follow-up on If Mayors Ruled Somalia

I received some excellent feedback on my post  “If Mayors Ruled Somalia” over the past week (the published version of it is now available as a Policy Brief for Nordic Africa Institute, at:; or check their main website at

Here is a summary of a few of the questions and feedback, and my responses:

If the international community starts throwing lots of money at municipalities, won’t that risk attracting all the wrong people and eliciting the same corrupt behavior we see at higher levels of politics in Somalia? Yes it will. One of the many reasons  municipalities have been effective is they have had modest levels of locally-generated tax money to work with, That has attracted fewer political hyenas, and it also meant local populations are more attentive to how funds are spent when it’s their tax dollars, not “someone else’s money.” External donors need to be very careful not to overwhelm these governments with too much money.

If funding and attention to cities and towns start to increase, will that not attract a power struggle between central and federal political leaders over authority to appoint mayors?  That has already happened, and could get worse if donors shift more attention to municipalities. Somali citizens and foreign supporters of Somalia need to urge federal and central government leaders to allow local communities to select their own mayors and city councils. Appointed officials coming from a distant capital are far less likely to be committed to the city and accountable to local citizens, and will enjoy little legitimacy.

What about the places where local leaders have been corrupt and repressive?   There are lots of these cases, hence the need to judge on a case by case basis.

How do you know municipalities have been  more effective in Somalia than other levels of government? I was limited to 2,000 for the Policy Brief and so could not go into much detail,  but can elaborate here. In the mid to late 1990s, I had several opportunities to conduct fieldwork on local level government in Somalia for the UN. Though the focus was supposed to be on regions, what I quickly discovered is that the most committed and effective governance was happening in towns. In Somaliland, the mayors and their staff in Boroma and Hargeisa were doing great things. Boroma had an underground piped water system (built in partnership with UNICEF, which figured out local governance partnerships early on) which the municipality ran and maintained by collecting fees; it had an office dedicated to land titles, with organized files; it had a committee to organize the market, so it was kept clean and everyone had to rent a space; it led a local volunteer effort to pave a main road. It was pretty impressive, The Mayor at the time was a diaspora returnee nicknamed “Chicago: who was all business, and really dedicated. Boroma residents had a strong sense of civic pride, as did their diaspora, which donated money for a public library and a hospital wing, and supported Amoud University there.  I was aware that much of this civic boosterism had clan connotations, as Boroma was and is mainly populated by a single clan, But still it was impressive.  And if you’re going to be clannish, being a booster and building a library is a lot better than other ways to express it.

Hargeisa’s municipality at the time was also impressive — in fact the Mayor and the city won awards for urban planning to cope with flood of returnees from Ethiopia. The Mayor was a no-nonsense figure who ran the city with the attention to efficiency and results that you’d expect of a successful businessman, which he was.

To the south, I encountered more examples of good city governance combined in some places with an impressive level of civic pride. Jowhar had a committee running an underground water system, using a hybrid arrangement of city officials, businesspeople, and elders, Beled Weyn could have its troubles as a city divided along clan lines, but the town officials relied on clan elders to take on regulatory tasks (determining the fair price per bulb of electricity in a context where a single business had a monopoly on a local power grid) and to ensure proportional allocation of jobs and contracts to keep the peace. Luuq’s town authorities managed to keep that town peaceful and orderly despite turbulent times after Al-Ittihad was driven out by Ethiopian forces. There, locals expressed a strong sense of being the people of Luuq (reer Luuq) that transcended clan affiliation and gave the city a sort of civic-mindedness and trust.

I could go on. The point is that some cities seemed to be the one place where day to day functional governance was taking place. Not perfect, and in some places (Kismayo, Bardhere, Buale, among others) local authorities were awful predators. But for every warlord in one location there was a mayor in another trying to deliver basic city services in partnership with elders, women’s market committees, clerics, and businesspeople.

Since that time, there have been additional cases of good municipal  governance in Somalia, giving me confidence that cities are a good place to build on for basic government services.


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