The Washington Diplomat / October 2015
By Larry Luxner
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 first permanent envoy to the United States since 1991 — the year its fragile government collapsed amid tribal chaos and the very word Somalia became a watchword for “failed state.”
The Washington Diplomatcaught up with Awad on Sept. 10, one week before he presented his credentials in a White House ceremony that made his presence here official. Somalia’s modest little mission — a third-floor suite in an office building along DeSales Street, around the corner from the Mayflower Hotel — was still awaiting furniture, so we interviewed him 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 Oscar-winning 2001 film “Black Hawk Down” — based on journalist Mark Bowden’s book chronicling the 1993 humanitarian mission by U.S. forces to capture Somali warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid and restore United Nations relief to the country. That raid killed 19 Americans and more than 1,000 Somalis, leading President Clinton to withdraw U.S. troops from Somalia — and the so-called Battle of Mogadishu to be remembered by history largely as an embarrassing failure.
The second was “Captain Phillips,” a 2013 thriller directed by Paul Greengrass and starring Tom Hanks as the captain of a containership taken hostage by bloodthirsty pirates off the Somali coast. The drama was a box-office success, grossing $218 million and earning six Academy Award nominations including Best Picture and Best Supporting Actor for Barkhad Abdi, who played gangleader Abduwali Muse.
“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.”
Despite its vast size and potential wealth, 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 12 million inhabitants scrape by on an average $284 per year (compared to the sub-Saharan average of $1,300), with 43 percent of them living on less than $1 a day, according to the World Bank. Somalia is so poor that since 2012, the United Nations Development Programme hasn’t even included it in the annual UNDP 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 of 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 Abiyeh, Kadugli and Darfur, “bringing communities together and using my experience in peacebuilding 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 front-runner for the prime minister position, a position now occupied by my predecessor, Omar Abdurashid 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.”
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 from the sale in escrow. The Somali government is now using that money to rent the embassy’s new digs for $5,000 a month.
Awad hope 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.”
Awad also singled out the Arab League and six of its member states for special praise, noting that “when Somali passports were no longer valid, the only countries that continued to support us were the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Sudan and Egypt.”
Today, the world’s largest Somali expatriate community can be found in nearby Yemen — home to some 200,000 Somalis — followed by Canada (150,000), Great Britain (108,000), the United States (86,000) and Sweden (57,000). The heaviest U.S. concentrations of Somalis are in Minneapolis-St. Paul, Atlanta and Columbus, Ohio, with smaller communities in Washington, 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 owes a lot to the rest of the world, including the Americans, the British, the Italians and the African Union,” he said. “We’re just getting on our feet. We need support in institution-building, investment and development programs.”
With that in mind, he said, “in 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. The Somali desk at the State Department has been absolutely supportive, and I have already received commitments from the U.S. administration.”
Yet not everyone is happy about this newfound friendship.
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 loss and threats to security grow” for lack of a clear strategy and meaningful commitment.
One of the biggest problems, Pham said, is that the Federal Republic of Somalia’s claim to territory is disputed both by al-Shabaab — a clan-based Islamist insurgent group — and by regional entities like the breakaway Republic of Somaliland, which have declared their independence and over which the Mogadishu government has no power.
“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 in the decade and half 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 of 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.”
Al-Shabaab, which took over most of southern Somalia in late 2006, is responsible for a string of murderous attacks throughout East Africa, including the 2013 Westgate shopping mall massacre in Nairobi that left 67 people dead and more than 175 Kenyans injured. Nevertheless, Awad claims the vicious terrorist group 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.”
Awad conceded that AMISOM (the African Union’s peacekeeping mission in Somalia) has been crucial to ending bloodshed in his country, as has assistance from the governments of Great Britain, Qatar, Turkey and the United States. AMISOM consists of about 22,000 soldiers and police officers, the bulk of which come from six countries: Uganda, Burundi, Ethiopia, Kenya, Djibouti and Sierra Leone. In the short term, AMISOM will remain in Somalia as it prepares the country for a referendum on the national constitution and a general election by 2016.
“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],” he said. “That would make it easier to control piracy and defeat the terrorists.”
At the same time, Somalia must jump-start its economy.
Excluding the island of Madagascar, Somalia has the longest coastline of any African nation — 3,025 kilometers of beachfront jutting out into the Red Sea. That opens up possibilities for port development and transshipping. The country also has deposits of oil, gas and minerals, though very little of it has been exploited due to the fighting.
Meanwhile, Somalia’s economy 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. Yet 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 returning to the country.
In May, John Kerry became the first U.S. secretary of state to visit Somalia, telling the Somali 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 Guyana, Congo, Mexico, Zambia, Gabon, 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.
But Abukar Arman, a former Somalia special envoy to Washington and a foreign policy analyst, told the Qatar-based TV network Al Jazeera he suspected that the May 11 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 adventure as a risky business.”
That said, even though Somalia finally has an embassy here, no U.S. counterpart will be going up in Mogadishu anyway. Until now, a Somali Unit has been operating at the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi; the State Department recently upgraded that mission to embassy status, but it’ll remain in Nairobi for the time being.
“There will be formal, official representation, and frequent visits to Somalia, and if the security situation allows, the U.S. Embassy will eventually move to Somalia,” Awad said. He proudly added that despite the still-fragile situation 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.”