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Rebuilding Somalia

October 16, 2017

In Somalia, about seven million people still depend on humanitarian aid. Special Representative of the UN Secretary General for Somalia Michael Keating talks about the task of rebuilding Somalia and the challenges ahead.

A woman in a refugee camp in Mogadishu (photo: DW/S. Petersmann)
Image: DW/S. Petersmann

DW: The UN is helping to rebuild Somalia's state, which for many years has been a failed state. At the same time, we see a stepped-up military campaign by the Americans. How does that come together?

Michael Keating: I don't see what's necessarily incompatible about those things. The UN is here to help the Somalis sort out their own problems and build a state. Among the problems is the continuation of an insurgency. And the challenge they face is: How do they reverse the insurgency while at the same time creating a more stable, secure environment in which all Somalis have opportunities for the future.

Global experience suggests you can't defeat an insurgency purely by military means. You have to provide opportunities. You have to address the deficits that help fuel insurgencies, including a sense of injustice and a sense of lack of opportunity as well as address conflicts.

There are many unresolved conflicts around the country. But maintaining military pressure on those who want to kill civilians and impose extremist ideology is one part of the menu of things that you can use in order to try and defeat an insurgency.

With an increasing military footprint, isn't there the risk that the political mission, should there be more civilian casualties, is losing hearts and minds instead of winning them?

The issue of civilian casualties is something we take very seriously. Too many civilians are being killed, particularly by the insurgents, and particularly here in Mogadishu, because they're soft targets. And yes, if you're fighting an insurgency, being very careful not to kill civilians is incredibly important because if you do, you lose the support of the population.

A very basic refugee shelter (photo: DW/S. Petersmann)
'You have to address the deficits that help fuel insurgencies, including a sense of injustice and a sense of lack of opportunity'Image: DW/S. Petersmann

You said the root causes of hunger are mainly political. What do you mean by that?

Functional societies in which institutions work, in which there is freedom of expression, rarely experience hunger. When you do have hunger it tends to affect the most marginalized and the poorest, not the richest.

So hunger is not just some kind of thing that comes out of the clouds. It's a product of social, economic and political processes. I mean, it's a platitude, but in a world of plenty and a world of waste and a world of overconsumption, it's pretty outrageous that so many people are suffering from hunger.

Somalia has always been at the very bottom of any Transparency International index. The recent elections showed that there is still a considerable level of corruption. How do you deal with that?

It is very difficult to deal with corruption in the absence of institutions. The legal system is very weak. I think one of the most important ways of dealing with corruption is to appeal to Somalis' own sense of justice and injustice because relying upon institutions in this environment will not work.

Looking back at the parliamentary and presidential elections that we saw in December and February - would you say that was the best deal that one could get?

I describe what happened as an electoral process. It wasn't really elections. If you apply the normal criteria of elections, then they don't pass. First of all, it was limited to 13,000 to 14,000 people. It was organized through electoral colleges. It took place in circumstances of great insecurity.

But this process was a dramatic improvement compared to what had happened in the 2012 elections, when a couple hundred male elders chose the MPs. This time there were women involved, too.

So yes, it was an electoral process, and it was marked by corrupt practice, intimidation and all the rest of it. But I think the amazing thing about it is that the result was received as legitimate both by the Somali population and by the international community.

There are many members of the international community involved in Somalia. Turkey has built a huge military base, there is the Arab world, there is China, the US and the EU - are they all working towards the same goals?

It's great news that more countries are expanding their presence here. The central challenge is: how can the Somalis resolve their many political differences and build a state that is able to generate resources and deliver services, including security, infrastructure, health and education. And this is a very big task after 20 to 30 years of conflict.

Michael Keating, UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Somalia
'State building is a very long process,' says KeatingImage: UN Somalia

They'll have to find their own solutions, and to the degree that countries like Germany, which of course is also increasing its presence here, see this as important. Germany has its own security concerns, has concerns about migration, has concerns about stability, plus wanting to play a bigger international role. Our challenge is: how do we work together to help the Somalis sort out their own problems on their own terms and not try and impose our own solutions because we are in a hurry, or because we need certain things done. You have to be very respectful of Somali culture and politics.

How much international presence and money is Somalia really able to absorb?

This year has seen a very large injection of humanitarian assistance, of course. We just reached the billion dollar mark which has been a phenomenal achievement. But injecting these kinds of sums of money into a relatively small economy with minimum capacity does have a big impact on society.

We have to be very conscious of how that money does percolate, affects power relations within the country - and to what degree does that help us prepare for another possible weather related shock. How can we make sure that the most marginalized people are not once again going to be on the bottom of the pile? What can we do rather than lurch from drought to drought and massive injections of money every three or four years?

What you're basically saying is: Look folks, this is a marathon; this is not a sprint and be up for it.

It is definitely a marathon. I think state building is a very long process. It's going to take a while for the Somalis to reach the political understanding among themselves which will allow them to have confidence in their national institutions, whether it is the military or the tax collection system.

Michael Keating is the UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Somalia.