Somalia’s has been a story of many twists and turns. But now a stable government is a sign of better times ahead. We speak to Mohamed Keynan, Permanent Secretary, Office of the Prime Minister, to find out how Somalia’s government is working to tackle the challenges ahead.
Mohamed Keynan is no ordinary Permanent Secretary.
Of course, his peers in governments around the world have their own set of issues to navigate, but few share the challenges that Keynan faces on a daily basis. They don’t, for example, have to worry about government employees being paid on time, or fellow citizens being able to live in peace and harmony. But then again, they are not operating in a country that is only now emerging from 25 years of state collapse and a shattered economy, one marked by poverty, famine and recurring violence.
Keynan, though, is not one for looking back. Instead, he prefers to focus on a future that he believes will be shaped not by the unrest and difficulties of yesteryear, but one where communities have come together anew in increasing cooperation and prosperity. His optimism is contagious – and compelling.
“A visitor to Somalia today would find a country that is experiencing a tremendous amount of change,” he points out. “Social and economic changes are underway, as well as a significant wave of political activism and democratisation, underpinned by significant debate about public policy issues like education and how people can take care of their family and friends. Our country has suffered enough. Somalis have now experienced what life under a permanent government is like and they don’t want to go back.”
Stabilising and securing
Six years ago, Somalia reached a turning point with the establishment of permanent political institutions and a new federal government. Before then, the country was divided and had little or no clear path to reconciliation and unification. Rival warlords vied for control, a civil war was rampant, and ordinary Somalis could only look with envy at the progress made by neighbouring states such as Ethiopia and Kenya. The new government, however, delivered the necessary stability for recovery and development to start to take root.
Since then, Somalia has undergone a peaceful transition of power following the 2017 presidential election and is also charting a new course thanks to its first National Development Plan (NDP) in 30 years. The NDP aims to accelerate socio-economic transformation through priorities that include achieving a secure environment, more inclusive politics and reconciliation; reduced abject poverty; the continued reestablishment of the Somali National Armed forces; and many more.
But for Keynan, whose position as permanent secretary to Prime Minister Hassan Ali Khaire gives him extensive oversight of activities across government, such targets will only become a reality if the government and the people remain closely aligned. If not for him, the divisions that have sprung up between governments and citizens in other parts of the world could easily have crept in. Instead, he is focusing on bridging any gaps that might start to take shape. “I think there is a recognition that if we want to sustain what has been achieved in the last four years, then we need to have a government that has legitimacy with the people it serves,” he says.
Keynan’s approach is focused on the foundations of government and ensuring they work well – starting with guaranteeing that public servants are just that: servants of the public. “We are seeking to re-create the State – and trying doing so by focusing on more accountable, responsive Government and with public servants in posts that can deliver public services reliably,” he says.
“And so for a considerable period of time, we have sought to combat all forms of mismanagement to ensure that public resources are better administered. Doing this ensures that government is more accountable, more regularly to the people it’s trying to serve. This may seem like a simple objective for many countries, but for us, the context is quite specific, and thus reconstituting this objective with a more robust emphasis on trust, as we recover from decades of state collapse and conflict, carries particular significance. Ultimately, our legitimacy depends on us understanding that we have to do everything possible to ensure that the public receives the services they have every right to demand.”
The multiple targets set out in Somalia’s NDP portend a busy and demanding future for Keynan and his colleagues, but he is clear that there is no time to waste. It is crucial, he believes, for the new government to maintain its momentum. “We found a lot of enthusiasm and a lot of hope from the Somali people for a new government,” he says. “This has meant that the new administration has some breathing room. They now have an opportunity to take advantage of the public’s willingness to go in a different direction, and so it was a good experience“.
So, with this in mind, how is the government going about implementing its proposals and keeping the public onside? Keynan is keen to stress that expectation management and transparency are crucial. “In any country, when new governments come in people always have high expectations, and these must be met,” he says.
“But there is a huge gap between what government can actually do, and the expectations the public has of their government. Fortunately, the prime minister, as well as President Farmaajo have done a good job of communicating what can be achieved, as well as trying to explain the differences between expectations and reality. As a result, I think the public recognises that the leadership is very much aware of the demands of the public. Bear in mind that this doesn’t always happen in an environment that is new to democratisation and that the government and the public are not always on the same page.”
To illustrate his point, he goes on to highlight two examples of where implementation efforts have been focused. “One is making sure that people who work for the government are actually paid and paid regularly for them to be able to take care of their families,” he says.
“And the second is a programme that focused on employment for young people. Several thousands of young adults around the country have been employed in small-scale infrastructure and environmentally friendly projects. This is a recognition that we have to respond to the demands of the public for more job opportunities and employability, particularly for our youth, who make up a large majority of the population – 70% being under the age of 30.”
From steps to strides
So, what’s next for Somalia? Clearly, numerous challenges litter its horizon. Conflict is ongoing in some of its territories, more than half of the population live in poverty, and although famine was averted after the severe drought in 2017, it nonetheless hampered GDP growth and led to extensive food insecurity.
All that being said, Keynan remains positive that his country has turned a corner. And by focusing on the basics, he and his colleagues are laying essential foundations that will enable growth and development for the future. “People want their governments to do some things, but the main priority is ensuring that they can access basic public services,” he says. “They also want the people who are serving them to be accountable, attentive and responsive to their needs – and these are the two areas where we have been focusing most of our attention.”
But most important, he concludes, is nurturing trust between the public and government. “I think the future of this country depends on the public believing and trusting that those in power are there to serve and prioritise the people’s needs,” he says. “This is the legitimacy that government in Somalia depends on.”
Let’s hope that legitimacy – so elusive and hard to pin down – remains a constant thread in the evolution of Somalia in the years ahead.
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