Hassan Sheikh Mohamud was an unexpected choice for the job of taking Somalia out of its long and self-perpetuating period of ‘transitional’ government. His election in September 2012 came as a surprise because he had not formed part of earlier administrations and was not tainted with corruption or incompetence. Far from being a Somali warlord, Hassan Sheikh had spent most of the last 20 years living in Mogadishu, where he played a leading role in civil society conflict resolution.
‘In a better position than the previous leadership’
Speaking in London recently, President Hassan observed this was ‘the first time in recent Somali history that a leadership that has not practised violence has come to power’. He says the years he spent working with civil society gave him a deep insight into the root causes of Somali conflict. He believes his experience of community-level peace building has equipped him with tools not available to his predecessors. He stresses the need for people ‘to address the bitter memories of the past’, the need for rule of law and human rights protection and the need for dialogue and ‘listening to the other voice’.
President Hassan does not condemn all that happened in the 30 years of Somali statehood from 1960 to1990, but he acknowledges one of the key short-comings: ‘All the rules and the regulations we have in place today only served a highly centralized system,’ he says. ‘We don’t have any rule or any law that facilitates the devolution of power or regulates the relationship between the centre and the peripheries.’ There is much to do to build the new federal system to which the government is committed.
Problems of discipline and issues of identity and loyalty exist, for which there is no quick fix. He says his short-term goal is ‘the security of ordinary citizens in their daily lives’
He says the Somali nation owes its continued existence in the decades without government or any rule of law to the strength of Somali culture. ‘There was nothing but the traditions, cultures and the customary law. These are what the people used in these decades and there is a great deal of relevance in Somali traditions even today.’
Hassan admits that security is still a serious problem and that Somali security institutions are very weak, its forces untrained and ill equipped. Problems of discipline and issues of identity and loyalty exist, for which there is no quick fix. He says his short-term goal is ‘the security of ordinary citizens in their daily lives’. The challenge he defines is how to ‘make the roads, markets and communities “safe enough” so that a Somali woman can go to the market and buy and sell the things she needs’. The concept of the whole country – land, sea and air – operating under the control of Somali security forces, what he terms ‘ultimate security’, is a longer-term target.
The immediate security challenge facing Somalia’s government comes from Al Shabab, the militant Islamist group still controlling significant parts of the south. President Hassan himself narrowly avoided an assassination attempt in September. Last week, suicide bombers again penetrated Villa Somalia but were thwarted in an attempt to kill the Prime Minister. President Hassan’s earlier commitment to dialogue has become more circumspect. Today, he stresses that the phenomenon of Al Shabab is not only a Somali problem but also a regional, continental and international problem, which brings its own constraints. He emphatically wants nothing to do with the ‘core, hard extremist team that leads Al Shabab, who say that Somalia is a country that belongs to all Muslims. We are totally against that.’ However, the government will keep an open door ‘to any Somali citizen wanting to get back to the mainstream of society, who denounces violence and recognizes Somalia as an independent country.’
Looking ahead, President Hassan speaks of his plans to extend government beyond the capital. ‘For the first time in post-conflict Somalia, we have a plan where the governance system will be taken outside Mogadishu.’ In the south of the country, around Kismayo, Baidoa and Belet Weyn, discussions with stakeholders are already in progress, starting from the bottom up, to form district and regional level administrations. This process can be expected to become more complex if and when the government’s reach starts to touch on the established political entities in the North, Somaliland (which claims independence) and Puntland. For now, the process is gradual.
The new government has inherited a situation in which neighbouring countries are heavily involved, with military forces inside the country and international forces patrolling Somalia’s seas to contain piracy. ‘This cannot continue,’ he says. ‘What we stand for is to make Somalia handle its security on its own. The world cannot bring peace to Somalia, but it can support it.’
President Hassan is convinced that the amount of recovery Somalia can make depends critically on the international community shifting from the existing patterns of engagement
On his visits to those neighbouring countries, as well as to the US and Europe, President Hassan has asked for help to continue but is also asking for a ‘paradigm shift’ in how that help is delivered. The ‘old practices’, as he calls them, will not deliver, as they did not deliver in the past. The different way requires acceptance of Somali ownership, to let the government itself decide on the type of help required ‘to assist us to manage our own affairs in the short term’.
President Hassan often repeats that ‘change is not easy or fast’, whether in relation to establishing government or persuading the international community to behave differently. But he is convinced that the amount of recovery Somalia can make depends critically on the international community shifting from the existing patterns of engagement. Meanwhile, business is booming in Mogadishu and, after nearly six months in office, President Hassan is still optimistic.
Sally Healy is a Fellow of the Rift Valley Institute. Extracts from her conversation with President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud on 2 February 2013 can also be heard on a podcast on the Rift Valley Institute website.