Interview with Augustine Mahiga, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Somalia

Special Representative for the Secretary-General for Somalia Augustine Mahiga

20 September 2011 – The head of the UN Political Office for Somalia and the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for that country, Augustine Mahiga, recently attended the Consultative Meeting on Ending the Transition, a UN-backed meeting held in Mogadishu, which endorsed a Roadmap spelling out priorities to be implemented before the current governing arrangements end in August next year.

The UN News Centre spoke with Mr. Mahiga ahead of a ministerial-level mini-summit taking place on the sidelines of the General Assembly in New York this Friday.

UN News Centre: In June, you had said that you postponed a meeting of the International Contact Group on Somalia (a group made up of representatives of UN Member States to support peace efforts) several times while waiting for positive political developments, but they had not been forthcoming. What has changed in the past two months or so, and what’s caused that change?

Augustine Mahiga: There’s been a sea-change. Actually, in June we were able to resolve a raging conflict that had paralyzed politics in Mogadishu for six months, by signing the Kampala Accord between the President and the Speaker. And that really opened the door for political diIf you look at the whole history and picture of conflicts in Africa, frankly, in my own experience, I've never seen anything like it. If anything, it is even more challenging.alogue and cooperation. The accord had two major aspects. One was to form a new government because the previous one had not succeeded in addressing the political impasse. And the second one was to initiate a process of adopting a Roadmap that would define a new direction for a political agenda which is to be completed in the coming twelve months.

UN News Centre: You described the withdrawal of Al-Shabaab from Mogadishu as an “extraordinary moment” in Somalia’s history. Can you expand on that?

Augustine Mahiga: It’s very significant indeed because the Al-Shabaab was almost in control of Mogadishu two years ago and for the first time the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) is in control of Mogadishu, 96 per cent of Mogadishu – something that has never happened before in the past 20 years. Mogadishu was either in the hands of warlords or the insurgents, the Al-Shabaab. This is significant, but more significant is that it has been a combined effort of the transitional federal forces and the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) – which is deployed by the African Union with the support from the international community and the United Nations – and it came at a time when there are positive developments on the political side which we never witnessed for a long time.

Augustine Mahiga addresses the Security Council's latest meeting on Somalia. (September 2011)

Of course, ironically, it comes at a time where there is also a humanitarian crisis – but we see the consequences on the political dynamics and also on the effectiveness of the Shabaab – because, literally, people are voting with their feet, walking away from the Shabaab-controlled area and thus exposing the weakness and inefficiency of the insurgency’s rule or control.

UN News Centre: Some have said that the TFG is a government on paper, prone to bickering and “offset by the odd spasm of courage.” Do you think it is a fair assessment of the TFG, especially in light of this recent progress?

Augustine Mahiga: You have to look at the Transitional Federal Government in a large picture and look at it as a procedure – it is starting from scratch, from nothing. Seven years ago it started with a conference that went on for a two-and-a-half years and ended up with the transitional charter and some rudimentary institutions.

Augustine Mahiga briefs the Security Council via video link from Mogadishu on Somalia’s peace process. (August 2011)

Indeed, there have been bickering and in-fights and several attempts to form a government – but see it is a progression, because as that problem was going on we had the Djibouti Agreement that brought together two very radically different factions to form the current transitional federal authority.

There was an impasse for six months at the beginning of this year, when we thought it was just going to be another anarchy or a really big crisis where you’re going to have two governments. But we were able to resolve that difference and since the Kampala accord of 9 June the progress has been beyond imagination.

Not only are they talking, but they are ready to end the transition in a manner that is put on paper and inclusive in that it’s not only the two institutions – the executive and the legislature – but the signatories to the Road Map, also the regional organizations and emerging administrations. That alone is a major step forward.

UN News Centre: The Secretary-General has called on the international community to provide greater support and resources for the Somali authorities, especially following the recent progress made on the ground. What kind of response has there been so far?

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon meets with Augustine Mahiga in Nairobi, Kenya, along with Deputy Secretary-General Asha-Rose Migiro. (March 2011)

Augustine Mahiga: When I presented the [Secretary-General’s latest] report to the Security Council last week, I was extremely encouraged by the reaffirmation from all the 15 members of the Council for their political support, and retaining Somalia high on the agenda of the Council. There was also tremendous encouragement: they think the peace process is back on track and we need to go forward. I had very encouraging words from each and every member of the Council and they pledged their support to continue that.

But they also looked at the larger picture, that as this political process is moving forward in a positive way, there are also maybe even more positive developments in the security sector. Not only in Mogadishu, but also in the other parts of the west and the south, where the forces allied to the TFG have made significant territorial gains against the Al-Shabaab. We shouldn’t also forget that there are some areas in Somalia, especially in central Somalia, where Puntland and Galmadug are regional states where there is relative stability and some fairly reasonable representative institutions going on.

This is Somalia, where you have on one hand, really, warfare going on, led by a international terrorist organization, but there are other areas where there is relative stability and basic movement towards representative governance.

Flanked by Augustine Mahiga (right), the Prime Minister of the Transitional Federal Government of Somalia, Abdiweli Mohamed Ali (centre), addresses correspondents following a Security Council meeting. (September 2011)

And of course there is Somaliland, which 20 years ago became a de facto, separate state; although legally it hasn’t been recognized in the region or internationally. But they’ve had successful elections – democratic elections, for that matter – and the transitions have been very encouraging. They’ve embarked on a road of development and social change which is an example and a role model for the rest of Somali and, indeed, for the rest of Africa.

UN News Centre: Where do Al-Shabaab fit in the bigger picture? Especially in light of concerns that its members may resort to suicide bombs or snipers in Mogadishu following their withdrawal from there?

Augustine Mahiga: That is definitely the worst-case scenario that we are bracing for. The kind of warfare that was going on in the streets of Mogadishu was conventional warfare, of course interspaced by typical guerrilla and urban warfare.

But now that the conventional part of it has been receding into the background, we believe, and already there are signs, that they’ll be resorting to bombs, improvised explosive devices. There have been many examples since their withdrawal on 6 August, many cases of such. And some of the Shabaab elements have melted into the civilian population, they’ve been carrying out rear-guard actions.

An AMISOM peacekeeper cleans a rocket launcher in a new position in Mogadishu, established after the sudden departure from the city of the extremist group Al-Shabaab in early August. (August 2011)

But the bulk of the fighters have gone into rural Mogadishu and rural Somalia and they’re still re-grouping. And that is where there is a need for maintaining the security momentum that the Security Council addressed; the quick deployment of the remaining 3,000 troops needs to be addressed expeditiously.

UN News Centre: Along with the Security Council, you’ve been calling for armed individuals and groups to renounce violence and join the peace process. Have you had much of a response to that call?

Augustine Mahiga: Well, there are signals that need to be pursued. I think the Transitional Federal Government leadership has indicated that they’ve been getting these kids of signals; I think there are also third party intermediaries who have also been getting such signals.

As you know, the Al-Shabaab are not a monolithic organization. There are elements that are less hard-line than others, and there are individuals who are more inclined to consider peace, of course on their own terms. So this is the moment of opportunity that needs to be understood, analyzed and seized to see how this could really turn into an opportunity for broadening the political platform beyond where it has been so far.

UN News Centre: The Roadmap calls for some priority measures to be implemented before August next year. Just how important is it that these measures – in areas such as security, reconciliation and good governance – are put in place?

AMISOM peacekeepers sort through a bag of hand grenades and other munitions that were used by the Al-Shabaab to make improvised explosive devices in Mogadishu. (August 2011)

Augustine Mahiga: These are distilled, prioritized tasks out of 18 different tasks that were adopted in the transitional charter. They comprise security, and in the area of security is building the security sector; continuing the effort of building the army and the police; and the efforts to gain more territory, as is happening now.

There is a very important political task of continuing the process of drafting a constitution. There is a draft that needs to be refined and subjected to other consultations. This document is absolutely important in ending the transition because it will define the new institutions and responsibilities and the kind of government that Somalia would be led by, that would be different from anything before: more representative, more inclusive. This constitution, although it may not provide an opportunity for country-wide elections while security is difficult, it will lay the groundwork for a much more democratic, inclusive dispensation.

There is also the area of political outreach, which includes reaching out to all the elements that have been out of the political forum for the time-being, including elements of those who might want to lay down their arms, but also a good section of the civil society that is very vibrant and very significant politically and socially – like elders, religious leaders, women, the business community and diaspora – who haven’t played a significant role in the political process now. So this road map really opens that opportunity.

A malnourished and dehydrated baby cries as a doctor applies an intravenous drip to increase fluid intake at Banadir Hospital in Mogadishu. (August 2011)

And fourthly, there is the whole area of governance. What do we mean? Creating institutions that will be transparent and accountable; the practice of governance to remove Somalia from what are clichés and criticisms that there are corrupt practices. Transparency International has classified Somalia as one of the most corrupt societies, but it’s just a manifestation of the weakness and lack of institutions. So governance will not only be accountability and transparency, but actually building governing institutions in a country which have never been there before.

This may not be a task to be accomplished in 12 months, but it will lay the foundation of a future government after the elections following the adoption of a new constitution.

UN News Centre: According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, almost half the country, or around four million people, is in crisis. How does Somalia’s humanitarian crisis affect your work and the work of UNPOS?

Augustine Mahiga: This is really a great challenge because the humanitarian work is essentially humanitarian – non-political, neutral and impartial – and my role as political representative of the Secretary-General is mainly advocacy. But in the [UN’s Somalia] country team, there are agencies that are essentially humanitarian and others which are focussed on development. We work hand in glove, without me interfering in the humanitarian space or affecting the neutrality and the impartiality of these organizations.

A view of battle-damaged buildings and businesses along the deserted streets of Bakara Market in central Mogadishu. Bakara had been a strategic stronghold of the Al-Shabaab until its sudden withdrawal on 5 August. (August 2011)

But in terms of fundraising and creating awareness my political office is in the forefront. Also, in terms of coordinating efforts with the government and the humanitarian community, my office has a major role.

However, much more challenging, and also very important, is that this crisis has created a political opportunity – it is an irony to say that a humanitarian crisis can create a political opportunity – because, first of all, it has exposed the weakness of the Shabaab. Also it has brought civilians into the hands of the Transitional Federal Government. In Mogadishu alone, in the space of one month, there has been an influx of 400,000 IDPs [internally displaced persons]; and the government, all of a sudden, in addition to the million plus population, has to provide services and security to these people.

Many more, unfortunately in agonizing situations, have had to cross to neighbouring countries as refugees. So, it is literally exposing the inadequacies and weakness of this government. And this is where, I think, in the final analysis, any kind of government cannot justify its position unless it’s there to serve the people.

AMISOM peacekeepers move to reinforce newly occupied positions around Mogadishu Stadium, following the Al-Shabaab’s withdrawal. (August 2011)

UN News Centre: You’ve been in this role for more than a year now. But prior to this, you have served extensively throughout the region, as a diplomat and as a UN official. How would you compare Somalia’s problems to other problems in the region?

Augustine Mahiga: This is different because the Somalia crisis is in a league of its own. It is a crucible with many multiple crises contained in one. As I said, there are areas which have relative stability; there are areas where war is raging and it is not only civil war, it is a war that is perpetrated by international terrorism under very difficult circumstances.

It is a war that has mutated into other challenges to regional and international security, such as piracy and of course the whole fight against international terrorism. It is a crisis that is combined with a humanitarian situation in an area where you have to deal with nation-building, while at the same time you have to deal with conflict resolution.

So if you look at the whole history and picture of conflicts in Africa, frankly, in my own experience, I’ve never seen anything like it. If anything, it is even more challenging.

Women rush to a feeding centre after government soldiers cannot contain the crowd in Badbado, a camp for internally displaced persons. (July 2011)

And what’s probably ironical, puzzling and bizarre is that in Africa the cliché is that there are ethnic problems. In Somalia there are no ethnic groups and Somalia is the one country with one religion and one culture – but the clan divisions run far deeper than anything I have known in African conflicts, between groups and between people. And this is a challenge which I never experienced before.

But at the same time, Somalia is not an isolated country. Somalia is surrounded by countries whose national security and political future are intrinsically involved with that of Somalia. Because of the history – whether it is Ethiopia or Kenya or Djibouti – they all have a stake, and a very legitimate stake, in the peace process in Somalia, because before, what happened in Somalia did affect their national security.

So these are all factors that need to be taken into consideration and the international community is now getting even more involved because of the strategic position of Somalia in the Horn of Africa. And certainly this is an area where all these different challenges are combined in one.