Last September, Somalia elected a new president who is being hailed as a leader who can usher that country into a new era of peace, stability, and prosperity. This week, he visited Washington and called on the United States to support Somalia's fragile transition from a failed state to a full member of the world community.
President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud met with President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Thursday in Washington. After the meetings the U.S. government formally recognized the government of Somalia, a development Mohamud said was a huge milestone in Somalia's international resurgence. Following an event Thursday afternoon at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Mohamud sat down for an exclusive interview with The Cable.
"What has happened here today in Washington is a turning point for the recent history of Somalia, particularly with regard to its international relations," he said. "There was not a bilateral relationship at all in the past. Now we will have access to the United State support. There will be no more intermediaries. The United States government will be dealing with the Somali government directly and we will get the support directly."
The United States and Somalia have identified several sectors for future financial support: the security sector, economic recovery, peace-building, good governance, and the rule of law. Working-level teams have been established to follow up in the coming weeks and months on what that will mean in practice.
Mohamud said that U.S. recognition of his government will hopefully lead to a string of additional recognitions that will give Somalia the international legitimacy it needs to pursue assistance from international financial institutions and other multilateral organizations.
Mohamud is not like any previous Somali leader. Formerly a professor at the Somali National University, he stayed in Somalia where civil war broke out in the early 1990s and worked with international organizations including the U.N. In 1999, he helped found the Somali Institute of Management and Administration (SIMAD) in Mogadishu, which eventually became SIMAD University, where he was dean until 2010.
In 2011, he founding the Peace and Development Party and was selected as a member of parliament in 2012. In September 2012, members of parliament overwhelming chose him to be president in a run-off election against the incumbent president, Sharif Sheikh Ahmed.
Mohamud told The Cable that he and Obama are cut from the same cloth.
"I was really touched when President Obama said, ‘Mr. President, we have the same background. We come from civil society, academia, community service.' It's true... He said that's what makes the two of us easy to work together. That touched me a lot and I really appreciated it," Mohamud said.
During Mohamud's visit, the issue of reestablishing a U.S. formal diplomatic presence in Somalia after a 20-year absence was also discussed. The new Somali government will return the property where the U.S. Embassy once stood, according to the agreement the two countries signed Thursday.
While that embassy is being rebuilt, the Somali government has offered the United Staets a temporary location in a well-protected diplomatic enclave in Mogadishu where several countries' embassies are located. Forces from Somalia and the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) will protect that enclave.
"There will soon be an American embassy in Mogadishu and there will be a Somali embassy in Washington again soon as well," he said. Now, there is no formal Somali diplomatic presence in DC or American diplomatic presence in Somalia.
A big part of the new Somali government's plan to cement power and prove its credibility and sustainability is to push government control outside of Mogadishu and establish basic services, particularly in the South, where the militant group al-Shabab was recently pushed out.
"This is where the United States government will be supporting us. It's called national stabilization and the United States is heavily supporting that," he said.
Mohamud also met with more than two dozen congressmen this week in a meeting organized by Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN), the first Muslim elected to Congress.
During his meeting with Clinton, Mohamed said, they discussed the status of the enclaves Somaliland and Puntland, how Somalia will relate to its neighbors, and the general path forward for dealing with Somalia's challenges.
"We are all reading from the same page and we were of the same view. We presented our views and she really endorsed it," he said. "She said Somalia is now on the right track and some of the concerns and fears [the United States] was having on Somalia you have now clarified and we are now in a better position to bring our weight in support of Somalia."
The United States is widely known to have used drones to strike militants inside Somalia. Mohamud said he supports such missions so long as Somali citizens aren't killed.
"We support it so far, because so far the U.S. drones have killed only foreign fighters in Somalia and we appreciate it. We don't have any sympathy for the foreigners," he said. "There is a worry of collateral effects, but luckily so far in Somalia we have not had collateral effects. So that is one problem solved, we believe."
Mohamud also commented on the current conflict in Mali and Algeria, where French-led international forces are engaged in an ongoing operation to wrestle control of Mali from Islamic militant groups. He said that the fighting in Mali shows that these groups are much more organized and formidable than most regional actors had previously assumed.
"The international community now understands the reality of these guys," he said. "They made the intervention at the right time. They should not be given the chance to expand their control. That's what happened in Somalia."
He also said the Somali government was never warned in advance about the failed French raid inside Somalia, which resulted in the death of a French commando and the French hostage and several Somalis.
"We are very sorry about the failure of that mission and it was a legitimate mission," he said. "We were not informed in advance and we believe that if we were informed in advance, we could have contributed to the success of the mission."
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Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.