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Somalia charts a new path

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Somalia charts a new path

— Nicholas Kay
Franck Kuwonu
From Africa Renewal: 
Nicholas Kay, former Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Head of the UN Assistance Mission in Somalia (UNSOM).
UN Photo
Nicholas Kay, former Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Head of the UN Assistance Mission in Somalia (UNSOM).
Nicholas Kay, a former Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Somalia, completed his assignment at the end of 2015. For over two years, he was actively involved with Somalis in charting a new path for a country that is trying to come back from years of conflict. In this interview with Africa Renewal’s Franck Kuwonu, he talks about his time in Somalia and what lies ahead for the country.

Africa Renewal: What was it like helping chart a new path for a country that has suffered for so long from conflicts?

Nicholas Kay: This is the first time in more than 25 years that the United Nations has been able to play a strong, constructive role in helping a political process put the country back together.  In 1996, the UN left Somalia in real disarray. In 2013 we returned with the political mission of the UN Assistance Mission in Somalia which I led. It was a time full of hope and challenges of a country coming together rather than a country falling apart.  Personally, it was a fantastic professional opportunity.

How challenging was it to provide security to the people?

Somalia is one of the most dangerous places in the world for the United Nations to operate. The Al-Shabaab terrorist group poses a real threat not just to UN staff but also to any other international presence on the ground. What we have shown is that with the right security measures and support, it is possible to stay in Somalia and deliver.  Now the UN has established a firm presence in Mogadishu and across the country and we are there to stay, there is no doubt about it.  The Somali people are greatly encouraged by the UN presence there and by the commitment, courage and dedication of the UN staff.

The country is also known for its perennial political squabbling fuelled mainly by clan rivalry. Were these easy to manage?

It was easy to manage for two reasons: Somalis are actually very political people. They are used to sitting down together and talking, negotiating and making deals.  Secondly, it’s fortunate that after about 26 years of conflict, Somalis have decided now is the time to turn the page and commit themselves to building a new country.

Arrangements that led to the creation of a parliament in 2012 were criticised. Some say they lacked proper legitimacy. Were these criticisms justified?

The transition in 2012 that established the Federal government, parliament and the installation of the President was of the traditional type, with elders and their clans selecting the members of parliament, who then selected the president.  So, the organizations that I was working with had a great deal of legitimacy in local terms and they were certainly nationally represented, but I would not say it was democratic. When I was in Somalia we were aiming at holding democratic elections in 2016. That may not be possible because the security situation in the country and political progress has not been sufficient to allow elections to happen.  So in the absence of that, what we have done is to help Somalis put together a process that is more inclusive and more representative than what happened in 2012.

How inclusive and representative will the process be?

It will involve electoral colleges meeting in the federal member states that are now in place. There will be several hundred people in each location and there will be a choice of candidates to vote for, with guarantees that women and youth will be represented in a future parliament.  I think it’s a good step forward but it’s not the whole nine yards.  However, there are some stakeholders who are not content with the model that’s been chosen. There is need to agree on a very clear and detailed roadmap for the period 2016-2020 before the elections. 

At the end of your mission you warned that a lack of economic advancement could imperil the progress made?

More than 70% of the Somali population are under the age of 35 and for them a whole generation has suffered from the civil war. Literacy levels are very low. Certainly the country is making political progress and seeks to become a functioning federal state with institutions accountable to the people and delivering better services.  It is a slow and painful process but it is happening. Security is improving and the economy is reviving. But outside of Mogadishu, up in the northeast and parts of the south and central part of Somalia, the people are still very desperate and poor.  So, security and political progress will disappear if in the next five to 10 years the economic recovery does not happen and children cannot go to school and graduates cannot get jobs.

Going forward, are there any benchmarks or landmark events to watch out for?

The big event in 2016 should be the elections — parliamentary elections in August and then presidential elections in September.  It will be a great landmark for Somalia if they achieve those on time and stick to the rules that they themselves have created for this process.  It will be a process owned, led, and conducted by the Somalis themselves.