Somalia's international isolation ending? This may be the best place it's been in years

You wouldn't think it, but recent gains tell of a country on a determined mission to redeem itself following decades of internecine strife.

You probably wouldn’t think it, but it just could be the best time to be a Somali in the last 20 years.

Talk of a property boom is not far-fetched, construction work continues unabated, while entry points are choked with Somalis coming back home. Despite an ever-present threat of terrorist bombs, the battered streets teem with resilient entrepreneurs and shoppers simply refusing to be put down. 

Residents and security forces tell of a country determinedly clambering back onto its feet not unlike a boxer with a bloodied nose, and of one that is fast ending its international isolation following a debilitating two-decade civil war triggered by the collapse of the Siad Barre junta-led central government in 1991. 

The latest fillip to its diplomatic effort was the announcement by the United States that President Barack Obama would soon nominate an ambassador to Somalia, though he or she would in the interim work out of Nairobi. 

It will be America’s first ambassador to Somalia in 20 years, a significant  development according to analysts following a reset of Washington’s foreign policy in the aftermath of its disastrous Operation Restore Hope of the early 1990s.

The American ambassador would join the growing ranks of envoys who have been trooping to Villa Somalia, the seat of the Somali presidency, to present their credentials over the last one year to present their letters of credence.

Ethiopia, Uganda, Burundi, Kenya and Nigeria are among the long-list of African countries that have re-established diplomatic ties with Somalia. 

They join a roster that also counts Turkey, China, France, Germany, Japan, UK, Spain, Belgium and the UAE.

‘Diplomats corner’
This trend, according to high-ranking officials at the 22,000-strong multinational African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom), was evidence of the significant gains in the country’s security situation, progress corroborated by residents.    

One official talked of a burgeoning “Gigiri” just north of the Mogadishu airport, a reference to the glitzy area in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi that hosts most diplomatic missions and also the United Nations. 

On the flipside this has also meant the diplomats have become targets for terrorists. The UN compound was in June 2013 the target of an Al-Shabaab suicide attack. 

The African Development Bank is currently preparing a multi-donor fund for the country, while its experts are on the ground to strengthen the country’s weak financial institutions.

Somalia is also currently in contact with the International Monetary Fund, which recognised its government last year after a 22-year hiatus, about completing a need-based country review, known as Article Four consultations; which has been delayed since 1989.

Somalia may however have to wait longer for monetary and development aid as it owes $350-million to the IMF, and $250-million to the World Bank.

Burnishing credentials
Airlines continue to reestablish links, with discussions about Ethiopian Airlines resuming Mogadishu flights said to be advanced, while there are also whispers of a Kenya Airways return. 

Currently Turkish Airlines and Air Uganda are the carriers that operate active flight numbers to the Somali capital. 

Piracy has also been brought down by international patrols and determents by shipping companies. At its peak in 2011, the International Maritime Bureau counted 237 attacks, last year only five were attempted, and it said all were foiled. 

Somalia has been further burnishing its international credentials as it seeks to keep partners onside following the election of President Hassan Sheikh Mohamoud by parliament in 2012.

The Somalia president became the first one recently, in over 30 years, to address the UN in September 2013.

Amisom and the Somali National Army have just completed the first phase of its countrywide offensive against Al Shabaab, and counts 11 districts as having been liberated from their the militants.

Another 14 are targeted “in coming months”, an official said. 

Political boost
Al-Shabaab has suffered a series of battlefield losses since it was first dislodged from fixed positions in the capital in August 2011, and has now resorted to insurgencies and guerilla tactics, what Amisom refers to as “asymmetrical warfare”.

This has seen the country’s parliament, State House and courts all targeted in deadly suicide missions. 

However, in a political boost to the Mogadishu government, the defection last week of top Al-Shabaab commander Said Atom is seen as a weakening of the leadership of the Islamists, and comes on the heels of another defection by Hassan Dahir Aweys, a former senior leader who is now under house arrest

Enhancing governance will also deprive the militants of their recruitment grounds, a diplomat said on condition of anonymity, a pointed reference to official graft.

Somalia has been heavily criticised over the corruption of its government leaders, fuelling doubt as to how fast the country can turn round.

“I do not see much changing in the next five years. There is too much corruption and entrenched interests,” author and columnist Rasna Warah said. 

Warah, who has a deep knowledge of Somalia, is writing a book on the country, which she calls “complex”.

Residents spoken expressed their “delight” at not being controlled by the Shabaab. 

Brought hardships
The security push against the militants of recent months has brought its own hardships though.

 “Despite the wars, its business as usual when it comes to trade. Merchants import and export whatever they can, send goods anywhere, but movements of people and goods are more limited nowadays as Al-Shabaab militants tend to block the roads between the districts [as a message to Amisom],” a veteran Somali journalist, who sought anonymity for security reasons, said.

This has also hampered the country’s humanitarian effort. The UN’s Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs and international aid agencies warn of a growing risk of drought, with as many as 200,000 Somali children said to be at risk of dying from malnutrition this year. 

The country is also waiting for donors to meet their $2.4 billion in pledges made at the highly-publicised “New Deal” conference held in Brussels last September.


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