Somali Minister for Foreign Affairs and Investment Promotion Abdusalam Omer acknowledges challenges the war-torn nation faces but remains optimistic his motherland will triumph over al-Shabaab terrorists and eventually become peaceful.
On the sidelines of the just concluded 27th AU Summit, in Kigali, the economist and politician talked to Saturday Times’ James Karuhanga and, among other things, expounded on his government’s wish that African Mission to Somalia (AMISOM) troops do not leave before the country’s army can stand on its own.
There is talk of timelines for pulling out peacekeeping troops from Somalia. The AU plans to withdraw its forces by end 2020. If that happens, how would you manage?
I think they came for a reason and we are most grateful to our brothers and sisters all the way from Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda to Burundi, sending their children to help stabilise Somalia and defeat a nemesis against international terrorism, and people who are raising hell in Somalia.
It’s not a Somali problem. It’s a regional and international problem. They came to help Somalia and, we have turned the corner. Militarily, we have defeated al-Shabaab with the help of our AMISOM brothers and sisters and Somali national army. And the work they came for and paid a high price; lives of some of the children, has to be completed. Whether that can be completed in a year or two, or three, is an open question.
Somalia totally disintegrated and the rebuilding of Somalia includes rebuilding Somali national army which is at its infancy stage. I don’t think that AMISOM staying or leaving should be time bound. It should be a condition bound.
You don’t want AMISOM to leave soon?
We don’t want AMISOM to leave right now. They came with a job to do. That job is probably 80 per cent done and, while they were doing the job they became a nemesis to the whole region. There were attacks in Uganda, there were repeated attacks in Kenya and, it’s done by the same group they are fighting in Somalia.
I think they should leave when the Somali national army is ready to take over the responsibility of protecting their sovereignty and integrity of the Somali nation, and fight international terrorism.
Somali troops are doing that right now, except that there is not enough equipment and there are not enough of them out there and they don’t have enough support.
What do you make of reports indicating that Uganda is inclined to withdrawing its troops way earlier than before 2018?
Well, we are very grateful to our Ugandan brothers and sisters who have been with us for seven years. I think Uganda, and Ugandan leadership, are rational people who will see the circumstances and make decisions accordingly.
I have not had a discussion between the two governments as regards this issue, but it has been reported. We believe in the final analysis the Ugandan government will finish the job and will support us until we can stand on our feet, and until the arms embargo on Somalia is lifted.
What is the Somali government doing to see stability and peace return home?
We’re doing a lot. We are coming from the belly of the beast. Four years ago, nobody counted us. With the help of AMISOM, we liberated every major city and town in Somalia and, business in Mogadishu is booming. The economy, according to the IMF, has grown almost 4.5 per cent in 2014 and expected trajectory of growth. We are rebuilding institutions. It’s very challenging to build a country from scratch; and a country that has disintegrated to be put back together.
Somali people decided that they want peace, governance and a unity of purpose and, we are healing. Civil war is [about] a brother killing a brother, and it’s difficult to heal from it. It takes a longer time to heal. But because of the resilience of the Somali people, and the leadership we elected in 2012 under President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, we are on the mend.
Any hope Somalia can see peace for good?
Somalia is seeing peace. Somalia is fighting the same fights in the east and in Paris, in Garissa, in Istanbul and everywhere except that we have fewer forces and, maybe, more problems.
Back to AMISOM; we read that it is ineffective and corrupt.
It’s very clear; the successes of AMISOM are clear.
Outweighing the alleged shortcomings?
They outweigh them 100 per cent. I invite you to Mogadishu to come and see for yourself. Business is working, the government is working, and mosques are attended too. But there will be opportunistic attacks. And this is a phenomenon that maybe Somalia understands very well. How do you stop a young man or woman who wakes up in the morning and wants to kill herself, and everybody in town? That’s a major problem not only faced in Somalia but faced by governments in Paris, Istanbul. Humans are strange; what they can do to each other. I think Rwanda is a testimony to that.
Rwanda is where it is today partly or largely because of homegrown solutions. Are there any homegrown solutions for Somalis?
[Laughs] You might be surprised by this. We are a lot more ahead of most African countries in terms of creating our own solutions. For example, without the central government in place at certain times, we have ports working, schools run by civil society, hospitals being built. The spirit of Somali people never went away.
Somalia has been under a total arms embargo for a very long time; partially lifted now but we are still under embargo. This makes it difficult to build the military.
Another major component that comes into play is the Diaspora. There are two to three million Somalis out of Somalia. They remit $2 billion annually.
What’s Somalia’s national budget?
Well, it dwarfs the Somali central government budget, the regional government budget, including the international assistance budget and AMISOM money.
And how many Somalis are making this happen?
Probably 2.5 million. Some are Members of Parliament of Canada, some hold high positions in the US, UK... There might be 300,000 Somalis in London. I came back from Washington DC. The Prime Minister comes from Canada.
Interesting, what were you doing in DC?
I was running the City of Washington DC as budget director. I was deputy chief financial officer and I was, another time, a chief of staff to the Mayor. I ran a $6 billion dollar budget.
I can imagine the impact of hundreds like you returning home…
It’s happening. We have only one country and, I am proud to be Somali-American. I don’t have any qualms with the United States. That’s where I spent most of my life but Somalia is where I was born. My responsibility is to work there.
Moving on, Somalia’s interest to join the East African Community (EAC), where do we stand?
We submitted a preliminary application and didn’t really move forward with it but we’ll move forward soon.
Did the EAC get back to you?
They will get back to us. They were supposed to come and visit then it didn’t happen but this is the basis for it. Today, we have invested heavily in Kenya.
Have you ever heard a section of Nairobi called Eastleigh? It’s predominantly Somali. We’ve invested our money there. We’ve been welcomed by the Kenyan people and government. Four million Kenyan-Somalis live in Kenya. We’ve been welcome in Uganda, and there are Somali business people in Kigali. There are huge communities out there who are productive and participating in the development of their host countries and development of Somalia. And, we have a lot to offer EAC.
We have the longest coast in east Africa; 3,300 kilometres. We have probably the best wind energy potential.
A long coastline is simply a potential and EAC won’t instantly benefit given current security questions.
That’s true but others are already fishing there, illegally. We have the largest percentage per capita of livestock especially sheep and goats, in the world, and 8.9 million hectares of arable land. Rwandans should come and invest and also tell us how you have developed so fast. You’re all welcome, you’ll make money.
What particular investment areas would you recommend to Rwandans?
Well, you need fish. Low cost, high impact. I always tell the audiences I talk to that our fish is dying of old age. So, come and fish. We can be trading partners for vegetables and fruits and all that.
Somalia used to be the leading country in the European market before the collapse of banana, grape fruits and all those plantations. In the construction industry, the whole country needs to be rebuilt. In the public sector, you can support us with your manpower. You can also invest and buy land and discuss the limit.
What more would Somalia offer EAC?
We have human resource; we have entrepreneurial spirit that is functioning in Uganda, Rwanda, Kenya and other parts of east Africa.
We have a population of 12 million just like Rwanda and that’s a big addition to the market and we need some of the commodities on the market that we don’t have.
I don’t think any other country is better situated for trade with the Middle East and Far East than Somalia. From the Red Sea all the way to the Indian Ocean, that’s the busiest water way in the world.
When exactly did you apply?
I think it was three years ago, maybe, but it was only considered one time and postponed. I don’t think there’s an issue if we really put our heads together and visit our brothers and sisters in the region. There is a bundle of money and economic development that can be done in Somalia but not in land locked countries.
We especially can be a transportation hub for COMESA; we have a neighbor that has 100 million citizens, in Ethiopia, that we can trade with.
What’s on top of your agenda presently?
On top of the agenda is bilateral relations with our neighbors; to develop our infrastructure; to put back together and harness our institutions for planning and government; our very active and robust civil society; develop our active Diaspora to put the big money they bring to common use.