London, Asharq Al-Awsat—Somalia has long been viewed as the quintessential “failed state,” an anarchic territory plagued by the legacies of colonialism, Cold War geopolitics, dictatorship, devastating famines, secessionist movements and insurgents.
Recently, efforts have been made by the international community to push the pieces of the fractured country back together. Wary of the consequences of allowing the Horn of Africa to become a source of instability, radical Islamist terrorism and maritime piracy, Somalia’s neighbors and their international backers have sought to assist Somalian attempts to recreate a functioning government.
This week has seen the new Somalian government, in partnership with the UK, seek to capitalize on the momentum from this push from the international community. A major conference took place in London on Tuesday, with delegates from Somalia and international organizations like the IMF and the UN, to agree on measures to support the new government’s plans for tackling Somalia’s crippling political, economic and social problems.
During a break in the conference, Asharq Al-Awsat spoke to the US Special Representative to Somalia, Ambassador James Swan, about American views of the situation in the country, US concerns about the threat of terrorism, and what the US is doing to help.
Asharq Al-Awsat: What was your impression of the conference?
Ambassador James Swan: I think the conference has been very successful in accomplishing what it was intended to do, which is primarily to carry forward the momentum realized in Somalia realized over the past year to two years—momentum on the security front, momentum in terms of putting in place new political institutions, momentum in terms of, frankly, seeing Somalia rejoin the international community as a active member. This conference builds on the London conference of last year, but with a focus this time much more on Somali ownership and development of strategies in key areas with the expectation that the international community will align behind those strategies.
Q: Some civil society groups have criticized the fact that not many of them and their colleagues have been invited to the conference. Do you have any opinion on that?
The conference is co-hosted by the UK and the Somali governments; I think there was an active effort on the part of the Somali government to ensure that as the representative of the Somali people it was speaking for that community, but in terms of the specific attendance I don’t have a lot of detail about it—exactly how these delegates were selected.
Q: What kind of response do you have to criticisms that conferences like this one are elite-led and top-down, rather than bottom-up and seeking to involve input from social groups and people with more local concerns, or specific issues like clean water or gender-based violence?
Again, the conference is co-led by the Somali government, a government that emerged from the most representative process that we have seen in 25 years, with the selection of a parliament through a clan-based selection process, indirect election of the president and the like. So one of the key objectives is to move to an arrangement in which there is a sovereign Somali voice speaking for the Somali people.
Beyond that, the issues that are being addressed at this conference are issues that are important to individual Somali citizens, issues of security—both of overall security and human security—and issues related to justice, the rule of law and ending impunity, issues related to reconstruction of the country, including restoration of basic social services and, indeed, particular focus on addressing issues of sexual and gender-based violence, and ensuring that concern for those issues is fully embedded in efforts at improving the justice system and making the national security forces both more effective and more accountable.
Q: What is your opinion of the progress of the new Federal Somali Government since it transitioned from a Transitional Federal Government? Do you think this has reflected changes in its capabilities on the ground, or is this just a change of name?
Again, this is the most representative government we have seen in more than 20 years in Somalia. It is, however, a government that has taken over after some 20 years of conflict and the deep fragility of the state, and in many ways has taken over responsibility for a country that is largely broken. So what we have seen over the past six to seven months of this new government is an active effort to choose a capable new people to be playing critical roles in the cabinet, and other senior positions.
They have continued to work to reach out to neighboring countries, they have begun the important work of reaching out to key regional actors within Somalia, other regions of the country, and they have now developed an effective set of strategies for dealing with the most important challenges confronting the country.
That includes security, that includes justice, it includes public accountability and financial management, it includes stabilization, it includes reinitegration of Al-Shaba’ab defectors, and the like. I think they are facing a daunting set of challenges and are off to a strong start, though it is still early days in what is going to be a place of huge challenges going forward.
Q: Let us turn to the security situation in Somalia. What is the US government’s opinion of the threat posed by Al-Shaba’ab?
I think Al-Shaba’ab has seen its influence wane in Somalia, and by extension elsewhere in the region over the past two years. The trajectory with regards to Al-Shaba’ab’s power and reach continues to be negative for that movement. It has lost territory over that period of time. Initially, it was pushed out of the capital and then other important urban areas, and key ports, including the loss of Kismayo, its most important center of revenue generation, last September and October. So the overall trend lines we think are good, in terms of the reducing the importance and effectiveness of Al-Shaba’ab.
That said, it remains a dangerous movement, and we have seen that as it turns to terrorist-style, asymmetric attack it continues to be a deadly force, but we frankly think that those attacks underscore that its vision of Somalia is a dark vision, it is a vision that is not embraced by the Somali people, and that the efforts by the government and the supporters of the government to improve the lot of Somalis is going to further degrade support for Al-Shaba’ab.
Q: As you said, Al-Shaba’ab has lost territory and become a more rootless terrorist movement, as shown by the latest bombings. Is it not the case that this makes it more dangerous in some ways?
It remains a brutal organization that is certainly capable of killing and has shown that it is prepared to do so. However, its tactics and indeed its broader operations have shifted from what two years ago was the ability to control and effectively administer significant parts of the urban core of southern Somalia.
That ability has been largely been degraded over the past two years, and now it’s left with little more than the ability to conduct these brutal terrorist attacks.
Q: Obviously, the gains in security and stability made in Somalia could be reversed. Do you think Al-Shaba’ab has the ability to reconstitute itself if this happens, or is it definitively beaten?
I think Al-Shaba’ab has lost support among the Somali people because of its draconian style of administering territory. Its measures are, in many cases, contrary to Somali tradition and culture, and frankly it has demonstrated brutality in how it has dealt with its own people.
It is clear, however, that further sustained progress in confronting Al-Shaba’ab has to be multi-pronged—and that means continued effort on the security side, in terms of building up Somali military capability, and supporting African peacekeepers that are operating inside Somalia in support of the government, so there is a security prong.
There’s a crucial stabilization and reconstruction prong, essentially in terms of demonstrating that, in areas that have been recovered from Al-Shaba’ab, life is getting better under the new authorities, and that means local infrastructure, it means service delivery, it means provision of social support that was lacking under Al-Shaba’ab but also has been largely absent in conflict-ridden Somalia for the last twenty years. The third prong is really governance and stability, at the level of the national administration and the federal entities, and in essence its necessary for progress that was made on governance last year to be sustained and continued to show a positive alternative to Al-Shaha’ab and to show that Al-Shaba’ab’s message truly has no resonance in contrast to the progress being made by the government.
Q: The UN says that there has not been a successful pirate attack in several months. Is the US planning to do anything to address the causes that lead Somalians to take up piracy? This obviously connects with the last issue we were talking about, with regards to the three “prongs” that address the problems that cause people turn to Al-Shaba’ab. What is the US doing to progress on this issue?
There has been significant progress on counter-piracy efforts for a host of reasons, including international patrolling of international waters that are used by ships in those areas. Also, we’ve seen effective prosecutions—increased prosecutions of pirates who are captured during operations and have been brought to justice in multiple countries, including in east Africa. The shipping industry has taken a much more active role in counter-measures to abort its vessels to dissuade pirates. Some of these are as simple as evasive maneuvers and posting watchmen, and they’ve been quite effective.
But clearly a critical piece will be improved stability and development on land in Somalia. We are active and supportive of nation-wide efforts to support AMISOM [the African Union Mission in Somalia] and to support Somali military forces. In addition to that, we have a very active program to support stabilization operations inside Somalia, including projects in five communities that in the past have been affected—badly affected—by pirates in Puntland, and of course we continue to provide extensive diplomatic and other support to the Somali government as it tries to improve governance.
Q: Could you tell us about the US assistance program to the Somalian government?
Certainly. Again, this is aligned behind Somali government priorities, but it includes support to the Somali National Army, as requested by the government, in areas of salary support, in areas of food, fuel, and other material support and some equipment as well to support Somali government operations.
We also obviously are supportive of the African Union Mission in Somalia. It’s an internationally backed peacekeeping operation. But in our case, we have provided pre-deployment training and equipment for African Union troop-contributing countries. We contribute, through the United Nations support office for AMISOM, additional support for that mission.
Q: The Somali federal government has recently spoken about an outreach program to try to lure back people from Al-Shaba’ab and reconcile them with the new state-building project. Does the US have an opinion on this policy?
The Somali government, as part of the preparations for this conference, has launched what it calls the “Disengaged Fighters and At Risk Youth Program,” and the intent of that is to look at ways in which young Al-Shaba’ab fighters, who either are captured or wish on their own to turn themselves in, opt to return to their communities.
It established certain processes led by the Somali government for accepting those youths and working with communities so they can indeed go home and be reintegrated. The expectation is that most of these youths are not ideologically committed. They have joined Al Shaba’ab for other reasons—sense of community, solidarity, financial reasons, et cetera, and [it is expected] that it will be possible for them to return to their homes and rejoin their communities. We think that that’s an important set of initiatives to be undertaken by the government that wants support.
Q: In the case of some of the fighters, who may be more ideologically committed, if they begin talks with the government, would the US support that move?
I think, ultimately, we’re going to take our cue from the Somali government in terms of what makes sense as far as political outreach to any of the communities within Somalia. I think we are mindful of how brutal Al-Shaba’ab has been and I think that no entity or organization knows that more than the Somali government.
But ultimately, issues of internal reconciliation—issues of internal Somali politics—must be addressed by Somali political entities that were created, and made more representative than we’ve seen in a generation, last year.
Q: One final question: As I’m sure you’re aware, there was the recent UN report released on the famine that took place in 2011. A quarter of a million Somalis are reported to have died. What measures is the US taking to help avoid such things in the future?
Well, it’s a great tragedy, of course, that so many Somalis perished in this recent famine—the first famine of the 21st century. In response to that, the international community mobilized very actively. The US alone has contributed more than USD 360 million in humanitarian assistance during that period, and so there was a very active international response.
Frankly, we were badly restricted in terms of our ability to respond because most of the zones that were most severely affected by the famine in which the highest death rates occurred were those controlled by Al-Shaba’ab. During the course of the famine, access was restricted in those areas, and indeed some 16 humanitarian organizations were expelled by Al-Shaba’ab even once the famine had begun.
I think we all recognize that we need to learn some lessons from this and do better in the future. The US and others are committed to a focus on a new strategy for resilience in which our efforts of course have to be focused on short-term life saving, but also work more to build the capability of the Somali population to withstand shocks in the future.
In that regard, the London conference in only one in a sequence of important international events this year that will focus on building international support for Somalia. In addition to this conference, in Japan at the end of May there will be development focused conference, the Tokyo International Conference of African development. Then in September the European Union will host a conference with a specific emphasis on longer term development support and strategies for Somalia.
So I think this reinforces the commitment of international partners to look for ways to address not only short term problems but also put in place a development agenda that’s going to support Somalia in the future.