A view of downtown Mogadishu from a hotel rooftop on November 10, 2022.


Somalia’s private civil service endures in spite of state rebuilding

What you need to know:

  • To date, no Somali government has been able to devise a strategy to bring back business, including the establishment of manufacturing factories and plants.

Somalia was once a vibrant socialist society whose military leader, Siad Barre, thought he had the most effective civil service. Then, on January 26, 1991, northern rebels overthrew his government and forced him to flee.

Since then, any semblance of a civil service has been largely privatised. So why does privatisation persist in Somalia, despite concerted efforts to rebuild state institutions?

Well, it seems that everything with Siad Barre's fingerprints on it has been bombed. Schools, ports, roads, government buildings were all gone.

From that day in 1991, lawlessness continued for at least two years before warlords carved up territory. By the second anniversary of the collapse of the government, historians say, almost all government institutions had been looted or at least damaged.

The entire nation had no choice but to find a way to recover from the unimaginable losses, which included the disappearance of all national records, mostly from the colonial era.

Private initiative was a must if some services were to be provided, starting with what to eat and wear. 

Stranglehold on business

"Traders rushed to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to load boats with goods for Mogadishu. But since there were no port facilities, the traders pooled their resources to establish the natural port of Eel-Maan, about 25 km northeast of Mogadishu," Omar Abdulle Hayle, a marine expert who once surveyed the Somali coast, told Nation.Africa.

Before that, he says, the socialist government had a stranglehold on business, having established three commercial entities in the early 1970s, including the ente nazionale per commercio (ENC), the then National Trade Agency, shirkadda maacuunta (Utensils Company) and the Agricultural Development Agency (ADC), the latter to buy agricultural produce and sell it to better buyers.

Even cigarettes were produced, imported and sold by a state company. 

When they collapsed, their role was taken over by private traders. To date, no Somali government has been able to devise a strategy to bring back business, including the establishment of manufacturing factories and plants. 

Lack of profitability

The elephantine manufacturing plants such as the state-owned sugar companies, meat factories, fish processing plants and many others were huge and employed thousands, while the current private manufacturers are trivial but provide consumer goods such as sponge mattresses, furniture and mineral water, not meant to show the greatness of the military authority despite lack of profitability.

It is in the education sector that Somalia has seen perhaps the greatest change. Free public education disappeared overnight. Siad Barre's military regime had guaranteed free primary, secondary and university education, although some argued that the curricula offered limited opportunities.

One example of its fate was a video circulated by supporters of President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud as he sought re-election last year. Mohamud appeared in the video and said that he and a few friends had decided to negotiate with squatters occupying a public building belonging to the defunct National Tobacco Company, widely known as Monopolio, in the city's Shibis district. They turned it into a school and then a university.

Mohamud said: "In 1992, a year after the collapse of the central government, my friends and I decided to revive education and started the Mogadishu Primary and Secondary School. Later, we initiated what is now SIMAD University. 

Since then, thousands of schools and dozens of universities and colleges have sprung up in Somalia, all privately run. Students pay to attend. Somalia has one of the lowest literacy rates in Africa. According to a UN estimate, Somalia's overall literacy rate is 37.8 per cent, with 49.7 per cent of men better at reading and writing and 25.8 per cent of women. The poor remain marginalised. These institutions are part of a galaxy of educational networks.

During its tenure, the military government provided free health care and continued to improve the medical facilities it inherited from the post-independence civilian government of the 1960s.

With almost all health centres looted or destroyed, individuals began to set up facilities and offer services for a fee, including payment for a doctor's visit, a hospital bed and medication.

"In Mogadishu, the days of Digfeer, De Martino, Banadir and other government hospitals are over," said Hassan Aidarus, a resident of the city's Hamarweyne district.

The military regime controlled virtually all communication. But it was a strategy to filter bad talk or conversations through the postal services to the telephone networks. Journalists couldn't even send video and audio recordings outside the country without a supervisor's permission.

All this changed when private companies set up their own telephone companies. Olympic, Al-Barakat, Nationlink and others emerged. 

Private ownership expanded choice

But even in the costly privatisation that took place, some good came out of it. Competition stimulated these companies and many others that followed, such as Somtel and Hormuud, to provide diverse communications services, including some of the cheapest local and international calls and internet services in Africa, if not the world.

Private ownership not only removed deplorable government restrictions, it also expanded choice. 

Dozens of private airlines replaced the sole state-owned Somali Airlines, which had been the flagship carrier since 1964.

Until the collapse of General Siad Bare's regime, security had been the central function of the government, with laws stating that arms and ammunition should only belong to the state. This dictum disappeared when each clan warlord set up his own militia to provide security for his fellow clansmen.

The scenario created an open-air arms market known as Cirtoogte (a Somali word literally meaning "sky shooters"), an interpretation that weapons for sale had to be tested by firing into the sky.

In this way, state-guaranteed security is revived, making the need for warlords and the Cirtoogte arms market irrelevant in Somalia.

Soon, the government's job of issuing licences, ID cards and passports disappeared, allowing cunning people to emerge. One such man was Abdalla Shideeye.

Until recently, all previously issued documents were sold on the open market by Abdalla Shideeye's artisans, who operated from small kiosks in the middle of Bakara, the Somali capital's main commercial centre, and copied them elsewhere.  

In most parts of Somalia, services such as education, healthcare, communications, water and other essentials are so privately provided that the Horn of Africa has even abandoned its currency, by deed rather than by decree.