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National narrative needed to drive change in Somalia

by Liban Obsiye and Nur Omar
February 17, 2017

President Farmaajo’s electoral success ignited celebrations that went on for days over many cities across Somalia and the world. This outpouring of support both at home and within the Diaspora communities was most certainly led by public feeling for the need for change and President Farmaajo’s personal brand, cultivated and defined during his time as Prime Minister and actions since, as an approachable, conscientious and nationalistic leader. President Farmaajo has clearly won the hearts and minds of the Somali people and he must now use the strength of their desires and hopes to further advance the progress and prosperity of Somalia.

It is clear that President Farmaajo’s election victory has not only heightened public expectations but the hope that change and progress will be achieved in a short period of time. Given the fragile state of the country, it is sensible to make clear that there are no quick fixes or short cuts to achieving the enormous security and socio-economic leap forward that will fulfil the resilient Somali people’s aspirations. Somalia has the potential to go forward but at a slow pace and in partnership with the Somali people and all their partners. Therefore, setting realistic goals and managingexpectations is an urgent priority.

President Farmaajo has already moved into Villa Somalia and started the process of governing. On Thursday he named an interim Chief of staff, Security adviser and Chief of Protocol. More importantly, he set out the key priorities for his administration for the next 4 years, including security, economic development and tackling corruption, verbally. These priorities are interwoven and agreeable to the population. They are also in line with the Cabinet endorsed Foreign Policy, Investment Priorities and National Development Plan which must be fulfilled within his term of office. Communicating these early steps has gone well but in the long term they need to be defined clearly and the opportunity to connect individual actions such as announcing Government

priorities with existing and new credible policies must not be missed for the purposes of continuity and renewal.

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The above illustrates the importance of cohesive Government Communication in setting the national agenda, building broad support and legitimacy for its policies, engaging with and responding to citizen’s needs and promoting accountability. All these are fundamental as Somalia continues on a steady path to democratisation, stability and progress.

Connecting the narratives

A key failure of the last Government was that it was unable to communicate its holistic policy successes and challenges. There were unprecedented amounts of action at home and abroad but there was no national narrative or priorities to inform them or feed into. “Only those who know know” was the attitude and this is why during the elections it was impossible for President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud’s campaign to convince MP’s and the public at large of some of his Government’ssuccesses which actually do exist. 

To avoid the above, President Farmaajo must set the agenda by defining his key policy priorities quickly and building a national narrative around it to get buy-in from the people. Given his own charismatic personal brand and his story of perseverance, this should not be difficult. After this point, the President can select a Prime Minister who shares his vision and who in turn appoints the capable Ministers who champion the achievements of these policy goals from different angles as per their portfolios on a day to day basis. This process is important because it will ensure that, despite the tribal considerations involved in all appointments, the President can attempt to shape a Government that he can work effectively with and which advances his vision. In communicating his vision and this process to the Somali people and lawmakers, President Farmaajo can insure against spoilers going forward, strengthen the unity of his Government and communicate its successes and challenges in a unified manner.

A national narrative, by its very nature, should be about more than the President but the vision it embodies is one which reflects the priorities of his government. There are many other Somalis competing for the Prime Ministerial post and Ministerial portfolios today who have some personal branding but none has the democratic mandate within Government to simply pursue their own aspirations or policies independently of the elected President. It is then very advantageous for the President to select an effective Prime Minister and for the latter to appoint a capable Cabinet already with positive branding or the ability to create it, to better communicate and achieve Government priorities both at home and abroad.

How can the national story be connected?

At present there is no national narrative which best tells the story of Somalia’s journey towards progress. Some attempts have been made and are still operational such as “Somalia has turned the corner” led by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Investment Promotion but this has not been adopted across Government in the past and has not had much engagement from the Somali people themselves despite its relative success with partners and the international community. More problematic has been the disjointed and confusing use of social media and TV by Minister’s showcasing individual Ministry and Ministerial successes and actions which were not and could not be linked to the national priorities. If President Farmaajo is to succeed in achieving his goals, this uncontrolled and often ego-driven system must cease.

To effectively address the above process, it is paramount that Government information is better presented accurately, in the best format and to the right audience by a centralised Government Communication Service. 

The Government Communication Service (GCS) is a system which is used by most Governments to deliver world-class communications that support the Government’s priorities, improve people’s lives and enable the effective operation of public services. The communication professionals working in communication roles across Government under the GCS serve both politicians and the public and are crucial for shaping, revising and advancing a collective national narrative. GCS also has a further advantage as it is cross departmental, Ministries and agencies and therefore supports institutional development.

Under the GCS the individual voices of key Government officials and Ministries will not be lost as they will operate as normal but under a collectively agreed strategy and set priorities of the GCS of which their key media professionals will be members and influencers.

Coordinating the national media strategy makes Somalia more organised, professional and tells one national story. It also has the important ability to mitigate challenges and short term setbacks such as opportunistic terrorist attacks so that crisis can be managed better. If the national story is consistent, communicated regularly across different platforms, is well targeted and is reinforced by unified policy actions to achieve overall national development goals, it would allow audiences to put some of the challenges and setbacks into a more realistic perspective. More crucially, a coordinated media strategy can attract Diaspora group’s support which in turn can help to change the predominantly negative image that still hovers over Somalia.

Global action and impact

Coordinated media strategy will help to direct actions and campaigns which advance Somalia’s national interests by drawing in support from influential Diaspora and policy networks as well as international partners. A good example is Global Somali Diaspora’s (GSD) determined campaign to influence change in policy regarding President Trump’s Visa ban for seven countries including Somalia. If Somali Government communication strategy had a clear story of national progress to present then it may have further strengthened GSD’s resilient campaign. On another front, a cohesive national communication strategy would enable the creation and promotion of participatory nationwide and international campaigns focused on key themes such as tourism, trade promotion as well as public services.

Stars to shine light on Somalia’s story

There is great misperception that Somalia suffers from human capital deficit but the reality could not be further from the truth in the communication sector like every other industry. Somalia has one of the youngest and most technology and communication savvy people in Africa if not the world. Many of them are already employed in these roles with the Government, International NGOs, Foreign Missions and as private consultants.

While international professional communication companies working in Somalia have offered training and professional development for Somali employees and can still do this, Somali professionals arguably are much better placed to understand, frame and communicate the national message and hence better at presenting Somalia’s unique journey to the wider world as a result of lived experience. Furthermore, communication and media are two industries which have the potential for growth if they receive the right support and investment from the Government in Somalia. In telling Somalia’s story, a national strategy could also achieve economic development, security and transparency.  

Somalia’s national story is one of hope and progress but which has been told unconvincingly. President Farmaajo has a historical opportunity to remedy this in the next term and the ideas proposed in this article certainly provide much to consider.

Liban Obsiye is a senior adviser to the Somali Foreign Minister. He can be reached through the below: [email protected] &  @LibanObsiye (Twitter)

Nur Omar (Dubad) is a multimedia specialist who worked at the Office of the Prime Minister and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Investment Promotion from 2013-2016. He can be reached through the below: [email protected]  & @dubad23 (Twitter)

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