|Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York|
Press Conference by Somalia’s Minister of Information, Post and Telecommunications
In the two weeks since Somalia’s new Transitional Government began taking shape, a new constitution was being written, discussions were under way on preserving fledgling institutions and unprecedented steps had been taken by top brass to examine military logistics and visit the front lines in a push to capture and hold new territories, a top Somali official said at a Headquarters press conference.
“We’re very optimistic about this”, said Abdulkareem Jama, Somalia’s new Minister of Information, Post and Telecommunications. Substantial progress had been made on security in Mogadishu, with the Transitional Federal Government Forces now holding 55 per cent of the capital. Between 70 and 80 per cent of the city’s population now lived in Government-controlled areas. Services were not where they needed to be, but the new Government was working to salvage schools, among other things.
Overall, he described the situation in Somalia as “mission possible”, and with the Transitional Government mandate set to end in 2011, there was only a short time to fashion what came next. The country’s 18 ministers, slimmed down from 39, were highly educated Somalis who had left comfortable lives elsewhere to make a difference in their homeland.
The conflict engulfing the country was rooted in a misunderstanding of Islam, he said, which Government opponents exploited to win hearts and minds. Most Somalis did not buy the interpretation of Islam, which glorified killing and maiming. To win the war of ideas, it was important for the Government to have a medium through which to communicate its message. “I’ll be the first to admit that we have not done a good job in the past,” he acknowledged.
However, the telecommunications industry was in private hands and had succeeded where everything else had failed, he explained. Somalia boasted over 70 per cent cell phone penetration, with phone service available in almost every town and village. Efforts also were under way to restart the post office and to allow undersea fibre-optic lines off the coast to come into a landing site in Mogadishu, allowing faster, cheaper Internet connection than satellite. There was much optimism that “things can be different”.
The amount of attention given by the Prime Minister and Minister of Defence to Somali forces had increased morale and their ability to capture and hold new territories, he said. In contrast, there was fighting within Al-Shabaab in central Somalia, and between Al-Shabaab and Hizbul Islam in Kismayo. Such divisions were an opportunity for Somalis to free themselves, with the assistance of the Government and the international community.
Taking a question about whether he wished to see more African Union or international peacekeepers in Somalia, he said “yes”. African Union forces numbered around 8,000 and there had been talk about bringing in another 12,000 for a total of 20,000 troops, who would help Somali forces hold and recover new territory.
Pressed as to why, when Uganda had offered 20,000, the Security Council appeared slow to move ahead, he responded: “we were in part responsible for that”. Differences in political leadership that had impacted that decision were no longer there, with “no daylight” now between the President, the Speaker and the Prime Minister, all of whom had worked together to form the new Government and guide its passage through Parliament. With such cohesion, now was a good time for the Council to finish that process.
Asked about the new Deputy Minister of Water and Minerals, who had banned the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) from working in the country, he responded that there had been a misunderstanding. The Deputy Minister had asked to discuss the drought and lack of water resources with relief agencies and had not been allowed to do so. There was no official Government policy to ban relief organizations, as clarified by the Ministry of Information.
Responding to a request to clarify whether security had changed in Mogadishu since the new Government had come into power, he said “significant improvement” had been observed over the last two or three months. The idea that the Government controlled just a few blocks was simply not the case. Almost a year ago, he had taken reporters to Villa Somalia to view markets and six contiguous districts full of life that were separate from the three locations where the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) was present.
Asked why he believed the Security Council would allow a troop increase, he said the 8,000 forces there now were mandated to secure Mogadishu. But the idea was to go beyond Mogadishu. Another fact not well reported was that there were many areas in Somalia — in central regions, and to the north and northeast — with administrations constantly coming to Mogadishu asking for recognition and support from the Government. They specifically were asking to have military officers sent to command their forces and offer training.
Responding to a query on the percentage of land controlled by the Government versus Al-Shabaab, he first discussed a “perception of control”. When the new Government had come to power and the Ethiopians had left Somalia, there was a power “vacuum”. Thus, when one said Al-Shabaab controlled certain areas, one would imagine a skeleton crew of 20 or 30 gang men with one or two vehicles with the capacity to do the most violence. They were the authority in a town. However, more than half the country was now in Government hands or those allied with the Government. In the South, there were people who terrorized; “not much else [is] going on” there. In Mogadishu, only “huge ghost areas” were controlled by the opposition, as people had fled to areas controlled by the Government.
Fielding a question about piracy, he said that in dealing with terrorists or piracy, the idea was to rebuild the country’s security institutions. The Government had succeeded in creating a 15,000-strong Somali national force of police and military. It was not a clan force. It had no allegiance to a war lord and it saw the President as the Commander-in-Chief. “That is not something small in a very different situation and with very little resources”. Creating a naval force able to patrol the Somali coastline and pirates’ launch sites required assistance. But it would be much cheaper than the many ships being sent to Somalia to end piracy at a very high cost.
Asked for the Government’s policy on hiring private contractors, he said “we do not hire mercenaries”. Nor did he believe Puntland hired mercenaries. He understood there was a security consulting firm discussing with the Government the provision of specific training not provided thus far for the Coast Guard and in the area of “VIP protection”, as there had been no effort to create such a force in any significant numbers.
* *** *For information media • not an official record