Lessons from the Field: A New Dawn for Somalia?


Somalia: On a Roll?

By Omar Daair

Somalilandsun- Recently my former boss Nicholas Kay, who is currently the new UN Special Representative of the Secretary General for Somalia, tweeted that Somalia was “on a roll.” I have heard some question his use of that term. Was it just the optimism of someone who has only been in the job a few weeks or are things really getting better in Somalia?

“Getting better” and “Somalia” are three little words that we have been reluctant to put together in the last two decades. When I was in Juba in the run-up to South Sudan’s independence I remember the pessimists warning that the country couldn’t survive on its own. It would be like Somalia. Nobody wanted to be like Somalia. We all knew the story of the world’s “Most Failed State.” Somalia and its people were too dysfunctional. It was a place of terrorists, pirates and other miscellaneous bad guys. It was a place where optimism went to die.

But that story was never the truth. Those who knew Somalia well, and of course Somalis themselves, understood that the country was much more than its negative image. Half my family is from Yemen – we know a thing or two about bad images. It is hard work to change them. Over the last couple of years Somalia has been putting in that hard work to an impressive degree. And the international community is now coming together to support them in that effort in a more coordinated way than we have seen for years.

The UK has been at the forefront of that support. On the May 7, 2013, Prime Minister David Cameron co-hosted a Somalia Conference with President Hassan Sheikh at which the Federal Government of Somalia (FGS) presented clear plans for tackling the challenges of security, justice and public financial management. If you follow Somalia you might remember that we hosted a similar conference in 2012; but this wasn’t simply a re-run, it was something deeper. I set out in my blog why I thought it was important that we were doing it again.

So What Next?

The Somalia Conference was not just about what happened on the day, but about how the international community could continue to support the government of Somalia in its efforts to rebuild the country. That climb will be steep. As Foreign Secretary William Hague said in April when he re-opened our Embassy in Mogadishu, “Somalia has been through a dramatic shift over the last year, but continues to face huge challenges. We should be under no illusions as to the sustained efforts that will be required in Somalia and from its international partners to ensure that Somalia continues to make progress.”

Those challenges are still huge. I’d be foolish to deny that. For one, violence has not stopped. The recent horrific attack on a UN compound grabbed headlines, but violence against civilians, especially women, continues daily. The future structure of the Somali state is another hard problem to solve. The Somali economy has been severely damaged by endless conflict, and the broader development needs are enormous. The FGS has only limited technical capacity to deal with all this. None of that is very heartening. So where is this “roll”?

Making Progress

Well, first, the Conference was a success for the Federal Government of Somalia. They had put a lot of effort into creating workable plans that will help professionalize the military, provide greater security for Somali citizens and tackle endemic corruption. We are now building on that. For starters, Somalia features as a priority for the UK Presidency of the G8 this year. In September, the FGS and EU will co-host a development conference for Somalia, which will set the framework for stabilization and reconstruction efforts, guided by the “New Deal” principles for fragile states agreed in Busan in 2011. Somalia is receiving more of the technical, political, and financial assistance that it needs to turn good plans into real improvements on the ground.

As a result, a lot of Somalis also feel more secure than they have in years. Now, that’s relative – I don’t claim Somalia is a secure place. But it is better. Al Shabaab is weakened and fighting within itself. The funding we and others pledged in London to help strengthen the armed forces and police should keep up that momentum. And the FGS is working with the UN Special Representative for Sexual Violence in Conflict, Zainab Bangura, in order to do more to tackle that ugly scourge.

It is important too that the International Community has been pulling together on Somalia better than ever before. In London the U.S., EU countries, Turkey, the Gulf and of course Somalia’s neighbours all pledged to support the FGS’ plans and priorities in a coordinated way. That matters. And we have a new UN Mission with a mandate specifically designed to support this progress. I have worked for Nick Kay twice before and he has previously been at the heart of the UK’s response to conflict in Sudan, Afghanistan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. I have a lot of faith in his leadership and judgement.

Then there is the economy. Again, this is massively fragile but there are signs of recovery. With growing investor confidence, new opportunities for business are emerging across South Central Somalia, Puntland and Somaliland. A lot of this is being driven by the Diaspora, many of whom have been returning. But there are also opportunities for other investors who may not traditionally have operated in the Somali market. To shine a light on that, we held a Somali business event the day after the May 7th conference, showcasing the best of Somali entrepreneurship and innovation.

So Somalia’s image is changing. One old friend of mine even suggests that Mogadishu wants to be a tourist hotspot in her excellent piece for CNN. The beaches do look beautiful, but I suspect that may be some way off.

For me, celebrating these achievements is not about being naively optimistic, but about giving credit where it’s due. I can appreciate that many Somalia old-hands feel that they have witnessed false dawns before. I agree that we’re likely to see more setbacks in the future. Without our help, instability in Somalia could yet return the country to its darkest days and increase the threat to Somalis, their neighbors and the West.

But the mood in and about Somalia is different to how it has been for many years. We can either gripe about the continued problems and risks, or we can do our best to seize the moment. The Federal Government of Somalia is doing that. Many of Somalia’s friends in the International Community are doing that. We might fail, but I for one want to keep trying.

By Omar Daair- First Secretary covering Africa, the UN and conflict issues at the British Embassy in Washington.

Photo attributed to the European Commission DG ECHO