MOGADISHU, Somalia – I was at the National Theater in Mogadishu yesterday, and witnessed the despicable terrorist attack by a suicide bomber in which more than six people were killed — including two of the country’s dearest sporting heroes. Seeing first-hand the appalling loss of life and harm done to my countrymen was a savage reminder of what is at stake in Somalia. On the one hand, we have an internationally recognized government, one that is growing in strength and steering the country through the last four months of transition towards a new constitution, a new parliament, and presidential elections; on the other, we still face a nihilistic terrorist group, influenced by foreign ideologies, that delights in killing Somalis and has nothing positive to offer.
Although violence has become tragically endemic in Somalia in recent years, it doesn’t have to be like this. Conflict is not inevitable here. Go back to 1966, for instance, when an Associated Press news report described Somalia as “the most democratic country in Africa. Half a dozen political parties contest free elections. Government officials get modest salaries and drive modest automobiles.” In those days, Mogadishu was a peaceful city of elegant avenues shaded by palm trees, handsome villas, and graceful architecture that combined the best of Africa and Europe.
Today, in the aftermath of more than 20 years of ruinous fighting, hope is once again in the air — despite the attempts of terrorists to return the country to chaos. We are taking advantage of the longest sustained period of relative peace since 1991 to rebuild the shattered infrastructure of Mogadishu, doing everything we can to restore it to its former glory and set the country on a path to lasting peace and reconciliation.
One of the last times Somalia was featured at length in Foreign Policy, in July last year, Ambassador Boubacar Gaoussou Diarra, head of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), argued that with a little more help from donors, the al Qaeda affiliated terrorist group al-Shabab could be driven out of Mogadishu. Only a month later, that came true.
Seven months later, Mogadishu is a city transformed. Yesterday’s attack on myself, the country’s government, and the nation’s media was unusual. There is no doubt that compared to a year ago, Somalis are more confident of security and of their future. Don’t just take my word for it. Actions speak louder than words: Somalis from the diaspora are flocking back to help rebuild the nation and start new enterprises. Business is resuming in earnest — new shops, markets, hotels, hospitals, restaurants, and cafés are opening. From soccer to basketball, recreation and public entertainment is resuming across neighborhoods. To the delight of the city, musical concerts are taking place again. The seaport is busier than ever; the airport is receiving more international flights than it has for years. Foreign VIPs, such as the Turkish prime minister, the British foreign secretary, and the German development minister among many others have been welcomed visitors in recent months. And earlier this year, the United Nations Political Office for Somalia decided to move its core staff to Mogadishu after 17 years of operating from Nairobi, a genuine vote of confidence in the future of Somalia. We hope that other organizations, agencies, and embassies will follow the UN’s example.
The international media has also spotted the change, hence headlines this past week such as “Somalis Embrace Hope and Reconstruction in Mogadishu” (New York Times), “Sports, art, streetlights: A new life in Mogadishu” (AP), and “Is Al Shabaab cracking under the pressure?” (Allafrica). The answer to the last question, incidentally, is a resounding yes. Al Shabab, the principal obstacle to peace, is under pressure as never before and is tearing itself to pieces. By resorting to indiscriminate terrorism, as we saw yesterday, they prove that they are desperate, looking for any means to impose their tyrannical will on Somalis. Every day, they are losing more ground; on the outskirts of Mogadishu, in Bay, and Galmudug to our army, who is fighting alongside our valued partners from AMISOM.
With all this progress behind us, the next four months represent the greatest opportunity we have had for a settlement in Somalia since the collapse of the state in 1991.
The political process under the internationally agreed road map remains firmly on track. We are nearing the end of our quest for a new constitution, the bedrock of a new Somalia. The lead role will be played by an 825-member Constituent Assembly, a body chosen to represent the diverse segments and communities of our country, that will come together in the last two weeks of May. The Constituent Assembly and traditional leaders will be assisted by expertise from a panel of legal and constitutional experts.
My government and I have already engaged on the process of writing a constitution in Mogadishu, Beledweyne, Garowe, and Galkayo — as well as with the Somali diaspora communities that are so vital for our future reconstruction, in Britain, Canada, Italy, Kenya, Kuwait, Norway, Qatar, Sweden, and the United States. We will continue to build inclusiveness by traveling across Somalia, listening to what our fellow Somalis have to say about the constitution. From women to youth groups, from the business community to traditional leaders and cultural figures — all will have their say in the new Somalia. We will leave no stone unturned to make this constitutional process the most inclusive yet. Only then will the document we produce have the legitimacy that previous processes lacked.
At the same time, our institutions are being restructured to make them fit for purpose. Parliament will be reduced from 550 members to 225, newly selected by traditional Somali leaders, a key part of our commitment to responsible and representative government. This is just one of the ways in which we are tackling the issue of corruption head-on. International donors need to see we are credible and transparent partners in order to be able to give us the support so necessary for our recovery from the abyss. In August, the transitional government will come to an end and a new president will be elected, presiding over a state with a new parliament and a new constitution.
Reconciliation and a fairer sense of justice and governance will be the order of the day in the newly liberated parts of the country. We are only too conscious of the dangers of leaving a vacuum in the increasing number of areas from which al-Shabab has been ousted. Working with local communities, we will be establishing civil administrations, peace committees, and promoting social reconciliation. Of course, the state must strive to contain and remove heavy weaponry from al-Shabaab and move as quickly as we can to disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration of former combatants. Above all, we will be need to be flexible in what we do. No one is seeking to impose a one-size-fits-all solution in what are very different regions of Somalia. The point is: We are prepared. We have the mechanisms to end this transition.
Where al-Shabab recently refused to allow humanitarian activity and food distribution in the areas it controlled during the famine of last year, we welcome the partnership of the international agencies in assisting the populations that have suffered so terribly under its draconian regime. We will also need help from our friends in AMISOM and the wider international community in providing basic services to these communities. We must show them — and quickly — the benefits of stable and inclusive government or risk spoilers moving in to exploit the absence of authority.
There is no doubt that we face formidable challenges between now and August. We know from yesterday’s horrific events that people are out to wreck the opportunity for peace. In the past, Somali politicians have been guilty of fracturing — just at the moment when citizens expect and hope for the greatest leadership. Inevitably, some political factions will sow disunity. They must not prevail. We know only too well where that leads. Somali leaders must come together, and stay together, at the local, regional, and national levels to take advantage of this once-in-a-generation opportunity. At the same time, we need to be realistic that progress will be incremental.
Much of the progress we have made during the past seven months has only been made possible by the support of the United Nations, AMISOM, and our international partners. As we move into the critical period that ends Somalia’s transitional government, we acknowledge this assistance with grateful thanks and call on our friends to stand by us in this hour of need. Only by working together can we move forward and close one of the most catastrophic chapters in our nation’s history. But with their help and our will, we can achieve this historic aims. There is not a moment to lose.
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