HE minister sacked over alleged controversial comments

Speculation is continuing over the reasons for the sudden dismissal of Somalia's Minister of Education, Culture and Higher Education Abdulrahman Taher Osman following comments he is alleged to have made about the non-recognition of sub-standard universities in the country.

Prime Minister of Somalia, Hassan Ali Khairi, dismissed his minister on 26 July, only 15 months after Osman took office. The axing coincided with the end of the annual conference hosted by the Somali National University on Higher Education in Post-Conflict Societies.

A statement announcing the dismissal was broadcast on the same day through the state's Radio Mogadishu by Deputy Minister of Information, Adam Ishaq, according to the Somali National News Agency.

Abdul Rahman Mahmoud, the minister of state for education, will take over the ministry until the appointment of another person, the statement said.

Although the statement gave no reasons for the sacking, local reports speculate the reason lies in Osman's comments made the day before his axing that the Ministry of Education does not recognise all the country’s universities because many do not meet requisite standards. Such institutions include the Ummah 'Nation' University (Somali National University), the supreme council of which is headed by Somali's president, Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo.

However, in an interview with the Somali National News Agency, Osman denied declaring non-recognition of the country's universities, including the Somali National University.

‘Fierce campaign’

The minister was reported as saying that universities played a major role in the development of education and that government had started a programme to evaluate the universities. The report said the minister had been subjected to a “fierce campaign” on social networking sites after his comments about recognition of universities.

Osman was appointed as Somali's minister of education, culture and higher education in March 2017. He has a masters degree from the University of Oslo and is considered to be a technocratic minister. He has worked as an education capacity expert for UNESCO in South Sudan, a senior technical advisor for education at the ministry of education of Somalia, an education specialist at the UN refugee agency UNHCR in both Kenya and Syria, and project manager for education at the Norwegian Refugee Council in Mogadishu.

Speculating on the reasons behind the sudden dismissal, Abdul Wahab Ali Moamen, director of the Mogadishu Center for Research and Studies, told University World News the minister’s comments about the need for accreditation “aim to increase the quality of the education in the county and put an end to those investors who put financial gains ahead of producing high quality human capital".

However, Moamen said members of the public may have perceived the minister’s comments as “contempt for local efforts”.

The comments “add salt to the debate on the role of the Somali diaspora returning back to the country. Many inferred the comments [to mean] that Somalis who were schooled abroad are qualified and must take a leading role in rebuilding the country", Moamen said.

"Secondly, the minister said his ministry does not even recognise the national university. The president serves as head of its board; this might be understood as contempt for the role of the prime minister and the president."

Public anger

“The minister’s comments could be understood as healthy criticism aimed at increasing the quality of higher education in Somalia and a challenge to those phoney universities. However, the wording and the timing of the comments might justify the dismissal of the minister as a measure to absorb public anger and promote public confidence in the government," Moamen said.

With the proliferation of private universities in Somalia, and the absence of strong government institutions to monitor them, questions have been raised regarding the quality of local universities as well as whether these universities conform to international standards of higher education, Moamen said.

"These concerns come as observer reports indicate that the majority of the universities in Somalia are below the minimum requirement for providing higher education in terms of the curriculum, teaching staff and educational facilities.”

Moamen said reforming Somali’s educational system, particularly its universities, requires the government to set up an independent body or commission to monitor and accredit local universities. “Then the commission should grant accreditation only to those universities with the capacity to provide higher education. The accreditation should be limited and renewed on a yearly basis," he said.

Mohamed Haji Ingiriis, a Somali scholar studying Somalia at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, told University World News that Osman was a capable minister.

"I have known the minister and observed how he conducted his tasks while I was in Mogadishu for fieldwork this year and last year. He was fine at doing his job."

Ingiriis said the dismissal will have “profound consequences” for efforts to create political stability in the conflict-ridden and crisis-torn country.

“The Somali public is wondering, for example, why many corrupt and incompetent government authorities are not being sacked," Ingiriis said.

Abdinasir Yusuf Osman from the Mogadishu-based Benadir University, told University World News that no-one could have predicted the dismissal based on the minister’s statements.

"To the best of my knowledge, nothing is wrong with the minister's alleged statement as most of the current universities do not have even the basic academic functions and are thus not able to meet the standards set by the ministry," said Yusuf Osman, who is also the president of the Somali Veterinary Medical Association.

Yusuf Osman described the political system in Somalia as “complex and not always well understood”.

“Most of these community-owned institutions are lacking an appreciation of basic academic functions, but are backed by a representative member in parliament,” he said.

Improving quality

However, according to Ingiriis the quality of Somali universities is definitely improving.

“In Mogadishu alone, people talk of no less than 60 ‘universities’. However, the quality of these tertiary institutions is improving over the years which is not a small achievement considering that Somalia still remains the longest failed state on earth," he said.

Whether the minister actually uttered the statement or not was not the real point, according to Magdi Tawfik Abdelhamid, science and technology expert at Cairo's National Research Centre.

"Burying our heads in the sand and only wishing to have experts with honey tongues about imagined higher education achievements are not effective ways of dealing with the present hard and difficult situation of universities, not only in Somalia but also in most of the African states,” he said.

"We must also be realistic and follow evidence-based assessment in our judgment of the higher education sector to enable us to reform it effectively.

"Thus, whether the minister said the alleged statement or not should not matter as we must only focus on developing effective and efficient ways, strategies, action plans, implementation systems and monitoring indicators for reforming our universities," Abdelhamid said.