Somalia: Here to Help, Here to Stay
Long a byword for anarchy, famine and intractable political wrangling, Somalia is less than a year into its rebirth as an internationally-recognized member of the family of nations.
At a time of roiling uncertainty but high hopes, the United Nations has opened a new chapter in its support, establishing a political mission in the capital, Mogadishu, to work alongside Somalis as they try to overcome one of the world’s most intractable crises.
Things clearly began to change in 2012. Islamist insurgents have been pushed back by African Union forces, relative stability has returned to a large proportion of the country, foreign investment is starting to take an interest, and Somalis from all over the world are coming back. The diaspora is visiting, working, investing, tentatively testing the waters — sometimes literally, at the beach in Mogadishu. Construction and property prices are booming in the capital, while foreign embassies and airlines are cautiously opening up.
On the other side of the scales are the remnants of the Al-Shabaab insurgents. Cut off from their major sources of income, confined mainly to rural areas in the centre and south, they still have the capacity to plant roadside bombs and organize murderous attacks, even in the capital, where 34 people recently died in an attack on the fledging judiciary.
Al-Shabaab, though fragmenting, still extorts ruinous dues from communities under its control, terrorizes local people and disrupts trade and transport. The federal government meanwhile is weak, has only a trickle of its own revenue, and faces a formidable set of problems: a political landscape ruined by 22 years of conflict and riven by ingrained corruption, intimidation and extortion, clan-based militia and criminality.
The few relatively stable regional administrations take a wary view of the resurgent central government, which came in to office last year following a broadly inclusive political process supported by the United Nations. A provisional constitution leaves many big questions unanswered and the leaders of the self-declared state of Somaliland remain adamant that it will go its own way.
These are but some of the challenges the UN Assistance Mission in Somalia (UNSOM) will be tackling, together with the Somali government. Leading the mission is Nicholas Kay, the recently appointed Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Somalia, a role one journalist recently called “the toughest job in diplomacy”.
The mission was established in June this year in Mogadishu, where a new UN team is building up in sometimes spartan accommodation at the sprawling airport complex, living alongside African Union troops, civilian staff and contractors.
Under the mandate provided by the Security Council, the Mission is expected to deliver results in the rule of law, building the institutions of government, protecting human rights, preventing piracy at sea, and helping the government coordinate aid. Supporting the vital 2016 elections will be a focus of the mission’s political work.
UNSOM will also be available for political mediation to defuse crises, balancing the UN mission’s role and relationships between federal and regional administrations, multiple international players, including the African Union, neighboring states and a regional grouping, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development.
Kay, a veteran of conflict-afflicted countries such as Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, makes clear he is not the “cocktail party kind” of diplomat.
Only three weeks into his assignment, he was confronted up close with the insecurity that still threatens UN operations in the country.
It was the 19 of June, and Kay was having a meeting with Somalia youth leaders at an eatery a few hundred metres from the gates of Mogadishu’s airport – part of a whirlwind set of introductions aimed at “meeting people and learning”. Seated in a circle of plastic chairs under an anaemic fan, they talked about concerns ranging from jobs, corruption, education and human rights to political inclusion and insecurity.
Suddenly there was a bang — it could have been an explosion or a big metal gate slamming. The conversation continued. “It’s not easy, you have to fight hard, it’s very complicated, it can take a long time… but it can be done. You can see many countries that have come out of 20 years of conflict, or less, and are successful democratic economies that are developing,” Kay was telling the group. “This is a once in a generation opportunity, and it is your generation.”
The nearby gunfire rose in crescendo. Then came the tragic and sobering news: The report that there had been a suicide bomb, probably at the UN Common Compound, a few hundred metres up the road, where UN humanitarian and development officers work and live.
The UNSOM team learned in shock and disbelief of the loss of a much-loved United Nations colleague and seven others working with the UN. The heroism of the Somali guards in trying to fight off the attackers, and the passing of four of them was cause for gratitude and sorrow. UN colleagues had been the victim of a planned attack which was directly aimed at destroying, not building the new beginnings in Somalia. Somali passers-by also lost their lives. The UN team, gathered at the airport later that day, marked a moment’s silence with bowed heads.
Speaking later to the media, Kay said the UN team grieved for their colleagues but was undeterred: “We’re here to help, and here to stay.”