Good Governance and Somalis?

By: C/fataax Saciid

August 29, 2005  

Make it your constant endeavour to improve cultivation and to govern well; for understand this truth: the kingdom can be held by the army, and the army by gold; and gold is acquired through agricultural development; and agricultural development through justice and equity.  Therefore be just and equitable [1].  

An 11th century Muslim Persian Prince’s advice to his son

Only governments can raise or lower the level of nations – Voltaire

Men and women become civilized, not in proportion to their willingness to believe, but in proportion to their readiness to doubt.

Henry Louis Mencken, 1880-1956

Good governance and Somalis?  Scholars of Somali studies who read this title will immediately imagine of the warlordism, clan-warfare, famine, anarchy, and the longest sea-coast of Africa there.  But has good governance been a topic in Somali scholarship outside the present-day reality which is almost tragicomic?  For what could be more poised to doubt explanations given to the present reality of the Somalis than Professor Said Samatar’s account on Somalis when he states that they are:

Utterly lacking the notion, basic to human decency, of fixed loyalty – loyalty to anything high or low , sacred or secular, and that, on the contrary, the principle of greedy, galloping personal gain tends to override all else among us Somalis.  Worse still, the concept of personal responsibility or political accountability seems to be thoroughly missing from the Somali weltanschauung, or worldview; and therefore, there is no social mechanism in our culture to serve as a check on an individual’s – or group’s –rapacious excesses or to restrain malcontents from wreaking havoc on the helpless bovine populace [2].

Yet, Somali governance subject matters; references and associations are vast in Somali websites [3].  This paper, for example, will attempt to shed light on the relations between Somalis and governance: on the conception which Somalis have (i.e. bits of information, observations, and expressions) about good governance.  It will be best to begin with the dawn of the Somali nation-state (i.e. 1960) and bring my narrative down to the new millennium Regional State of Puntland.

The Somali nation-state experienced immense socio-political changes in its three decades of existence.  From its inauguration, the “rehabilitation of the self-respect” of the Somalis took several forms including mainly various forms of glorification of the history and culture of the Somalis [4].  The new-born State acquired ambitious and self-confident elites who pursued Somali Wayn doctrine which brought historical glories and Western notion of nation-state together.  This fed on the mythical memories of the Somali nomads’ bash bash iyo barwaaqo scenarios; and just like its counterpart and rival, Ethiopia, Somali elites viewed its culture, religion, and language as its symbol of national unity, all the more so in the context of Somali Wayn.  So, what went wrong?  What was so different in Somalia?  What made the Somali government with nationalism so catastrophic, while its neighbour survived while promoting “Ethiopia First” as their national rituals?  Why the leadership in Somalia showed little interest of the tide of political, economic, and administrative reforms that was taking place in every corner of Africa in the 1980s?

Political independence, in the form of the end of British and Italian colonial Somalilands and newly emergent Somali Republic boundaries, was the hallmark of July 1st, 1960.  In spite of visible political changes, Somalia remained a traditional society.  Clan-loyalty, familial bonds, and mutual dependence of extended family members are the traits of the Somali society.  The government organs thus reflected as mirror for clan-families to the extent that these State organs regenerate themselves as clan properties, lacking any tangible economic terms to the State.  This was a significant characteristic in the new-born republic of Somalia (1960-1969), where over 80% of the population lived in rural areas.  Feelings of clannism that surfaced in the new administration in the form of nationalism, therefore, were expressions of kin cohesion and not national unity.  Since 1963, more than half of Africa’s civilian governments have been supplanted by military; and Somalia was one of those many African States that were not immune from what Samuel Finer refers as the “Man on the Horseback[5].

At the time of Siyaad Barre’s era (1969-1990), the revolutionary military junta put particular emphasis on the previous civilian governments’ (1960-1969) mistreatments on Somalis.  They said that certain clans dominated the State and government in Somalia; and they came to get rid off this mischievousness and corrupt civilian administrations.  Somalis put these military men to the test; and within a decade, the junta themselves proved extremely inefficient in good governance.  Members of the President’s clan tended to promote themselves to positions of authority.  Again, a clan ruled the nation-state, by making few allies with other clan elites, to the disadvantage of the majority 

In the beginning, the rise of Somali Wayn consciousness, as a result of Somali nationalism, appeared to have political, economic, and social momentum to carry Somalis well into the future – whether Somali Wayn is the result or cause of Somali nationalism is still debatable.  European colonial legacy and Ethiopian expansionism also appear as factors that challenged the administrative cohesiveness of the Somalis.

Most Somalis consider the current situation as one of the saddest epochs in Somali history.  This situation will allow us, the Somali intelligentsia, to express our grievances and to discover that our experience demands a thoroughly investigation and justice.  Clan enmity, personal ambitions, incompetence, misadministration, Somali Wayn ambitions, and foreign involvement are the few that have been cited as responsible for the painful and costly Somali experience.  However, I would argue that the leadership in Somalia showed little understanding to the nature of viable and good government; and to discuss the failure or lack of good governance without criteria is senseless.  The essential elements of good governance, which include fair and full participation in governance by all, human rights protection, gender equality, development projects, political parties, and law and order, were missing in the Somali administrative agenda.  This failure to grasp the significance of good governance and its vital components set Somalis to experience immense social, political, and economic cataclysm.  

It is also a fact to notice that Somali rulers’ lack of good governance, presenting serious challenges to geographical and political integrity of the Somalia Proper, now swallowed all tendencies of Somali nationalism, long assumed to have achieved unassailable Somali Wayn identity and cohesion.  Even those Regional States that have emerged after the collapse of the Somali State (and the end of the Cold War), and begun to cultivate “distinct” political identity, show susceptibility to disintegration due to bad governance.

Puntland Experience

Seven years after its creation, Puntland Regional Administration has failed to form a good government in any meaningful sense.  It is administered by a handful of men who could not effectively rule, govern, or respond to the demands of their subjects.  Functions of their Administration lack justice, proper maintenance of law and order, and capabilities to collect revenues from all parts of the Regional State.  A combination of elite incompetence, inexperience, and clan rivalry will probably make Puntland experiment a catastrophe.  On paper, however, it has been a model for several ambitious emerging regional states in southern Somalia, although Puntland has been administered badly, emptied of viability, and diminished its base of stability.  Now, Puntland declined in importance that even the International Community and its NGOs, judge its merits in largely negative terms. 

At the time of its formation, the International community conceived Puntland as a vehicle which would facilitate the bottom-up approach journey towards one Somali nation-state. To the International Community, this approach, in essence, might permeate to the rest of southern Somalia and might become a blue-print of subsequent regional formations in Somalia.  Nonetheless, there was certain expectation that Puntland Administration should develop as minimal standard of governmental qualities directed at avoiding clan conflicts and the total break down of links with people in general and the realization of more positive forms of equitable mutual cooperation.  Regrettably, the lessons that one can draw at this point is that Puntland trend appears to have been poor administrative qualities.  The functional qualities of Puntland Administration has been impaired by the dogged refusal (or simply inability) of the ruling elites to delegate its material resources in a fair and meaningful way.  These dysfunctional administrative qualities are sufficient enough to explain the manner of the Puntland evolution.

As Puntland economy is currently in state of non-viable situation, its administration looks to tax heavily on import and export goods alone, as the real source of revival.  Thus, seaports and airports are seen to offer the main solution to many of the financial problems confronting Puntlanders.  Many Somali websites have identified the informal practices that are present throughout Puntland Administration [6].  Here, informal practices refer to corrupt practices that subvert more than contribute to Puntland economy, goals, and general interest [7].  Most people generally wanted the abolition of corruption and the establishment of organizational integrity that are capable to sustain competence in revenue tasks and can enforce good strategies to the general interest.  To them, as Muslims, corruption is an unmitigated evil; it could be a curse, outraging everybody [8].  However, when enlightened leaders are in charge of their affairs, they believe, a great boon and an instrument for emancipation pervade in their lives.

In more than one way, the future of Puntland leadership depends on how the past influences the future.  The ongoing debacle of the Somali nation-state, the legacy of “one-party-system”, military men, corruption, and among other things are clearly the central tasks facing Puntland Administration.  For the moment, some of the complexities of the past, particularly the question of how to tackle Isbaaro (road-blocks used to extort money from civilians) phenomenon and maintain law and order, emphasize almost all involvements in administration.  Central to dealing with Isbaaro is, of course, an integral part of good governance and democratization process, or at least, a process that leads to good governance – it reduces the great confusion and uncertainty that was created by the collapse of the Somali State.  There is no doubt that under Puntland Administration immense success has been achieved in improving road safety, particularly along the road that connects the seaport of Bossaaso and Galkacayo – i.e., orderly administration that was lacking in the early 1990s was established and relieved people from Isbaaro brute.  With the new administration, people initially felt that they have acquired a government commensurate with good governance.  Widely perceived to wield extraordinary leadership and organizational integrity, the new administration’s top officials are assumed to launch the processes of making and implementing policies of good governance.

The Administration’s dramatic “Isbaaro-clearing” achievements also provoked debate in all Puntland about its future.  Some hardliners advocated establishing Puntland as a separate, independent State.  But Cabdullahi Yusuf, who at that moment won the devotion of many Puntlanders for his courage and military prowess, urged Puntland’s immediate participation to the Somali Wayn drawings.  Accepting the traditional cad iyo caano of welcome from Puntlanders, Yusuf established his headquarter in the virtually desolate town of Garoowe.  His dream became reality during his leadership in Puntland – being elected, late last year, as the president of the Transitional Federal Government of Somalia.

However, his arrival and Regional State enterprise presented a dismal appearance in other aspects of governance.  Corruption became a matter of common occurrence in the administration.  Corruption was not confined to the lower level; among top officials are undoubtedly greater in scope.  All forms of corruption were rife, including the usage of government resources for political advantages and personal benefits to relatives, friends, and clan-affiliates.  Hiring civil servants was commonly based on political patronage and clannism.  These widespread informal practices throughout Puntland made certain clans more pronounced in dominance, and developed familial bonds to mirror the Administration’s patronage network.  It also radicalized the inter-clan political struggle and aggravated the crisis of legitimacy for the rulers.  What is more important is that informal practice always creates an extreme condition of political uncertainty, whereby people tend to fall back on existing networks of clannism.  And we know that the resurfacing of sub-national feelings breaks the illusions of national unity and furnishes civil wars for an already fragmented society. 


On an African scale, the re-emergence of “Strong Man/and his Clan” authoritarian rule is the frequent result of failed efforts to curb corruption and nepotism.  In the view of the uncertain outcomes of Puntland evolution, this paper focused on pre-conditions to democracy and ways in which a practical regional administration can be accomplished.  After all, democratization processes bear considerable resemblance to the tasks of good administrative qualities.  The Somali experience (i.e. the collapse of the Somali State and its tragic aftermath) has developed a sense of good governance along many possible paths/dreams, including formations of Regional States such as Puntland.  It is also true that Somali experience encouraged in the political set up of the creation of self-styled independent State: Somaliland.  Both Puntland and Somaliland paths become the legitimizing principle of their elites, who acted their dreams as good governance strategy as well as a brake against political transformation for the older order.  Yet, these dreams have been partially shattered by the elites’ ineptitude and unwillingness to accommodate other themes and processes of good governance, such as accountability and proportional representation.

On a global scale, the disintegration of the Soviet Union which prompted the end of the Cold War era dramatically changed the relations among African States and foreign non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and intergovernmental organizations (IGO).  Many Western donor agencies invented new strategies to administer their foreign aid to the developing countries.  From early 1990s, these Western donors underlined the relationship between the quality of governance and economic development.  New terminologies were introduced into the foreign aid package: “sustainable development”, “good governance”, “popular participation”, “proportional representation” etc – although neither of these terms are clearly understood/ defined.  Puntlanders should therefore put all their efforts to solve problems of corruption and rehabilitate its political authority.  Most importantly, Puntlanders should be aware of the fact that the premises of good governance in Somalia have had significant consequences; and the International Community that deals with Somalis tend to rely not only on representations made by government officials, but they also consider other factors in the Somali political processes as well as features of the Somali civil society that are simply beyond government control.

Finally, much of this paper’s argument will come as no surprise to those who have followed Roobdoon Forum’s previous literature (some posted on Somali websites) which focused on Somalis.  Roobdoon Forum’s research on clan political process and Somali leadership as well as Puntland case studies on a variety of social issues, from district council system to police misconduct, have stressed the importance of local/clan politics and its complex interaction with various regional and international political decision making.  Should the premises of good governance not fulfilled or proven false, the realities of governance in Puntland will severely handicap both the Somali Peninsula and its surroundings in attempts to deal with the crisis relating to Global Security and development.  Therefore, Roobdoon Forum stresses that the role of political actors should not be neglected, since they have taken upon themselves a mission as “managers” of Somali socio-political and economic life.   

Roobdoon Forum

Toronto, Canada  


[1] Kay Ka’us b. Iskandar, Qabus-nama, ed. R. Levy, (London, 1951), 125.  See Also: Nizam al-Mulk, The Book of Government or rulers for the King [Siyasat-nameh] (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1960).  Nizam al-Mulk (d.1092) was the Grand vizier of the Muslim Seljuk dynasty in Persia; he articulated the above mentioned ancient Persian motto of social justice known as the Circle of Justice.   

[2] Said S. Samatar, “Unhappy Masses and the Challenge of Political Islam in the Horn of Africa”: See also: .

[3] See:

[4] Claude Ake, “The Congruence of Political Economies and Ideologies in Africa,” in The Political Economy of Contemporary Africa, edited by Peter Gutkind and Immanuel Wallerstein (Beverly Hills, Calif.:  Sage Publication, 1985), 233.

[5] See the title of Samuel Finer’s book: The Man on Horseback: the Role of the military in Politics (London: Pall Mall Press, 1962).

[6] See allpuntland news, July 21st, 2005: .  Waxaad kaloo aragtaa dhammaadkii bishii la soo dhaafay ee July, maqaalada laga qoray hadalkii uu yiri Wasiirka Maaliyadda ee Puntland, Cali Yusuf Gaagaab, oo uu ku sheegay in ay jiraan dad aan shaqayn oo mushahar iska qaata iyo dad laba mushahar qaata. Isagana uu doonaya in uu la dagaalamo musuqmaasuqaasi.

[7] Using M. W. Reder’s definition, corruption refers to the unanticipated and unaccepted failure of an agent, inimical to the interest of the principal.  See M. W. Reder, “Corruption as a Feature of Governmental Organizational: Comment,” Journal of Law and Economics, Vol. 18, No. 3, (Dec., 1975): 607 

[8] See the Noble Qur’an (013:025): “…as for those who make mischief in the land, upon them shall be curse and they shall have the evil (issue) of the abode.”