Ethiopian civil service is its successful management of the transition of power after Meles Zenawi’s recent death. Despite ethnic issues, no blood was shed and the Prime Minister’s office was merely vacated for a new man and managed by similar civil servants. There is much for Somalis to learn from this.

What there is in abundance in Somalia at present is political will to change, learn and develop. President Hassan Sheikh has made this clear throughout his presidency. The evidence of this is the advert for advisers on the Somali National Television in January, the renegotiations over aid payments directly to government with the donor nations and the arrangement of training for Diplomats and other public servants. More is been done by this government in its few months in office than has been achieved in the last two decades of state failure. However, Somalia is so far behind that it cannot waste time looking back and congratulating itself. Somalia is only desperately attempting to catch up with the rest of the developing nations in its continent and not speeding ahead.

A neutral, professional civil service is the back bone to stability, peace and development in Somalia. Africa’s key failure to attract investors and develop like India and Brazil has not just been war and lack of infrastructure, but the lack of key institutions to advice, guide and oversee investor relations and interests. It is also the reason why the public vehemently distrust politicians altogether and prefer to seek the security and counsel of their tribal leaders. Wider reforms are now been openly debated in Somalia, the self declared independent State of Somaliland and Puntland. A strong, functioning professional civil service has been recognised by all of them as one of the cures for their many social and political illnesses. However, in formulating the cure, it appears the Somali governments as a whole have taken too much of the wrong dosage of key ingredients to create something far worse and potentially dangerous.

Quality v Nepotism

In rushing to find special advisers and civil servants, the current Somalia government has initiated a system of nepotistic appointments. Many of the local and Diaspora educated Somalis who are working in government today have dubious qualifications or none at all. Even those with qualifications, are not trained in the fields they specialise in. Links rather than skills, knowledge, passion and ability override everything. More worryingly, because Ministers have been appointed under a policy of 4.5, their staff members are likely to be the same.

It is never advisable in business to employ friends and family members who are not qualified, so why do it at the heart of the weakest and poorest nation’s government? This is not just unethical but also socially unjust. What it further creates is an environment where the Somali administrations representatives are not respected abroad because they are not equally trained, educated and appointed upon merit like their counterpart hosts. Somalia needs more than poorly fitted suits and wide smiles from its international delegations and this will not happen until the nepotism that poisons the system is rooted out.

Nepotism cripples Somalia in other ways. The President has tirelessly argued for budgetary support and for funds to build vital state institutions. But which nation would have any faith or risk any funding for institutions that will be run like family businesses? Where is the benefit when the best are forsaken for the tribally and personally connected? Building institutions requires the return of the genuine educated Diaspora class. These would and should include technocrats and experienced advisers past and present. What it does not need is the appointment of those appointed after staying in an expensive Mogadishu hotel for months and waiting long enough outside Villa Somalia with their kinsman banging the door hard for them. The only way the genuinely educated Diaspora would return is if they are able to work with competent people who do not tarnish or risk their reputations. This is not selfish but a simple global human reality. Both the Federal, Puntland and Somaliland governments must prove themselves to the world and more specifically to their citizens but this will be disastrous if they are not able to entice their best from abroad because of nepotism and its potential catastrophic impact.

Aside from nepotism and the perception of insecurity, it is a going to be a real challenge for the Somali government to woo back the well paid professionals in the country and abroad they need because of the job security many enjoy even in this most turbulent global financial crisis. Many within this lucky well to do group have careers with structures and future prospects for promotion and wealth. Public service employment in Somalia cannot at present offer either. This is perhaps why only the uneducated, unemployed or underemployed Diaspora members who have nothing to lose in both nations are returning to take up posts far too senior for them. A further difficulty for the government in recruiting the best is its ability to reach them. Unlike those that flock to meetings to distribute their resumes or bang on their uncles door for a job, most educated members of the Somali community globally have ethics and values that do not allow them to even want to benefit from nepotism even if they could. To attract these, the government posts must be advertised publicly and in a manner in which they are able to access it and apply for it in the safe knowledge that all qualified candidates will be considered. This is the only way to entice the best of Somali human resources globally to return and rebuild their home.

Targets and results

Quality in public sector leadership is inspired by good governance, strong laws and transparency. On the issue of civil service recruitment, all these are needed. Civil servants need to be appointed on merit and not by whether they are able to buy a plane ticket to Somalia or not, and they need to be trained, well paid, given early responsibility and real oversight by an Independent Civil Service Commission. They need to be informed of their duties and their rights and immediately investigated and disciplined where there is any suspicion of corruption. This sounds all too perfect but it is possible. The way to achieve this is to make the civil service work like a business and set all employees targets that must be achieved annually. If at their yearly appraisal they have not met all the requirements they ought to be disciplined and where there is gross failure, dismissed. The beauty of this system is that if it is independent of the Ministers, there will be no protection for the weak that shelter behind nepotism and tribal affiliation. The Civil Service Commission should oversee professional appointments and all applicants should be given a full statement of reasons as to why they did not secure a post. This surely will professionalise the civil service rapidly.

In Somaliland, despite the claim to improving institutions, it is difficult to find any civil servant who works a full day. Most retire after lunch to eat khaat and chat in hotels and restaurants. This needs to immediately halt and all employees should work their full hours. This is currently the same in Somalia as advisers and Ministers rush to beat each other to the hotels, restaurants and beaches. Who then is left to build the institutions?

In the self declared independent state of Somaliland, the early Kulmiye administrations action of examining all civil servants was a step in the right direction. However, while the intention of professionalization was to be applauded its poor implementation is to be condemned as so much cheating occurred and most civil servants kept their posts despite this. The resulting political cowardice of not tackling the cheating is what the Somali government needs to avoid in any exams it asks future civil servants to sit. 

The Somali people have very little respect for authority and systems. Well connected individuals and groups and even members of the public with tribal affiliations go over the heads of the limited bureaucrats that exist today and directly deal with government Ministers. This indiscipline is encouraged by Ministers who allow this to continue. In order to build their capacity, encourage their independence and teach people to adopt and work with an orderly system, civil servants should deal with all front line issues and Ministers should only get involved as a matter of last resort. The division of labour is simply that, even in a tribal post conflict society like Somalia, the government makes the policies and the bureaucrats and their partners implement it. The civil servants must be and remain as the face of the State.


Only dreamers would have hope of a strong functioning bureaucracy in a post conflict society where the majority of potential government employees are unreliable and addicted to khaat. But never the less we remain hopeful. Things are changing and there are signs of progress within the Somali people globally. The key to joining all this emerging positive energy and managing the future development of Somalia are the civil servants. However, Somalia does not need and will not benefit from a heavy top down French style monolithic State but more from a clever lean one working in partnership with the private sector and other key partners. The days of the African big man in every department are dead and buried and as such the Somali civil service of the future ought to reflect and gear up for the difficult challenges ahead. An entrepreneurial civil service is one that is driven by public interest, strong internal and external checks and a belief that they do not always know best. This would allow them to consult key stakeholders such as the public and contractors and even learn from them and forge the kind of lasting partnerships that can truly deliver the success of the second Somali republic.

Selecting, educating and training civil servants can be, while worthwhile, costly for the government as all this investment could easily find its way to the private sector and NGOs who regularly entice the best Somali talent needed to rebuild institutions with higher salaries if not more fulfilling work. The nationalism and sense of public service that ought to act as a moral barrier against this on the part of public servants is easily side lined by professional uncertainty and the resulting short term need to make as much money as possible.

Nationalism and a sense of public duty will not appear over night but what can encourage this is simple and clear career planning with regular appraisals as well as solid, iron cast contracts that reflect the investment in the civil servants education, training and personal development. If civil servants want to leave before the end of their service the Somali government ought to ask their new employers to pay for the full training of their replacement. The Somali government at present is poor and it cannot afford to waste precious resources and be a spring board for ambitious future NGO chiefs.

In a later development stage after reconstruction, the creation of institutions, employment and basic key public services, the Somali government could enhance its bureaucratic capabilities and cut corruption as well as deliver service through the use of Information Technology. This day though, seems far away now but is achievable with commitment. What can potentially be around the corner though is the collapse of the fragile State if it does not tackle its very own institutional and inherent weaknesses such as the big man syndrome and nepotism. In any case, the outcome of the May 2013 London Somali conference which is so crucial to the future of the Somali nation needs to come up with a plan that promotes good governance in which transparency and fairness are core values. For this, the President has to choose the best to join his team in order to accomplish the mission that may seem impossible to the rest of the watching world.

Liban Obsiye is a law graduate with a Masters in Public Policy from the School for Policy Studies, the University of Bristol. He currently is a Director of a Housing Association in Bristol, UK.

Abdihakim Yusuf is a Masters graduate of Development and Project Planning from the Bradford Centre for International Development (BCID) at the University of Bradford, UK. He manages a community wellbeing project in Bristol, UK.

Both writers welcome comments and feedback. They can be reached at:

Abdihakim Yusuf: [email protected]
@Hakiimov (Twitter)
Liban Obsiye: [email protected]
@LibanObsiye (Twitter)


Post your comments