Farmaajo’s inaugural speech: okay content, mediocre delivery

President Farmaajo speaking at his inauguration

By Farah Adan

President Farmaajo had the opportunity to deliver a historic speech at his inauguration today, but instead he delivered an ordinary one. Content wise, the speech was decent,  but Farmaajo truly underwhelmed with his delivery, which was at times halting, grating, and its problems only exacerbated by a poor quality microphone.

Let’s begin with delivery. It was very clear from his speech that Farmaajo did not spend much time rehearsing. In fact at times it appeared as if he did not look at his own speech before arriving at the podium. He tripped over words, stuttered, and kept emphasizing at awkward and unnecessary times.  All these defects were made worse by a poor quality microphone that produced grating sounds. Farmaajo spent most of the time reading directly from paper, rarely looking up except for occasional brief glances. This poor showing confirms what has been obvious for a long time: Farmaajo is a mediocre public speaker, at least when delivering “prepared” speeches. This is a problem because Somalia has a deep rooted oral culture where leaders gain respect and influence through their excellent oratory skills. Siad Barre, though widely despised for his autocratic ways and state-sponored violence, was able to inspire Somalis and retain power for decades in part because he was an impeccable public speaker.

As he assumes the helm of the Somali state, Farmaajo will need to drastically improve his public speaking skills. He is no longer an opposition figure who can ride high based on a few months of competent performance as prime minister; he is now the head of state who will need to directly communicate his agenda and leadership victories to the Somali people to not only inform them, but to inspire them and mobilize them behind his government through the difficult times ahead. The Somali presidency is very weak right now (and for the foreseeable future) and thus among the few powers that Farmaajo has stems from the tremendous amount of public goodwill behind him and the bully pulpit of the presidential office; it would be a shame if he deflated these two resources by delivering lame public addresses.

Fortunately, Farmaajo has shown much higher public speaking aptitude when he’s speaking from the heart and not paper, and this tendency was obvious even at his inauguration the few moments he went off script. When speaking directly, Farmaajo exudes a level of warmth and inspirational charisma that is lost when he’s staring head-down at paper, speaking in a halting and robotic manner. He should either find himself a teleprompter or start memorizing his more important speeches to build upon this strength.

Content wise, Farmaajo‘s speech was much better. Notably he was quite diplomatic, thanking AMISOM troop contributing countries by name for their assistance of the Somali people and acknowledging the sacrifices they have made in their decade-long presence in the country. This will be a reassuring signal to those who feared that Farmaajo was “undiplomatic,” a loose cannon fellow who made aggressive, nationalistic comments that appealed to the masses but which ignited worries in neighboring countries and within international organizations that are involved in Somali affairs. Farmaajo also injected a needed dose of realism into his speech, noting that Somalia has been a failed state for 26 years and won’t be fixed overnight. That message will be a necessary takeaway to his numerous supporters, who at times express unrealistic expectations of Farmaajo and the Somali state in general. Additionally, Farmaajo did a good job of overviewing the broad agenda of his government which includes: improving security, improving the humanitarian situation particularly with regard to the drought, reconciling the country’s clans, strengthening the rule of law and bringing back public trust in the government while improving the economy and the government’s self-reliance. Past governments have made similar promises, but Farmaajo actually has a track record of doing the things he says and thus his words carry extra weight.

Overall Farmaajo’s speech was decent, but not “great.” It was something one would expect from a run-of-the-mill bureaucrat and not a great statesmen. Fortunately Farmaajo has shown an ability to learn from his mistakes and improve, so I hope he will improve his public speaking skills as he’s improved his diplomatic skills the past six years he’s been in the political wilderness. Of course getting results and improving governance is better than speaking well, but in politics, especially in Somali politics which revolves around oral information, a mediocre speaker is bound to run into problems.