by Abdiweli M. Ali, Ph.D.
Saturday, July 28, 2007

 

City of Bossaso – Puntland

 

Last year I had the opportunity to visit the Puntland State of Northern Somalia. At around 4:30 PM, the small plane we rode from Nairobi landed at a small airstrip outside Bossaso. The last time I visited Bossaso was the same time but six years earlier. This time Bossaso was different, visually breathtaking and jarringly inexplicable; graceful and beautiful Somali women wearing colorful and religiously conservative clothes; teeming markets full of goods from all over the world, a convoy of camels, sheep and goats, on their way to the seaport; sheikhs and religious men in loin-cloths flocking to the mosques at the serenading sound of the mu’adin; a procession of lorries loaded with goods inching through crowded bazaars; and amid all this, a gut-wrenching impoverished beggars on every sidewalk. Somalis from all stripes and from all the shades of the clan spectrum are ubiquitously ever-present; and among these are those from Southern Somalia and Eastern Ethiopia who came to Bossaso because of its relative safety and the possibility of a dangerous sea-journey to Yemen (Tahriib in the Somali and Arabic Jargon).

At the outset one would have thought that the harsh desert environment would have conspired with economics to give Puntland a particularly weak hand relative to the agriculturally- rich south. The false perception of Puntland as an inhabitable, isolated desert is perpetuated by the policy of neglect and indifference of its former politicians and intellectuals. They called it Gaariwaa (literally the inaccessible). Puntland was an economic periphery, unimportant in the schema of the country’s regional economics.  However, all that had changed when the fall of Siad Barre tipped Somalia into an incessant violence and hostility.

 

The resilience and optimism of the people of Puntland allowed them to overcome the most pernicious economic problem that could face the most vulnerable people on earth. It was their courage, determination, realism, and their sense of responsibility that allowed these impoverished and disempowered people to transform a once small isolated seaport of less than 5000 inhabitants into one of the safest and busiest business centers in Somalia, with over 250,000 inhabitants. Today, Bossaso is the third or the fourth largest city in Somalia. A good number of the inhabitants of Puntland lost their livelihood in the south; however, they quickly became realistic of their situation and instead of mystically accepting their fate decided to change it. They pulled themselves up by their bootstraps and dealt their unforgiving situation, gradually and fitfully. Not only did they transform the economic landscape of Puntland, they also welcomed others from all corners of Somalia who found themselves in the same predicament. They literally moved mountains. The small towns of Garowe, Galcaio, Las Anod, and Bossaso became cosmopolitans overnight with all the modern day necessities.

 Corruption In Puntland  

But beneath this veneer of resilience, the Puntland economy is becoming increasingly fragile because of the lack of a responsible and accountable government. Corruption and poor governance became Puntland’s venal sins, and the deepest of its current malaise. The corruption is so entrenched and broad-based that it seems nothing can be done about it. Even honest leaders (a rare disposition in today’s Puntland), would have felt as if they were tossing pebbles at a giant. The government of Puntland is basically inept and corrupt, and thereby unable to perform its most basic functions. Resources are squandered on an epic scale to the point that it grinds the spirit of the helpless taxpayers of Puntland. The extent of corruption is harrowing to contemplate and difficult to even fathom how extensive it is. The embezzlement and the pilfering of the taxpayer’s money became a shameless and a criminal activity.

 

The infrastructure of Puntland although much better than in many other parts of Somalia is in a fairly decrepit state. The expenditure on education is non-existent so much so that going to a public school in Puntland is a hit-and-miss affair. Similarly, the lack of public health facilities kept the majority of the population of Puntland bereft of basic health services. The total expenditure allocated for education and health is less than 5 percent of the state budget. This is an indication of misplaced priorities and a political culture that attaches no value to the health and education of its populace.

 

The Puntland state-employees are not paid for months and are extremely demoralized. The lack of payment pushed them into a spiral of unending indebtedness and destitution.  I visited the Ministry of Finance in Garowe at around 11.00 AM to talk to the Budget Director about the Puntland budgetary processes.  The building was empty. The security guard and one of the custodians were chatting in the hallway. The situation reminded me of the old Soviet worker’s joke: “if you pretend to pay us, we will pretend to be working.”

 When I talked to the locals about the state of government affairs, almost everybody invariably reacted with hoots of derision. Speaking with dignity, eloquence, and clarity about the predicament of their beloved state, I heard an earful of how the people of Puntland are used and abused by their political leaders.  However, when I tried to address the people’s concerns to the few politicians I met, their responses reflected platitudes and clan prejudices, with little objective explanation of the state affairs.  In the sulphurous atmosphere of Puntland, it is hard to sift facts from fantasy, however, I could easily tell the difference between their spin and the reality on the ground.  They were full of themselves and their political storylines were filled with manipulated facts and fabricated fictions, in other words, an unadulterated nonsense. While the economic and fiscal problems of Puntland are creeping over by stealth, these politicians seem insulated in the comfort of their villas that they seem scarcely to have even noticed the problem.  Why Are They Disappointed with The President? 

President Adde Muse – The people of Puntland needed change – This president has failed to show real leadership


The election of Adde Musse for the presidency of Puntland and the peaceful and uneventful transfer of power is hailed as unprecedented in the recent Somali history and since the good old days of Aden Abdulle Osman and the late Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke. For the last nine years, Puntland went through many painful twists, turns, and prevarications, and even a costly civil war. President Adde’s accession to power was welcomed as a breath of fresh air. The people elected him not because of his political acumen but because he was the new guy in the block and the only face card in the deck.

People has known Adde as click-the-heels, salute, and get-the-job-done guy.

Boots with brains, or so they thought!

As much as his election to the presidency of Puntland was a test of character, Mr. Adde failed it miserably. He suddenly became the leader that lost his allure. The people of Puntland needed change but the President has so far showed only a fair bit of hand-wringing and some moralizing rhetoric, but precious little action. The President himself talks about the corruption that permeated Puntland. However, with all the loud rhetoric, it is his actions or the lack thereof that carries the day.  He fancies himself as a straight shooter. Actually, he became a rank opportunist. It is true that he sometimes has tin ears and a sharp tongue, but when it comes to real practice, where the rubber hits the road, the President has failed to show real leadership. He had an enormous political capital to effect change but he squandered it.

As far as I know, nobody is accusing President Adde himself of partaking any type of corruption, but his complicity and complacency of it undermines his moral leadership. To be fair to President Adde, Puntland’s troubles did not show up suddenly with his ascension to power.  Most of the culprits of corruption are holdouts from the earlier regimes; corrupt officials who should have been weeded out longtime ago. Instead of sacking them, his cabinet is dominated by the same hangovers of the last nine years including all the poster boys of sleaze and corruption. It was simply a shuffling of a pack of thieves. His cosmetic change of nominating a thief cut from the same cloth of the one he replaces will not make a shard of difference in the kleptocratic government (a government of thieves) of Puntland.  By keeping this coterie of self-gratifying rascals, Mr. Adde perpetuated the emasculation of the Puntland’s body politic of the previous regime.  Hence, the pecking order remained intact. Moreover, the president’s dubious dealings and political double-talk creates confusion and misunderstanding. The president should say what he means and should mean what he says. Saying one thing and doing something else is the height of hypocrisy and a sign of weak leadership. The discrepancy between the president’s words and his deeds shattered our false presumption of Mr. Adde’s virtues and infallibility. The people of Puntland may not be ready yet to throw out the baby, but the change of the bathwater is long overdue.

 The Goons in the Parliament and the Putrid Behavior of the So-called Press

All the financial mismanagement and bad governance are also partly due to the fragile and the feckless parliament of Puntland. The parliament seems to have no sway whatsoever over the government and has already lost the trust and the confidence of the people of Puntland. The recent wrangle over the former speaker’s corrupt practices is a clear indication of what to expect from this hopeless, corrupt, and defunct institution. All that the government has to do is toss few juicy bones to these salivating vultures and then continue their unlawful and illegal transgressions unabated. And so goes the oversight responsibility of the supposedly self-appointed parliament. By shirking their oversight responsibility, they reduced themselves to squabbling irrelevance. An American politician once stated “if foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, these guys must be great souls indeed.” This aptly pertains to the current parliament of Puntland.

 The press in Puntland also seems to be toeing the government’s line. The press should not be beholden to anyone and should have kept the government in check. Although they sometimes try to dance with the people, they most often serve the government either out of fear or out of sheer ignorance of the putative role a media plays in sustaining a democracy and safeguarding democratic transformations (if we can at all call Puntland a democracy).  A Cautionary Note The formation of Puntland should have created substantive outcomes for the people of Puntland.  It should have offered all the relevant forces real opportunities to improve their material and moral well-being.  The biggest enemy of Puntland as a political entity is a performance failure.  If it can’t deliver, it might not be worth having it.   The politicians in Puntland seem impervious to the deteriorating situation of the state affairs. To that old play on Kipling’s lines: “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs, you have probably misunderstood the situation.” They misunderstood the situation and they should not be surprised later when they reap the whirlwind of their heartless behavior. The wounds that hurt the most may be the ones that are self-inflicted.  The people of Puntland are running out of patience, and unfortunately they may soon run out of political options too.   


Abdiweli M. Ali, Ph.D.

Assistant Professor of Economics

Department of Commerce

College of Business Administration

Niagara University, NY 14109

amali@niagara.edu

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