Seven Questions

Seven Questions: Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah

Why the U.N. secretary-general's representative in Somalia sees hope for the most dangerous place in the world.

MOHAMED DAHIR/AFP/Getty Images
MOHAMED DAHIR/AFP/Getty Images

In a contest of failed states, Somalia would win every award, boasting two decades of anarchy, more than a dozen transitional governments, and a population at war — that is famine-prone. Writing in Foreign Policy, Jeffrey Gettleman called Somalia the most dangerous place in the world. It might well be. Despite — or perhaps because of — countless foreign interventions, Somalia has grown into the world’s newest terrorist hotbed. Concern is growing that Somalia’s chaos is spreading. On March 11, news surfaced that U.S. citizens of Somali origin were being recruited and radicalized by Somali Islamist groups.

Yet in the face of all this, Somalia’s luck has started to look up in recent months — maybe. Ethiopian troops that had occupied the country since 2006 pulled out in January. A new president and prime minister have been elected. The country’s raucous Parliament has been empowered and returned to Somalia from Djibouti for the first time since Islamists captured its administrative base city of Baidoa in January. Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed might even be the right person to unite feuding factions of Islamists; the country’s new president draws directly from the former Islamic government’s ranks. The notorious Shabab Islamist gunmen were part of that former government, too. With a rare sense of hope in the air, the United Nations’ top diplomat in Mogadishu told FP‘s Elizabeth Dickinson that the opportunity is real — but the gains are fragile.

Foreign Policy: You are here visiting with policymakers and diplomats in Washington. What are some of your goals for the visit? What do you hope to achieve?

Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah: In Somalia, we have a new administration. For the first time in many, many years, we have president, prime minister, and Parliament back in Mogadishu and determined to stay. This is also really for the first time that you have Arab, African, and Western support [for the Somali government]. At the same time, there is a new American administration that is assessing its policy towards Africa. I met people at the White House and State Department, and everyone is seeing that the situation is new; there is a new dawn in Somalia.

There is also new and concrete concern about the situation in Somalia — as you have seen on the front page of the Washington Post [U.S. citizens have been recruited to Somali radical groups]. This once again proves that Somalia is a threat to its own people, a threat to the region, and a threat to the international community. It has been addressed as such, is the message.

FP: In your meetings, have you found U.S. and other policymakers receptive to taking a new look at Somalia policy — which in the past has been very focused on counterterrorism — or is there resistance to changing the policy already in place?

AOA: I was not surprised [by what I found], because in the United States, like most mature democracies, policy is based on institutions; it is not on individuals. We may have some changes in style. In our meetings, they have been showing really serious concern and great interest in addressing Somalia. They would like Somalia to help, but they are not going to be a victim of the deteriorating (or deteriorated) situation.

It is also the first time we’ve had such concern from Asia, because Somalia has become an economic threat [to shipping] from piracy. And watching [reports of terrorist recruitment from the United States] today, it has become a domestic threat. I’m sure this is also a concern for Scandinavia and for the U.K., where you have 280,000 Somalis. Or for Canada, where you have 250,000 Somali people.

FP: In your work so far, you have talked about the compromises that Somalis will have to make to become a functioning, peaceful state. What compromises will the international community have to make on Somalia — for example, accepting some measure of Islamic governance?

AOA: We have two compromises. The first is between Somalis themselves. The winner-take-all culture of Somalia must end. This applies also for Somalis who think that every individual has veto power. Any Somali who is unhappy with something says, I will not join; have a conference for me. This has to end. Whatever they call themselves, whatever cover they use, Somali leaders have to accept the very notion of compromise.

For the international community, the compromise is to recognize that Somalia has been at war with itself for 20 years. Sharia to me is not a big problem, because most Somalis already live socially under a sharia system; it is more cultural really than it is religious.

FP: Have Islamist groups in Somalia worked with the United Nations through your mission at all?

AOA: We have been working with the most Islamist of the Islamists: Sheikh Sharif, the new president, who was in power [as head of the Islamic Courts Union] from June to December 2006. He was thrown out by force. But just because he is able to consider compromise does not mean he is not an Islamist. Here’s someone who drew conclusions from experience, who has shown leadership. To me, the real Islam is him. In the Koran (2:217), they said, Subversion is worse than war.

FP: What kind of help can the United Nations give to the new president and prime minister as they are trying to form a strong transitional government?

AOA: We have people who are ready to help: the U.N., the African Union, and especially the Arab League, who would like to give a chance to Somalia — a new chance. Somali leadership should give a chance to their people to live at least up to African standards, which is not demanding too much.

Our role is to help with that: to recognize the government, and not accept being manipulated by some people who say, We control this region or that region. The time of warlords or money lords or religious lords is seen — in the African Union conference, in the Arab League conference, in Washington — as over.

FP: With a country like Somalia that is so mashed up, where do you start rebuilding?

AOA: It has to start simultaneously on many fronts — simultaneously and nonstop. To support [the government’s] security forces, to give them pay and training, at the same time to give humanitarian assistance and development assistance. Also, Somalia is the only country on the face of the Earth where you have no diplomatic representation in the capital — no NGOs, no U.N. organizations. This is embarrassing to Somalia, to be at the bottom of the heap. So we support them in making it possible to have this international representation in Mogadishu.

FP: Ethiopia has played a strong interventionary role in Somalia. Do you think this will continue?

AOA: In all conflicts, you have external interference; I don’t know any exception. What is important is for the leadership of the effected country to make a compromise. If we, Somalia, do not compromise, we will remain a battleground for ideas or for speculative interests, or for policies. For me, neighbors should not interfere, but the primary responsibility lies on the shoulders of nations.

In the case of Somalia, Ethiopia has withdrawn all its troops, and Somalia should be concerned by its own national issues. I have spoken with Ethiopia, Djibouti, Uganda, and Kenya. Mostly, they have a sincere sympathy for the Somali population. They are also concerned by the lack of central government.

When we discuss Somalia, we should never forget that we are discussing human beings. Analyses are needed, but it is a problem of humanity. Not only do we have a responsibility to end impunity — Somali against Somali. We ourselves become accomplices if we do not address the situation in Somalia.

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