Launching Federalism Dialogue in Baidoa

Last week, three colleagues from the Heritage Institute for Policy Studies (HIPS) and I spent three days in Baidoa, the capital city of the southwestern Baay region of Somalia. For all of us, this was our first visit to this part of the country. The Baidoa trip was the first-leg of a six-city field research titled National Dialogue on Federalism. The institute is leading a national discourse on the complex issue of federalism. In addition to Baidoa, HIPS researchers plan to visit Garowe, Kismaayo, Baladweyn and Galkayo.

The aim of this flagship research project is to support national reconciliation and a peaceful process of state-building by harnessing and amplifying local voices on decentralization options. Specifically, this project has four key objectives:

1. Inform and influence federalism policy in Somalia in a way that reduces the risk of conflict, promotes reconciliation, social cohesion and equitable sharing of natural resources.

2. Enhance public understanding of federalism so that citizens could make informed decisions on decentralized governance and local control.

3. Foster a broad-based public dialogue on federalism and constitutional review process.

4. Harness and amplify the voices of local communities in the process of state-building and formation of federal member states in Somalia.

We were excited about the prospect of finally visiting Baidoa Janaay (Paradise) as the city was affectionately referred to long before it was mislabeled as the ‘City of Death’, due to the 1992 famine. We, however, were a bit apprehensive about our adventuresome excursion. For one, we were unsure about the security situation. The fact that none of us spoke the distinct Maay dialect was another concern particularly when we wanted to facilitate a dialogue on an important topic such as federalism. Moreover, the issue of federalism – the topic we were trying to gauge citizens views – has generally been a controversial topic; in the recent past, federalism was a point of contention among the residents of Baidoa as some were working on the creation of six-region state whereas others backed by the UN and the federal government focused on the establishment of three-region state.

Because of the able hands of Mohamed Ali ‘Kalaay’, the president of the University of Southern Somalia, our visit exceeded our expectations. We were hosted by GREDO, one of the longest serving NGOs in the city and invited to the federalism dialogue over 50 participants comprising all segments of society.

The discussion began with a short description of our project followed by a presentation about the finding of our previous research on the topic – Decentralization Options for Somalia. Then the participants were broken into small groups and embarked on a spirited dialogue on the issue on decentralization in general and federalism in particular. After 90 minutes of informed discussion, each group presented their views on the federalism debate. We concluded the dialogue with a short survey complementing our research and soliciting more input from the participants to inform our ongoing research.

During the discussion almost everyone with the exception of the HIPS team spoke with the Maay dialect, which at the outset can come across as a distinctly different language from the ‘Maxaa’ dialect the rest of Somalis speak. However, upon concentration (as everyone was using it and we had no option but to listen attentively) we realized, the Maay dialect is discernable to us, at least seventy percent. All the participants also spoke the ’Maxaa’ dialect and were happy to switch gears if our gaze seemed a bit confused or if we asked to explain phrases and idiomatic expressions.

Moreover, even though the issue of federalism has been contentious, there was no tension in the hall; everyone seemed genuinely contented to contribute to the discussion. I heard as much diverse views on the topic as I often hear in other parts of Somalia.

Visiting Baidoa without the famous local sightseeing would have been a missed opportunity. At night, we noticed the city was much cooler than Mogadishu. We noticed the ever-present long and beautiful minarets of mosques (no wonder this region is known for prevalence of memorizers of the Qur’an). Some of us visited nearby farms and collected fresh fruits (Saytuun). Camel milk was in abundance. We drank so much fresh and yogurt-like (dhanaan) camel milk one colleague opined, “I surely replenished my calcium intake for the reminder of the year!” We brought back containers of fresh honey (which the region is known for) and some of us picked up few Maay words.

Crucially, we forged new friendships and widened our institutional and individual networks. We were amazed (and humbled) by how well the Heritage Institute is known and respected in Baidoa. One of the most recurring questions I heard was “where is Abdi Aynte?” and “next time you come back, make sure he comes along!’ I wondered, if he had been sneaking into the city when I thought he was presenting papers in world capitals!

Though the facade of the city was far from its famed and former paradise self, it definitely shed the depiction of the City of Death. The positive spirit of the old Baidoa Janaay was clearly there. The welcoming and the easygoing nature of the people is Baidoa’s biggest strength and it is also what made the city great in the past. The all-encompassing embrace my colleagues and I were afforded will forever be ingrained in our hearts.

Abdirashid Hashi, is the Deputy Director at the Heritage Institute for Policy Studies(HIPS).

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