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Director's Discourse: Somali President Brings Optimism, Despite Al Shabaab Attack

somalia pres pic for post

In September, the Wilson Center's Africa Program hosted an event and witnessed from afar another one that illustrated how intimately connected and causative these things can be. On September 20, we had the honor to host the Somali president for a public event titled, "Somalia: A Conversation with President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud." This was his first major policy address in Washington, although he would proceed to New York the following week to address the Security Council at the United Nations General Assembly meeting.

I did not know what to expect. Obviously, the nature of the fractious assemblage of autonomous and semi-autonomous areas that make up Somalia, with the horrendous recent history of violence and mayhem since the 1991 overthrow of Said Barre, does not give an observer a lot of confidence that anyone can bring peace and development to that area. At the same time, as an unapologetic African-optimist, I was anxious to meet this man and hear about his plans for his country.

Let me say up front that I was pleasantly surprised. President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud is a soft-spoken, intellectual, thoughtful and congenial man; young as Presidents go, and obviously deeply caring about his country. His background is in education, where he has been a university professor and dean. Already, we seem to have a man more closely linked to the to the people than his predecessors. As I listened to him speak, I began to realize that this man was sincere, looking honestly for ways to address the myriad challenges facing Somalia without a set ideology or bias, and open to all options and ideas.  He was a man focused on solving problems.

It was refreshing to hear President Mohamud accept the cynicism of his countrymen and women.  "After decades of civil war, dozens of external interventions and numerous transitions, the Somali people have earned the right to be skeptical," he said. It was even more refreshing to hear a head of state put people first and cast a net of political inclusiveness.  "The process of federation can only succeed if it reflects and respects the will of the local people," he argued, "Not if it's imposed from the capital."

A President with a Plan

When it came to his plan of action for igniting development in Somalia, it was also impressive to me that he was specific, but realistic. President Mohamud said that within Somalia's 72 districts, he hopes to have at least one school, water well, health center, federal court and police station in each.  He further indicated that education was a priority and the Somali government had recruited 1,000 teachers to instruct more than 100,000 children, with the ultimate goal during his four-year term to have a million students in school.

He stated the need to create a constitution and establish credible federal and multi-party electoral systems. He wants to improve Somalia's economic sector and attract international investors. He hopes to focus on re-establishing diplomatic ties with a number of countries, including Ethiopia and Kenya. He requested the international community lift the embargos set by the United Nations Security Council in 1992. He would like to reconcile the central government in Mogadishu with the regional authorities in Hargeisa.

All this being said, President Mohamud fully recognized the need to provide physical security and stability for the people of Somalia. He discussed the situation of the terrorist group, Al Shabaab, acknowledging that while they have been driven out of most populated urban areas, they were still operationally active and a threat that needed to be countered.  In discussing the origins of Al Shabaab, he explained that about 60 percent of Somalia's population is under the age of 35. A boy who was five in 1990, before the overthrow of Said Barre and at the beginning of persistent conflict, is now 28 most likely with a wife and child. He has probably never gone to school and the "only tool he knows how to use is an AK-47."  He assured the audience that his government was working to provide rehabilitation programs for young men who are either in Al-Shabaab or working as pirates.

I left that session somewhat reassured that Somalia may be moving in the right direction that President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud had indicated.

The Westgate Attack in Kenya

The very next day on Saturday, September 21, the International Day of Peace, I was sitting with friends and colleagues at the South African Embassy in Washington, DC. We were celebrating the unveiling of a statue of former President Nelson Mandela when the news started trickling in about the Al Shabaab attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.  Early reports were devastating.  As we learned of the final tally – 67 innocent civilians and 5 terrorists dead, 11 captured, and the peace and security of a great city taken away for a generation or two – I reflected on what President Mohamud had said just a day before.  Al Shabaab announced their action was in retaliation for the Kenya Army's insertion into the fight against them in 2011, in support of AMISOM and the new Federal Government.  They had indiscriminately killed anyone they could see – black or white, male or female, young or old, Christian, Muslim, Hindu or animist, Kenyan or foreigner.

Was this a refutation of what Mohamud had said?  Was there to be no progress in Somalia after all?  Was he just white washing to picture for a friendly Western audience from which he expected assistance?

In thinking it through in the wake of this awful tragedy, I had to conclude that the answer to all those questions was "no."  Even the make-up of the terrorist squad, which devastated the Westgate Mall, gave a hint at what may be happening in Somalia. As the Kenyan government took control and began to identify who the terrorists were, it was revealed that possibly only one, or maybe two, actually came from Somalia, but that Al Shabaab may not have been the sole group responsible.  Just this morning, Kenyan Foreign Minister told Al Jazeera that in fact, the leader of the attack took his orders from Al Qaeda.  Furthermore, in that same report, it was confirmed that the terrorists were not only Somali, but represented several other nationalities as well.

They came to Nairobi to commit an act that would throw fear in the hearts of their perceived enemies, and give them publicity from which might inspire more recruits and more resources for their cause.  They were not there to represent the legitimate grievances of a Somali people who are mired in the legacy of 22 years of war and devastation, and are weary of the conflict.  Poor, beset by disease, unemployed, without safe water and sanitation, the people of Somalia don't need what Al Shabaab offers. They do need what President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud offers.

Time will tell if this open and frank educator, a man without ego who wears his heart on his sleeve, can fulfill those needs.   Be, as he said, he is on the right track.  Al Shabaab has just put another nail in its coffin as an entity that matters to this beleaguered and fragile country.

Photo taken from recent Wilson Center event with President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud.

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The Africa Program works to address the most critical issues facing Africa and US-Africa relations, build mutually beneficial US-Africa relations, and enhance knowledge and understanding about Africa in the United States. The Program achieves its mission through in-depth research and analyses, public discussion, working groups, and briefings that bring together policymakers, practitioners, and subject matter experts to analyze and offer practical options for tackling key challenges in Africa and in US-Africa relations.    Read more