By Ismail Ali Ismail
There can be no doubt that the visit of Somali President, Hassan Sheikh Mahmoud, to the United States last week was very successful on many fronts: first, after so many transitional governments, the US recognized his post-transitional government and, ipso facto, the sovereignty of Somalia; secondly, this was crowned with a meeting in the White House with President Obama who, I am told, promised to stand by Somalia; thirdly, his lecture at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C on “The Future of Governance in Somalia” (not an easy topic by any measure) was delivered reasonably well, and he answered the questions that followed quite well; finally, his address to the Somali communities both in the capital area and in Minneapolis exceeded by far the expectations of those who attended.
The President’s speeches to the Somali communities in both places were not rousing, but he struck nearly all the essential chords and was very articulate. However, in the current state of Somali society mistrusts and suspicions abound and the President has had, like his recent but unfortunate predecessors, his share of accusations. He has been rumored to be committed to an agenda that is wholly inconsistent with the Constitution, the federal system and even the restoration of national unity. It has been said: that he has been acting as an executive president while he is supposed to be a ceremonial one under the Constitution; that he has sidelined a pliant prime minister and thereby usurped his powers (Amin Amer has shown this in his caricatures of the prime minister a number of times); that he is indifferent to the need in his own capital and home base to return spoliated property to their rightful owners; that he is up to his neck in the imbroglio surrounding the making of a Jubaland State; and that he is in cahoots with the secessionists in the North.
In his speeches the President stated, inter alia, without prevarication and in clear and unequivocal terms, as if he was answering these charges, that he took an oath to observe and protect the Constitution which lays out a federal system for the country; that he was committed therefore to the establishment of that system in the country; and that national unity was uppermost in his consideration. As a unionist Northerner myself, I believe he dispelled, in no uncertain terms, any lingering doubts as to his commitment to national unity. But, he did not answer the charge that he eclipsed the prime minister by acting as an executive president. He said, however, perhaps with this question in mind that he, the Speaker of Parliament, and Prime Minister were on such excellent personal terms that they were working closely together. The formation of such a troika is reminiscent of the principle of ‘collective leadership’ inherent in the communist doctrine. Though I do not believe this as a sign of going back to ‘scientific socialism’ it is ominous that the Speaker is not keeping the desirable distance. After closing his eyes to contraventions of some constitutional provisions on procedural matters he was accused of being ‘in the pocket of the President’. The President himself mentioned this in a jocular manner. The President also mentioned that the current Parliament (with 58% of its members being degree holders and 20% holders of secondary school certificates) is much better in quality than the previous one and is therefore capable and eager to make government accountable to it. He said we would soon see it “taking us to task”. This is good news! We have long longed for a parliament that would take the government to task.
Challenges and Temptations
I am sure the President is rational, articulate and desirous that his name be associated with the successful laying down of the strong foundations needed by a new and federal Somalia. But I am not sure he fully appreciates the need for and the wisdom in having a head of state whose functions are ‘merely’ ceremonial. In Africa it is unthinkable to have a president who is devoid of real statutory powers except in such rare cases as Ethiopia and Somalia. That is why most, if not all, African presidents combine the functions of head of state and head of government and are ‘executive presidents’. In Somalia, however, we never had this tradition except under that long military dictatorship when power was concentrated in the hands of Siad Barre. That period apart, we have had from 1964 severe problems arising from splitting the two functions between two men who were not accommodating each other and were in fact pulling in opposite directions. And the problems proved fatal to our polity as they ushered in a military takeover which finally led to the collapse of the State itself.
While on the face of it a ceremonial presidency will not appeal to many people there is much to be said for it. The authority of such presidency is more moral than statutory. If I may quote myself, I have said before:
“Granted that in Africa, as in many other places, we do not understand, much less appreciate, the need for and the value of a ceremonial Head of State who combines vast knowledge, long political experience and the wisdom of age – a dignified person who is above the petty quarrels of politicians and has the skill and the temperament to smooth the ripples when required. Contrary to the general impression, a ceremonial president has more than a full plate of functions. He is not someone just sitting idle and drawing a fat salary and other generous perks of office. He has some real powers too. But these powers are moral in nature and emanate, not only from the prestige of his exalted office but also from his personality. He can influence the course of events through persuasive interventions when required; but he has to have a good sense of timing.” (See, ‘To Get Out of the Impasse Dump the Dummies’, in WardheerNews.com, June 11, 2011).
From the above description of the ideal person for a ceremonial president one might think that President Hassan at 57 is too young for the job and less qualified for it since he does not have much political experience. He has many years before him, God willing, before he can be seen as an elderly statesman, skilled in politics, blessed with the right temperament, and able to keep himself above the fray so as to be in a position to smooth the ripples when required. At his current age (the right age for prime minister) the President is youthful (he actually looks younger than his age) and seems fit as a fiddle. With these personal attributes, however, lurks the danger that he might find it irresistible to overstep the confines of his ceremonial functions and meddle in cabinet affairs, the signs of which we are beginning to see. President Hassan will be well advised to resist this temptation and intervene rarely, and only when circumstances so warrant. It is incumbent upon him to set an example to be followed for generations to come. That will be a great service to the country as this will set a tradition and future presidents will see themselves in his image.
We have to understand that in our system responsibility for policy making and implementation rests on the shoulders of the Prime Minister and his Cabinet. It is they, not the President, who appear before and are grilled by Parliament, to which they are accountable, not the President. It is they whose tenure depends on constantly maintaining the confidence of parliament. As for the President, he will be unfair to himself if he takes such a ponderous and crushing weight of responsibility for all facets of government upon his shoulders. The President, sitting at the top, should have a bird’s eye view of what goes on below so as to look down and intervene, albeit reluctantly, when things go wrong.
There is yet another vital area where the leadership of President Hassan will be tested and should bear fruits. The capital of the nation has, unlike any other city, special attractions and responsibilities and should welcome every citizen who wishes to make it his home. Let us not forget that Somalis of all clans and of all political stripes and persuations had, prior to the war, invested everything they had in it to the neglect of their own areas of origin. As our capital, Mogadishu was a bustling, beautiful, and growing cosmopolitan city. But the war has reduced it to a gigantic rubble that is an eyesore. By the Grace of God, there are veritable signs of recovery: the security situation is improving, albeit at a snail’s pace, State insitutions are slowly emerging from the ashes, people are tentatively returning to it (though not to their homes), the Turks have given it a face-lifting, and life in general is picking up. But private homes are forcibly occupied by people who consider them as war booties while the rightful owners are staying in hotels. Here too there have, admittedly, been encouraging signs and some homes have been returned to their owners through mediation and even by court action. But such cases are lamentably few and far between.
Spoliation of all property, not just residential homes, has been a distinctive feature of the civil war. Recovery has been slow, but in this regard I am sure presidential leadership and intervention will make a world of difference. Naturally, the President and Government will say that they do not condone the illegal retention of homes or any other property. What I think the President – himself a native of Mogadishu and a member of its native clan – should do, however, is to spearhead a campaign against those squatters designed to evict squatters through the heavy pressure of their subclans. Such a step will go a long way in promoting inter-clan confidence and real reconciliation. And the President will thus augment his own nationalist credentials.
Whilst on the topic of reconciliation by promoting trust I think the President should tour the country and introduce himself to his people. So far, he visited Hiran where he did not need to introduce himself, but he needs to pay a visit to Puntland where confidence building measures are most needed, and then to Kismayo where he also needs to clear some doubts. It is commonplace knowledge that his rapport with ‘Somaliland’ is excellent, but he should none the less pay it a visit as soon as feasible. So far the President has been visiting foreign lands which gives rise to the criticism that he goes there for the pomp and pageantry and the comfort of official hospitality while avoiding a rough and disagreeable internal tour which is very badly needed. He needs to carry the message of peace and unity to the country.
The tasks ahead are monumental and daunting, the resources almost non-existent, the nation is too divided and still distrusts those at the helm and the rumor mill (which should be constantly fought) is at work non-stop, and killing. I believe the President has allayed the fears of many Somalis who heard his speeches. But, actions are louder than words, and politicians in general often lose memory of their promises (How convenient!) and take a different course of action. President Hassan and his colleagues at the top of the political structure of our State have been in power for only a few months. In time their deeds – good and bad – will be displayed before our eyes. In the meantime, they will need all the help they can get.
Ismail Ali Ismail