Somalia doesn’t have much of an embassy here. But after 24 years in the dark, it does have an ambassador at last: Ahmed Isse Awad.
A soft-spoken yet passionate man, Awad nearly became prime minister of his war-ravaged East African nation. But as fate would have it, he instead ended up as Somalia’s envoy to the United States, a post that had largely remained vacant since 1991 — the year its fragile government collapsed amid tribal chaos and the very word Somalia became a watchword for “failed state.”
The Washington Diplomat caught up with Awad on Sept. 10, one week before he presented his credentials in a White House ceremony that made his presence here official. (The country’s current prime minister, Omar Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke, briefly served as ambassador to the U.S. this past summer before returning to Somalia.
Somalia’s modest little mission — a third-floor suite in an office building along DeSales Street, NW, around the corner from the Mayflower Hotel — was still awaiting furniture, so we interviewed Awad sitting on packing crates.
Awad’s priorities as ambassador, he said, are “to cement our relationship with the United States, to raise the profile of Somalia and to improve the image of our country.”
That’s a tall order, especially when all most Americans know about Somalia is the unflattering way it was depicted in two highly popular movies based on true events.
The first was Ridley Scott’s 2001 film “Black Hawk Down” chronicling the 1993 humanitarian mission by U.S. forces to capture Somali warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid and restore U.N. relief to the country. That raid killed 18 Americans and more than 1,000 Somalis, leading President Clinton to withdraw U.S. troops from Somalia in a debacle largely viewed by history as an embarrassing failure.
The second was “Captain Phillips,” a 2013 thriller starring Tom Hanks as the captain of a containership taken hostage by bloodthirsty pirates off the Somali coast.
“Somalia is seen as a place of piracy and al-Shabaab terrorism, but we want to give Americans a complete picture,” said Awad. “While it’s true these issues have bedeviled Somalia for some time, there’s been a lot of improvement, and Americans are witnesses to that. With the support of the African Union, Somalia has been able to rejoin the international community and to defeat al-Shabaab.”
Both piracy and attacks by al-Shabaab, an al-Qaeda offshoot that took over most of southern Somalia in late 2006, have gone down dramatically. A 22,000-strong African Union (AU) peacekeeping force has helped the fledging Somali government steadily claw back territory from the clan-based Islamist insurgency, including key al-Shabaab strongholds in south and central Somalia.
Along with the peacekeeping push, President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud took office in 2012, ushering in Somalia’s first functioning government since 1991. His Western-backed administration restored some semblance of order to a country wracked by two decades of anarchy, famine, warlords and Islamist extremists.
“[I]n August 2012, the current government of Somalia came into being, and the international community, led by the United States, saw it as the most representative, legitimate government that Somalia has had since the collapse of the Somali state in 1991,” Awad said. “The Somali desk at the State Department has been absolutely supportive, and I have already received commitments from the U.S. administration.”
In 2013, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton officially recognized Mohamud’s government. More recently, the State Department upgraded its Somali mission to embassy status, although it continues to operate out of nearby Kenya and does not yet have a full-fledged ambassador.
While Mohamud’s presidency was greeted with widespread optimism in 2012, those hopes have since been tempered as Somalia struggles to achieve key political and security goals. A former academic, Mohamud has ruled out holding popular elections next year, citing the tenuous security situation. His government has also been riven by political infighting and its reach remains limited in this Texas-size desert nation dominated by a patchwork of clans, militias and an unwieldy “elders-based” parliamentary system. And without the AU peacekeeping mission maintaining a fragile calm in cities like Mogadishu, the weak central government likely wouldn’t survive.
Though cornered, al-Shabaab is far from defeated. Its fighters retain control over significant tracts of land and are still capable of launching spectacular attacks. Militants have killed dozens of AU peacekeepers, overrun its bases and maintained a steady diet of suicide bombings and other attacks inside Mogadishu.
Al-Shabaab is also responsible for a string of murderous attacks throughout East Africa, including neighboring Kenya, a primary backer of the AU force. A 2013 Westgate shopping mall massacre in Nairobi left scores dead, while a university assault in Garissa this past spring gunned down nearly 150 students. Al-Shabaab has pledged more attacks, while Kenya has bombed its camps in retaliation and vowed to continue its military offensive.
Nevertheless, Awad says the vicious al-Qaeda affiliate is on its last legs.
“In 2012, when my current government came to power, al-Shabaab controlled all the major cities in southern Somalia. Today, they don’t control a single major city in Somalia. They lost all of them. Al-Shabaab’s perverted ideology has lost currency with the Somali people. They can no longer hide.”
He proudly added that despite the still-fragile gains back home, “Somalia stands a chance of establishing better governance than many countries in the region. After 24 years, we’re starting everything from scratch.”
That low yardstick may be why Somalia still has a long way to go.
Despite its vast size and potential wealth — and despite visible signs of progress in cities like Mogadishu and Kismayo — the Federal Republic of Somalia (FRS) remains one of the poorest nations on Earth. At 638,000 square kilometers, it’s one and a half times the size of California, yet its nearly 11 million inhabitants scrape by on an average $284 per year (compared to the sub-Saharan average of $1,300), with over 70 percent of them living on less than $2 a day, according to the World Bank. Nearly a third of its people need food aid and life expectancy hovers at a dismal 51 years. Somalia is so poor that since 2012, the U.N. Development Program hasn’t even included the country in its annual Human Development Index.
However, it wasn’t always like that, said Awad.
“What people remember is the bad stuff, but what you may not know is that when Somalia got its independence in 1960, it started out as a democracy. We were the only country in Africa where two presidents changed power in democratic elections,” he said. “Everything went downhill in 1969, when the military came to power. Then came the Cold War, which didn’t make it easy. Somalia was part of the Soviet orbit, but after the war with Ethiopia in 1977, Ethiopia became more Marxist and Somalia came under Western influence. By that time, the country was already immersed in civil war, and in 1991 the government under President Siad Barre collapsed.”
That was the year Awad fled Somalia — as did many others — eventually settling in Montreal and gaining Canadian citizenship.
From 2001 to 2004, after studies at Addis Ababa University’s Institute for Peace and Security Studies, he was chief of staff to Somalia’s prime minister. He then spent nearly 10 years with the United Nations in Sudan as part of two separate peacekeeping missions. Awad served in the disputed regions of Abyei, Kaduqli and Darfur, “bringing communities together and using my experience in peace-building and post-conflict societies, which is very applicable to Somalia.”
Awad said that technically speaking, he isn’t the first Somali envoy in D.C. since the State Department upgraded bilateral relations in 2013.
“I was frontrunner for the prime minister position, a position now occupied by my predecessor, Omar Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke, who was appointed ambassador to the U.S. in July 2014 and actually served here for a few months,” Awad told us. “But a few months later, he became prime minister, and both he and the president asked me to be the ambassador.”
Rumors circulated in the Somalia press, however, that Sharmarke opposed Awad’s nomination because he viewed the ambassador, an ally of President Mohamud, as a political rival. Whether the speculation is true, it’s clear that squabbling and clan divisions plague the fractious government, as evidenced by the string of prime ministers Mohamud has cycled through in the last two years.
Regardless, Awad is making himself at home and is determined to revamp and rejuvenate his country’s operations in the U.S. The old Somali Embassy was located along Massachusetts Avenue, but after its staff left in 1991, the State Department eventually sold it, putting the proceeds in escrow. The Somali government is now using that money to rent the embassy’s new digs for $5,000 a month.
Awad hopes to expand his skeleton staff to six people; for now, it’s only himself and his driver.
“Our country has been out in the wilderness for 24 years, but survived due to the resilience of the Somali people and the generosity of the rest of the world,” he declared. “The Somali people have kept the country moving all these years without a strong center holding it together. Now the Somali diaspora is coming back.”
Today, the world’s largest Somali expatriate community can be found in nearby Yemen — home to some 200,000 Somalis — followed by Canada, Great Britain, the United States and Sweden. The heaviest U.S. concentrations of Somalis are in Minneapolis-St. Paul, Atlanta and Columbus, Ohio, with smaller communities in D.C., New York, Seattle and Kansas City. Somalis have also flocked to small towns, remaking the rural character of places as diverse as Shelbyville, Tenn., and Lewiston, Maine.
Somalia’s economy, in fact, survives on $1.3 billion in annual remittances from abroad, as well as the export of livestock and meat, from which 60 percent of the country’s mostly rural population derives a livelihood, according to the World Bank.
At the same time, Awad says Somalia needs to jumpstart its economy, which cannot rely on remittances and international donor grants forever (there is no formal tax collection).
Excluding the island of Madagascar, Somalia has the longest coastline of any African nation — over 3,000 kilometers of beachfront jutting out into the Red Sea. That opens up possibilities for port development and transshipping. The country also boasts deposits of oil, gas and minerals, though very little of it has been exploited due to years of fighting.
Despite the challenges, the International Monetary Fund estimated that Somalia’s GDP grew by 3.7 percent in 2014 and is likely to see 2.7 percent growth this year as investment begins trickling back into the country.
“Somalia owes a lot to the rest of the world, including the Americans, the British, the Italians and the African Union,” Awad said. “We’re just getting on our feet. We need support in institution-building, investment and development programs.”
But first, Somalia’s government needs to get its act together, say some Africa watchers.
J. Peter Pham, director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center, said the opening of Somalia’s embassy here “represents yet another instance where form wins out over substance, wishful thinking trumps reality, and time and resources are squandered on frivolous displays of so-called progress while lives are lost and threats to security grow” because of the lack of a clear strategy and meaningful commitment.
One of the biggest problems, according to Pham, is that the Federal Republic of Somalia’s claim to territory is disputed both by al-Shabaab and by regional entities like the breakaway Republic of Somaliland, which have declared their independence and over which the Mogadishu government has no control.
“Even in the territory that nominally recognizes the FRS’s sovereignty, that submission is largely the result of and must be constantly protected by the presence of African Union peacekeepers,” Pham told us. “ Left to its own devices, the FRS would quickly disappear without a trace — like the nearly dozen and a half other similar entities that came before … since the last real Somali government collapsed.”
Pham said Awad should not have been sent here as ambassador until the government he represents can prove it has effective sovereignty over its claimed territory.
“Let me put it more bluntly,” he said. “Learn to walk at home before trying to enter a race with the big boys.”
Awad conceded that AMISOM (the African Union’s peacekeeping mission in Somalia) has been crucial to ending the bloodshed in his country, as has assistance from the governments of Great Britain, Qatar, Turkey and the United States. But he argues that continued help from the international community is essential to tackling the deep-seated security and economic problems that have piled up over two decades of lawlessness.
“America is key in supporting the fight against al-Shabaab and also supporting Somali national forces, though it would have been more effective had the Americans had bases in Mogadishu and along the coastline [rather than from its sprawling air base in Djibouti],” Awad said. “That would make it easier to control piracy and defeat the terrorists.”
The U.S. military has steadily ratcheted up its support of the Somali government, recently dispatching drones to take out some of al-Shabaab’s top commanders. On the diplomatic front, John Kerry became the first U.S. secretary of state to visit Somalia in May, telling its people in a video message that, “I look forward, as does the president, to the day when both the United States and Somalia have full-fledged missions in each other’s capital city.”
Yet only a week after Kerry’s stopover in Mogadishu, Katherine Simonds Dhanani — President Obama’s pick to be the first U.S. ambassador to Somalia since 1991 — withdrew her nomination for personal reasons. Dhanani, a seasoned diplomat who previously served in Congo, Mexico, Zimbabwe and India, was director of the Office of Regional and Security Affairs at the State Department’s Bureau of African Affairs at the time of her nomination.
Abukar Arman, a former Somalia special envoy to Washington and a foreign policy analyst, told the Qatar-based TV network Al Jazeera that he suspected the decision to eliminate Dhanani from consideration was more political than personal.
“It would be too reckless from the Obama administration’s point of view to open a full-fledged embassy and assign an American ambassador to operate out of Mogadishu knowing that the frontrunner of the Democratic Party [Hillary Clinton] has the Benghazi tragedy hovering over her head,” Arman told Al Jazeera. “Democrats would consider such an adventure as a risky business.”
That said, even though Somalia finally has an embassy here, no U.S. counterpart will be going up to Mogadishu any time soon. American diplomats will be operating from the embassy in Nairobi, where they will remain for the time being.
But Somalia’s new ambassador in Washington remains hopeful that Americans will one day put the ghosts of Mogadishu behind them and return to his embattled capital city.
“There will be formal, official representation and frequent visits to Somalia,” Awad predicted, “and if the security situation allows, the U.S. Embassy will eventually move to Somalia.”
About the Author
Larry Luxner is news editor of The Washington Diplomat.