Here is a transcript of an interview I did with the Somali president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud in London on 3 February 2013.
You are now in London as part of your ‘world tour’. How are your international visits going?
The international community has been with Somalia for more than 22 years but now this is a time that Somalia is different. Ending the transition, permanent government, new vision – this is what we have brought to the international community. I have been in America, in Brussels and this is the third place in the West I have been to.
I think I wouldn’t be wrong in saying you have one of the most difficult jobs in the world, being president of Somalia. Would you agree with that assessment?
Yes I do. Somalia is a unique country. There is no other experience like that anywhere else in the world, particularly in the post-conflict environment. I know that it is that level of difficulty, and when I was standing for the election I was aware of that, and that I had a challenge to face.
The morning after you had been elected, when you woke up, and you realised you really were the president of this broken country that hasn’t had an effective government for more than two decades, were you scared? Did you feel ill? Were you excited?
Well, I was preparing myself for this position for the past 22 years that I was in Somalia, because of learning and knowing what is Somalia. Being a researcher, being a peace-builder, being a civil society activist, being an academician and a teacher in Somalia… And for the last two years I was actively involved in politics, preparing myself to take the position, so I was not scared when I became president. But I sensed the real challenge I was facing, and proof of that was on the second day after I was elected, I was attacked by suicide bombers. So I was aware of the seriousness of the matter. But even then I am quite satisfied and quite confident that I can do it.
You have been president now for several months, since September 2012. If you had to give yourself a mark out of ten about how you are doing, what mark would you give yourself?
These past couple of months have been preparatory. We have been working to prepare the ground. I would give myself about 90 percent. 90 percent of the activities I have been involved in have proven to be successful or promise to be successful soon.
And what’s the 10 percent that has been a failure?
That 10 percent is the time-consuming issue of building institutions, and that’s where we have been lagging behind schedule for the past five months.
How can you really be called president of Somalia when you as president and your government and security forces don’t control even half of the country? You control Mogadishu and a few other areas. The rest belongs to other people, so how can you rightfully have the title of president of Somalia?
The case goes back to the idea of the cup being half full or half empty. Somalia has been in a situation whereby, in 12 years of transition, the government was controlling Mogadishu only and sometimes even a very small strip of Mogadishu. This is a time when the Somali government is getting out of Mogadishu and controlling a number of districts and regions, that’s number one. Number two, I feel a legitimate president of Somalia because I came out of a process whereby all Somalis got together and agreed to move in that direction. We still have many obstacles and many activities to do but my legitimacy is not questionable because it was consensus based. It was not one man one vote but it was through a consensual process, and I came out of that consensus. So far our movement at building the Somali polity is still based on consensus and we are working on that.
You are not afraid that some of the old guard, the wily, experienced politicians of the past, who basically have their own private armies, are going to come back to try to destroy you?
The matter is the other way around. The Somali people have been in this situation and have developed a lot of experience. A lot of lessons have been learned. The matter is the society. These warlords and difficult people you are describing, they were enjoying the support of the community, the local people. Now this is something myself and my government are enjoying, getting popular support. It is the people’s mindset that has changed now. We have had a sort of paradigm shift. We are moving away from the old practices, old beliefs and old ways of doing things, and this is what makes people believe we are pushing the country in the right direction. Whoever gets the support of the ordinary citizens will be the ultimate winner in Somalia. The warlords, Al Shabaab and others, they somehow cheated the people. Now this is the time the people have tried many different options and those options never delivered. This is a time that the people are convinced that the only way out they have is to have a functioning state in place, and that is what I am leading now.
What about Al Shabaab? They have left most of their urban strongholds but they are still very much present in rural areas. Is the best solution to talk to them or try to defeat them militarily?
To defeat the militarily is absolutely very, very important, or to weaken them which is already done. There are two different ways. The boys and the girls who have joined Al Shabaab for different reasons, for different root causes are Somalis citizens who deserve to get back. But the ideological core team who brought the idea of Shabaab and the idea of extremism to Somalia, since they don’t have any political agenda, I don’t see what we have to negotiate with them. There is no political capital that we can have over them. This is an extremist group with an ideological background. We will negotiate with the community elders, the religious scholars and the civil society to attract and give space to those young boys and girls who joined Shabaab for different reasons. But the core team and the foreigners who have no political agenda. Any Shabaab member who denounces violence and comes up with a political agenda, we can negotiate with them and we can accommodate them. Those who are not criminals by their activities of the past, it is very delicate. So far we don’t see any issues we can negotiate with them. We cannot negotiate with Al Shabaab when they say the country belongs to all Muslims, when they say that foreigners rule the country, when they say they will use violence as a means to an end. These are very, very difficult issues that we cannot negotiate. But if they denounce all these issues and come back as Somalis, we can talk to them.
What will you do about the hardliners?
First of all, we have nothing to do with the foreigners. They have to go. If they don’t go, the only option we have is to create an environment or a situation that compels them to go away. Those hard core Somalis, if they denounce their positions, then there is a subject to discuss.
At the moment, Somalia has basically outsourced its security to African Union forces, Ethiopian forces, some Western forces helping. You’ve got foreign navies patrolling the seas to try to get rid of pirates. Isn’t this a massive problem and an embarrassment for you, to have a country whose security is dependent on foreigners?
First of all, when I was coming to this position, when I was seeking the election to become president of Somalia, I was aware of all this. It is there. Many of these issues that you raised, the reason why these different forces are in Somalia is that the Somali problem is not a Somali problem anymore. It’s a regional problem. It’s a continental problem. It’s an international problem. But from our perspective, what we want is to dismantle these interlinking issues and problems that have been established in Somalia for all these long years, and we want to make the challenges in Somalia a Somali problem that Somalis can address. But this will take some time. We will go through a process. We are here today to overtake those forces and control the destiny of Somalia.
How are you going to get the ownership back of your own security?
One of the major reasons we are in London today, and why we have been in Washington and Brussels, is to get the support of the international community to have well-organised, well-equipped, well-disciplined Somali security forces and security institutions. That’s what we are going to build. Once we build that, it will be very easy to take over.
In terms of the arms embargo that’s currently in place, do you want that to be lifted?
Yes, we want to arms embargo to be lifted, and we have requested the United Nations Security Council to do that. We have told the friendly countries we met that we can’t build our security forces if this arms embargo is in place.
And what was their response?
It has been very positive so far. We are just waiting for the final response from the United Nations Security Council.
I have heard some Somalis begin to say – because I suppose the honeymoon period is slightly drawing to an end – that our new president, our new government is very slow. Or sometimes they say it’s like an NGO government. That you are people with good intentions but not politically experienced enough to run this big mess that is Somalia. What’s your answer to your critics?
There is no experience to take for the Somali case. Nobody has ever been in a country or a situation like Somalia so we are all learning, that’s number one. Number two is the complexity of the problem in Somalia means that we can’t hurry or be very fast. We have to be very careful. One simple mistake can take us back many, many years. So we are cautious and we are taking the necessary steps. Somalia has been without a functioning state for 22 years and we want to establish one now. I don’t see any reason how anyone can expect miracles to happen in Somalia in just five months.
You have had some problems with the port town of Kismayo, which was I suppose taken over on your behalf by Kenyan forces backed by Somali troops, but somehow ended up in the wrong hands. A group of people, a clan perhaps. The first attempt your government made to visit the Kismayo, they were not even allowed in. Isn’t Kismayo the latest in a problem of Somali regions not wanting to have anything to do with you.
The case is not that the Somali regions don’t want to have anything to do with us or with the central government. The case is Al Shabaab was there for a long time and AMISOM in collaboration with different Somali forces are there. The Somali government forces are there and other forces are there of course. But negotiations are going on. The Somali government has been visiting continuously in Kismayo. The issue of Somalia and Somali security is not only a Somali issue. It is regional, continental and international. What you are talking about now is only one small example of how intricate and complex is the situation in Somalia. Soon the prime minister will visit Kismayo. We are negotiating with different stakeholders on the ground, including the local people, the elders, the civil society. Soon a local administration will be established in Kismayo. I don’t see any threat or any problem that Kismayo has that is different from so many complex situations that exist in Somalia. Kismayo is no different from Galkayo, Galmudug, Bay and Bakol, and Hiran. It all needs a lot of effort and a lot of local negotiations, a lot of confidence building, and that’s what we are doing now.
Isn’t that precisely the problem? That Somalia is essentially balkanised. You have Somaliland which has declared independence which it says its not negotiable, you have Puntland which is semi-autonomous, all sorts of other regions. Aren’t you frightened that you’re going to end up being the president of Mogadishu, with the rest of the country operating as semi-independent states that don’t respect you?
I don’t deny that that is the reality on the ground now. But one of the reasons I took office is that the vision I have is to bring back all those bits and pieces and make one unified Somalia. That’s the task we are going to undertake. It’s a reality as you said. Some of those areas have been there for twenty years, some are recent, some want to do the same right now, and we are working on them. We want to organise those who are not organised well yet, and we want to negotiate with the others, and those negotiations have started. They are at the early stage but we have already established connections with different entities including Somaliland, Puntland, Galmudug, Ximan and Xeeb. We have already established links with all of them, and negotiations are going on at different levels. It is a matter of time before you see things changing on the ground.
Somaliland has said that its independence is non-negotiable. Would you be prepared to let Somaliland go its own way and become a completely separate country?
We respect the self-determination of the people but Somalia became a united republic in 1960. We have not yet agreed to separate from each other. We may have different views on unity, but from our part, we have no hidden agenda. It is well known – it was part of my campaign, it’s part of my principles, it’s still part of my policies to see a united Somalia. But we don’t want that unity to come through military coercion, through violence, through emotions or diplomatic pressures. We want that unity to come through a dialogue, through understanding. There is a lot of mistrust in place and resolving that mistrust is a long term issue. Today we want to put in place tools and instruments to manage that mistrust, so that in the long term that mistrust will go away. But for us, one of the six pillar frameworks we established was to establish the unity of the country. We are committed and we want to see a united Somalia. We will give it the time it needs to get that goal achieved.
Somalia has been named the world’s most failed state for the past five years in a row. Do you think it’s going to be the world’s most failed state for a sixth year or will somewhere else take its place?
Somalia has been given different names, not only that one. It’s the one with the largest refugee camp, that exports terrorism, the most corrupt, so all these adjectives are there. But Somalia is a different place today, with a different hope, a different leadership and our way forward, our agenda, our vision has been written down – it is there in documents. For the first time in the recent history of Somalia, our people have something to discuss, an agenda, a way forward. We are expecting that another year, two years from now, what we have planned and put in place, and have discussed with the Somali people and with the international community is a different Somalia. We have a very clear picture of the type of Somalia we want. It’s incremental and gradual, but we want to see a different Somalia in 2015 and 2016.