President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, who was democratically elected last September, says that the darkest days are over and that he “is determined to make Somalia a better place, and committed to putting in place the foundations so that the rule of law will be in all areas of public life”.
On a visit to the UK to see PM David Cameron the president was full of praise for the outside intervention in his country by the African Union supported by Western countries. That intervention has pushed back various war lords and the al Shabaab Islamist groups and allowed last year’s election.
The president said he understood Foreign Secretary William Hague’s recent remarks that elements in Somalia were part of the problem of the Sahel region which threatened the UK, but he was insistent that the new government was winning the fight against terrorism and piracy.
Somalia was the clearest example of a failed state in the modern era. At times the government’s authority did not extend more than a few yards from the presidential palace and prime minister’s office. Even now, both can be subject to terrorist attacks.
Al Shabaab still has a presence in Somalia and the president retains power only through the barrels of guns held by the thousands of African troops propping up a struggling, albeit legitimate, government.
I put it to the president that the country was beginning again, from such a low position, that the glass wasn’t half full, it was almost empty. He smiled in a resigned way and acknowledged that the task ahead was enormous, but argued that with the support of the AU troops, and technical expertise from Western nations, the institutions of a functioning state would reappear. “The glass is half full,” he said.
I brought up the case of a Somali journalist, Abdiasis Abdinur Ibrahim, who has been jailed pending trial for interviewing a women alleging rape against a group of men in the state security apparatus.
The woman complained to the authorities, then spoke to Mr Ibrahim. Despite the interview not being printed both were then arrested for endangering state security.
The president would say only that he could not interfere in the judicial process, especially as Somalia had for so long not had a legal system where the rule of law applied. However, I had the impression that he was deeply uncomfortable with the arrests. Given that everywhere he has gone on this European trip, the case has come up, the situation may be expedited on his return home.
He deflected my question as to whether he is a ‘liberal democrat’ by explaining that Somali politics does not have such clear political distinctions and we spoke of the old saying in his country that ‘Somalis will sort out their differences under a tree’ – a reference to the tradition of ‘Shir’ or gathering of elders. He is trying to move his country towards a democracy as more developed countries might understand the term, but says he has to do it in a Somali way.
He is a former United Nations worker and educational activist. His party, the Al Islah, is the rough equivalent of the Muslim Brotherhood. He is from the majority Hawiye clan. He may not have many guns, but he knows his country and is one of the few people who are said to have clean hands and who did not flee the country.
Somalia is strategically important as it sits on the Horn of Africa and is one side of the gateway to the Gulf of Aden, the Red Sea, and on to the Suez Canal.
There are oil deposits in Somalia territory which are being explored. That, along with terrorism and piracy, is one the reasons why so many countries, including Turkey, Qatar, and China, all take an interest in its affairs. It’s a work in progress.
Foreign Affairs Editor