If you get the opportunity to visit the big Somali towns, you will notice the rapidly growing cities, the hustle and bustle, the booming informal business enterprises, sounds of construction, and many more positive developments.

Hargeisa, Mogadishu, and Bosaso are good examples of these towns. While the system of governance and means of creating inclusivity might vary from one administration to another – Hargeisa ruled by councilors who come through one person one vote election, Bosaso ruled by selected councilors who come through negotiated clan power-sharing and Mogadishu’s status not yet defined –, all three cities have established some form of local administration, systems, and structures that support the provision of basic public services i.e. security, sanitation, civil registration etc. to the local community.

This is not just good progress in a fragile country that’s struggling to recover from prolonged civil war, but also a perfect example of how a bottom-up state-building agenda – especially in Hargeisa and Bosaso – can best work in a complex environment.

A brief history of local governance in Somalia

The 1961 Somalia constitution provided a measure of decentralization of administrative functions to elected councils at the district level.

According to a Somalia country study conducted by the US Library of Congress, the process of giving more autonomous functions for local governments started with Siad Barre’s decree following the 1969 military coup. In the decree, Siad Barre regime re-organized local governments into sixteen regions each containing 3-6 districts. Banaadir remained an exceptional case.

Local governments were administered by regional representatives. Representatives of districts and regions – mostly if not all were drawn from the army, the police, and security personnel – were appointed by the central government. Such practices ensured that those in charge of carrying out administrative functions at the local level were directly reporting to the regime in Mogadishu.

All levels of local government staff were personnel appointed by the national civil service authorities. Local councils were permitted to plan local projects, impose local taxes, and borrow funds (with prior ministerial approval), for demonstrably productive development projects.

Noting the above, one can argue that the overly centralized nature of Siad Barre’s regime didn’t give space for decentralization to work effectively. In fact, the overemphasis on the central level is among one of the reasons that led to the demise of the military government.

Local governance in post-conflict Somalia

One of the consequences of Somalia’s civil war was the collapse of governance systems and structures. Despite decades of operating as a non-state, many variables in the country are improving steadily. In addition, the presence of the State began to re-emerge in the context of a new three-tiered federal system which includes the Federal Government of Somalia, Federal Member States, and local governments.

The Provisional Constitution of Somalia (Article 48) acknowledges the national and sub-national tiers of governance (state & local government). Nevertheless, the roles and responsibilities of different levels of government, legislative powers, and intergovernmental cooperation between various levels of administration, fiscal autonomy of the federal and state levels of government are part of the constitutional review process and are yet to be determined. The struggle for power between the federal and regional levels of government are an everyday reality.

It is within this fragile post-conflict reality that the most neglected tier of governance – local governments – emerged making considerable progress on addressing the challenges of weak local institutions and delivering basic public services. Notable examples are districts in Somaliland and to some extent Puntland, that nevertheless show promise in providing services to the public, strengthening democratization and peace-building often through hybrid governance models negotiated among state, civic and private sector actors.

In an article titled If Mayors ruled Somalia, Prof. Ken Menkhaus argues that Somalia’s international partners should divert their attention to investing more in local governance, because local municipalities are least affected by the prolonged Somali civil war; closer to the local community than state or central government; have a potential of generating more revenues; less bureaucratic; and can provide effective and equitable public service to the community.

Moving Forward

For the public sector to remain relevant and trusted in the eyes of the citizens, the Somali government and its international partners have to respond to the evolving and often high expectations of the citizens in terms of overall political direction, and more importantly, in service delivery or the way in which services are delivered in the federal context. In this case, the local government can bridge the gap between the quick short-term gains of the delivery of public services and long-term state-building agenda.

In addition, investing in local government systems will create some momentum for the people of Somalia as it has the potential to promote participation, accountability and state-citizen engagement. This will, in turn, create an enabling environment for rule of law, reconciliation, reconstruction, development, and improvement of service delivery.  Inclusive and accountable local governments will provide its citizens a space to negotiate with their (s)elected representatives. This combines the bottom-up and top-down approach; with the Federal Government and regional states taking up the strategic leadership and facilitation role and society getting services while keeping the local administration accountable to its people.

In fact, this can be quite challenging as it requires a long-term strategy that is based on inclusivity, buy-in and continuous negotiation from different stakeholders but the following key recommendations could help move forward:

  • Promote home-grown solutions: While the ‘best practice’ model of development can help in designing public policy in complex environments, replicating the ‘best practice’ often doesn’t yield good results. Somalia is a classic example of this. Ideas, when successful, often emerge through continuous dialogue, adaptation, and modification based on local knowledge and context. For creating and nurturing local knowledge, learning forums can be established that brings together the public and private sector, civil society, and academia. This will create space for innovation and learning on localizing development and the role of local government in facilitating this process. Documentation of this knowledge will be important as well. The success stories, most notably in northern districts of Somaliland and Puntland, should further be strengthened and built on, and where possible, replicated to the newer districts in south and central regions.
  • Focus on legislative and policy matters: Often, lack of legislative frameworks defining the mandates and relationships between various levels of government and sectors undermines the state-building agenda. The ongoing constitutional review process for Somalia can be a good base for clarifying arrangements on the roles and responsibilities of national, state and local governments, intergovernmental fiscal transfer and service delivery models. In addition, at the state level, legislation on local governance should be developed, which is aligned with/speaks to national frameworks and policies.
  • Human resource systems: Each year, thousands of young Somalis graduate from local universities. While the few lucky ones join non-governmental organizations (NGOs), the UN agencies, the private sector or government institutions, mostly at federal or state levels, most of them do not secure jobs. With the potential of collecting and generating its own revenues, local governments should attract these bright and fresh minds. This needs robust a human resource management strategy that promotes fair recruitment, retention, rewarding, and performance management.
  • Quick gains vs longer-term thinking: Providing social services such as health, water, education etc can be a quick(er) means of giving back to the community and creating trust between citizen and government. However, the process of rebuilding and strengthening governance is longer term. Local governments should emphasize establishing systems and structures that support equitable service delivery to both men and women. This could take time but would eventually produce longer lasting results.

Finally, we should keep in mind that the government is a system bound together by a common purpose of which if one tier of governance/sector gets weaker the rest will be affected. And, it is never too late to shift development from top to down, to make it closer to those who need it the most.

Abdiwahab M Ali is a development practitioner. This commentary is an excerpt from his graduate research paper on “the relationship between state-building and service delivery in fragile states, the case for Somalia”, Future Generation Graduate school, Franklin, WV, USA.