1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

UN's former envoy to Somalia is upbeat about its future

Daniel Pelz
December 14, 2018

As Somalia welcomed the leader of neighboring Eritrea amid a warming of ties in the Horn of Africa, DW's Daniel Pelz spoke to former UN envoy to Somalia, Michael Keating, about the outlook for the war-torn nation.

Michael Keating
Image: UN Somalia

DW: Somalia has been at war for more than 30 years now. Is there any light on the horizon?

Michael Keating: There most definitely is. Some of the underlying trends in Somalia are actually quite positive when measured in terms of state formation: we now have a state structure that is still very recent with the creation of federal member states, even though there are difficulties in terms of the relationship. We had elections 18 months ago, which were imperfect but delivered a legitimate result. We have international partners providing increased levels of budget support. The World Bank has just signed a pre-arrears clearance grant, it's on the pathway to debt relief. The European Union and individual countries are also investing in the country.

So there are some very positive signs and  if you go to somewhere like [the capital] Mogadishu, you'll see more life on the street, more things happening than five or 10 years ago. Having said that, the country continues to be vulnerable to a number of very big risks, including violent extremism — the nature of Somali politics itself hampers progress, Somalis feel that their country is being used as a theater for playing out geopolitical rivalries. And of course there's the perennial problem of poverty and climate change, demographic growth and urbanization, all creating great  vulnerability. So there are many, many risks but some of the underlying trends are very positive.

President Mohammed Abdullahi Mohammed is facing a vote of no confidence. How stable is his government really and how able is it deliver peace and stability?

Well, a vote of no confidence itself is not necessarily an indicator of instability. We have votes of no confidence in other countries, including in the UK this week. But it is, in the case of Somalia, unfortunately a characteristic of the political marketplace in the country, which is well known for a lot of wheeler-dealing, a lot of untraceable money changing hands. It's partly a reflection of clan-based concerns and jostling for positions of authority and access to power and all the rest of it.

I suspect the president will survive this impeachment motion. I lived through many similar things against prime ministers and presidents in the almost three years that I was there. But there is a deeper issue, which is how can Somali politics be put on a more stable basis and the constitutional review is, in a way, the vehicle for trying to achieve that, but it will take time.

Do you think, given the fact the country is so fractured politically, that it is realistic to think that pretty soon we are going to have a united and peaceful Somalia?

A map of the Horn of Africa and the Red Sea
Image: DW

You know, it's not unrealistic but it doesn't mean it's going to happen. I think the point about Somali is that actually it has a lot going for it in theory. It has very entrepreneurial people – Somalis are incredible traders, entrepreneurs and there are some very successful businesses including in the money transfer space, in the IT space, there's a lot of construction. It's got tremendous natural resources like fish and livestock, wind and solar and so on.

The question is whether the case can be made that political compromises and capable institutions that belong to everyone, are in the interest of everybody, so that the size of the pie for all Somalis, including politicians and business people, will grow. So the question is whether that case will win the day. Unfortunately, politics are politics and often even the argument that political compromises could be for the benefit of everybody, including politicians, may or may not work.

To my mind, that speaks to the important role of the  international community. Too often the approach of the international community has been somewhat fragmented. I think it's in the security, economic and political interests of all Somalia's partners, whether in the region or in the Gulf, in Europe, North America or China, for Somalia to be more stable,  more economically productive. But that needs to be translated into really coherent approaches by partners to supporting a political and economic strategy within the country. That's the key challenge and it's very, very difficult. I think Europe, and even Germany, have a very important role in positively influencing the likelihood of that.

What would such a coherent strategy look like?

I think it has to have political, socio-economic and security dimensions. The socio-economic dimension is an upgrade in the ability to manage an account for the use of resources, and strengthened private sector governance. The private sector has survived this conflict by adapting but if you really want to attract investment, you have to have stronger corporate governance arrangements; in the security area it means supporting the emergence of capable, politically-acceptable, accountable and affordable security forces – not just to fight terrorists – but also policing, rule of law, and basic governance.

It's very important to look at security from the perspective of people not just from donor capitals. People want to be able to move around, they want to be able to go to someone if a terrible injustice takes place. At the moment, unfortunately, al-Shabab has a brutal form of justice, which is more effective than the government's and that has to change.

On the political side, I think it really comes down to a recognition that political compromises will have to be made in the common interests of the whole country. That does mean high levels of trust between people, and that in turn means creating safe spaces and eventually institutions that people can rely upon to move things forward. Now that's a very tough agenda but it's only going to work if there is commitment by the Somalis to move forward and more coherent support by international partners.

Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed with the presidents of Eritrea and Somalia, jointly opening a hospital
Somalia's President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed (right) with President Isaias Afwerki of Eritrea (left) and Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia (center) have been seeking deeper ties since April 2018Image: DW/A. Mekonnen

Do you think that Somalia will soon be able to take care of its own security? 

I think it will take a decade or even a generation for that to happen fully, but it's an extremely important objective to have in mind. The role of AMISOM [the African Union Mission in Somalia] has been very important in advancing the political process and protecting the political space, but going forward has to be geared to enabling the Somalis to take on that responsibility, as does the support of the rest of the international community – whether it's the UN or the US or the neighbors.

Instability in Somalia is in no one's interest, not the people's and not the neighbors. Ethiopia doesn't need it, Kenya doesn't need it, Djibouti doesn't need it, the Gulf doesn't need it and Europe certainly doesn't need it. The consequences of ongoing instability are highly negative.

Somali society is divided into clans and sub-clans. Do you think there is enough consensus to build a unified and peaceful country?

If you ask young people that, they will say 'yes, of course there is.'  And, it is a young country – most people are under 30. It's a very, very young country and the young people have not been through the experience that the older people have. I think many women also would answer emphatically 'yes'. The fact that people all come from a clan or a sub-clan doesn't have to be their only form of identity. There are other ways in which identity can be expressed. But building and rebuilding trust and addressing the grievances, the sense of historic injustice, is extremely important.

Life in Mogadishu