Ramadan is a time of self-reflection, purification, improvement and meaningful engagement between people and communities. It is also a time to organize discussions, debates and think about what is needed to go forward in many situations as a collective as most Muslims gather to pray late into the night after breaking their fast.
Somali politicians appear to have understood the political opportunities the Holy Month of Ramadan provides for their campaigning and many have been busy organizing community based iftars, attending functions and posting pictures of themselves engaging the public in other ways. Given that the expected, but not likely, 2020 one man one vote is only around the corner, it is arguable that these politicians who have already started engaging their potential voters and communities have got a head start. After all, politics is as much a show as an exercise in public persuasion and influence.
Public engagement is the cornerstone of Public Relations (PR), hence its name. In Somalia, given the prevailing oral tradition, people are constantly talking but how much of what is said is impactful and able to change the course of history or even an individual’s views or life? This question would be easy to answer if professional polling agencies and PR firms that measure impact existed to assist politicians, but they currently do not. So, what must a budding politician do to connect with his future voters? What must a sitting MP or Minister do to keep their seat? Simple, engage the public better and focus on the important issues in their constituencies.
Without doubt, achieving one person one vote in the short space of time left before the next election is most certainly challenging. Yet, politicians will still have to go through some process to be elected and no doubt this will include convincing their voters and constituents that they are the right choice. Many politicians, as mentioned earlier, have started this process but the effectiveness of their public engagement is questionable.
A key challenge for Somali politicians and aspirants is that they do not understand that once they are in the public eye or make their intentions to run for office clear, they are scrutinized continuously. The public want to get to know the individual to the point where they even ask them for financial assistance and support with finding work. While if the politician can do both of these without breaking the rules it is commendable, it is unlikely that they would be able to achieve this on a regular basis and for all their constituents. So, it is better for them to institute a process of regular communications with their wider voters and constituents as a matter of priority.
Currently, Somali politicians are known to focus on elite networks that they feel can influence the election process but as the process improves and expands, this short-sightedness will cost them dearly. MPs are chosen from geographic districts and it is here where the communication matters. For Ministers, there is the dual role of national minister responsible for and to the whole nation for a specific policy and local representative which makes excellent communication and strategic public relations twice as important. Listening to local elders, youth and the business community is sometimes even more important than meetings with the Prime Minister or President because grassroots activism can save the pressing national agenda including security, stability and commerce with public support and compliance.
The key ingredients to effective public engagement and communications for all politicians everywhere is Listening, Engaging and Acting in a timely manner (taking action). In Somalia, very often, this is done back to front and too late. Many times, what should be an exercise in public relations becomes a crisis management mess. However, this can change if all politicians and those aspiring MPs ask themselves:
WHO are my voters and constituents (audience)?
WHAT are their needs? WHAT can I offer?
HOW should I engage my voters or constituents?
WHEN/HOW can I act to address their issues?
Security does not always permit large public gatherings in Somalia, but the personal touch is equally as important as the social media, TV and radio engagements that most politicians favour. What would be even more effective is if the politicians went to their voters and engaged them in their own spaces, including town halls, mosques, restaurants, shopping centers and schools, to understand their lives better. The image of a politician holding a gathering in a hotel, lecturing a bored audience for hours on their achievements and leaving in their bullet proof car is among the most ineffective and hated by the public because it does not value them: it treats them like a disposable voting bank. People want to know politicians understand, care and can take actions to address their needs. Nobody wants to be used, even voters who are used to broken promises from politicians and policy makers.
Going forward, as Somalia stabilizes, and multiparty politics takes shape, the importance of effective public relations and strategic communications will increase. Somali voters are difficult to convince because they have been let down too many times in the past. Voters aside, the quality of Somali politics must also improve to increase the international respect for Somali institutions required to change people’s lives. Accordingly, effective strategic communications, public engagement and politicians’ awareness of the importance of both for good governance and democratic strengthening, are crucial.
Somali politicians are not short of words and their voters are among the most skeptical. It is often said that one gets what they deserve but this is not a status quo which is healthy and must be reversed as a matter of priority. A new politics built on respect, common endeavors and delivery is urgently needed. Therefore, public relations must mean more than sharing a few samosas during iftar or shaking hands after Eid prayers before rushing off in a bulletproof car. Public relations must mean just this; meaningful continuous relations between the public, their representatives and institutions.
By Liban Obsiye & Sakariye Hussein
Liban Obsiye: email@example.com
Sakariya Hussein: Sakariya100@hotmail.co.uk