Friday, December 28, 2012
By Malkhadir M Muhumed
Somalia's new president Hassan Sheikh Mohamud after being elected by MPs. Photograph: Farah Abdi Warsameh/AP
Only a day after Somalia’s President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud was sworn into office, the stark reality of his country dawned on him: Army commanders told him “they can’t rule out the possibility of security forces moving out of their bases to rob the public and businesses” in the capital because they were not paid for five months. Nor did they receive rations for three months.
Worse, the head of the central bank and the director general of the Ministry of Finance told him there was “no single coin in government coffers, whatsoever,” something Mohamud said “was as shocking as it was hard to accept”. The government workers also went without pay for four months.
“I didn’t have that information. So it was kind of firefighting for me. Where is the danger? The army is starving? Get them food and salary,” Mohamud said in an exclusive interview with The Standard on subjects ranging from security, al Shabaab, his country’s ties with Kenya, to how he spends an average of 20 hours a day in his office.
To get a quick fix for these festering problems, Mohamud said he set up an emergency meeting with Somali businessmen in the capital to ask for their help. He also worked the phones, pleading with international donors who provided assistance to previous governments, to release funds they had frozen months earlier due to the political fluidity in the country.
“I asked them to release the money urgently, some told me that they needed some time, about two weeks, but I told them that I wanted it released within 24 hours...but it reached us in a week,” he said in Nairobi, while meeting President Kibaki on his first State visit to Kenya.
Mohamud, 56, is the first president to lead a government that is not in a transitional mode since Somalia’s last central government imploded in 1991, plunging the Horn of Africa nation into a continuum of lawlessness and civil war.
A political activist, Mohamud has roots in the moderate Islamic group of Islah, Somalia’s version of the Muslim Brotherhood. Many believe that Mohamud, who rocked from obscurity onto the national and international stage last September, stands a fair chance of restoring Somalia’s lost glories after two decades of chaos.
Somalia has became a by-word for failure, is known for being the number one in corruption in the world, the leader in piracy and a major threat to region’s stability because of Al Qaeda-linked militants of Al Shabaab.
While many leaders in the world take over functioning offices after their election victories, what Mohamud found at Villa Somalia (the State House Mogadishu) can barely pass for a president’s office.When asked if the presidential palace was dysfunctional when he took it over, he replied: “Literally, that is how I found it.” Mohamud said the reason why Somalia lurched from one crisis to another in the last 21 years was because of a lack of political maturity and a weak or lack of leadership.
The biggest challenges the government now faces are security, lack of functioning state institutions and bankruptcy, said Mohamud, noting his government gets monetary contributions from local businesses and Somalis in the Diaspora.
It also earns $2 million from the seaport, airport and taxing businesses.
Unlike past transitional governments that died before they could even venture beyond the capital, Mogadishu, the current government, the president said, plans to spread its authority across the country and will start naming new commissioners for districts and governors for regions in a bid “to prepare the country for the agreed upon federal system”.
The government is also on the cusp of rehabilitating the country’s depilated infrastructure as well as executing five projects in each district under its control.
Mohamud bristles at how international organisations are “disengaged” from the government, saying they plan and implement without any consultations with local authorities. He appealed to the international community for support.
Despite urging Kenya to rescind its order to send refugees back to camps, the president effused about Nairobi’s hospitality towards his countrymen, refugees and businessmen.
“Kenya has hosted Somalis since the collapse of their country’s last functioning government. Their businesses came to Kenya when they could not do business in their country...Kenya welcomed them and the Somali people have trust in it,” he said.
Somalia’s government expects to take over the country within two years and to end, within three years, the “significance and threat” posed by the al Qaeda-linked militant group, al Shabaab, Mohamud said.
“It is a difficult organisation that has an international wing, with Somalis having little control of it. It is now collapsing and unraveling. Its command and control have been defeated. Its fighters are continuously on the run, but the problem is they’re not done,” the president said of the group that tried to kill him just two days after ascending to office. “They may be militarily weak or defeated. But the problem is eliminating their ideology entrenched in the public. The Shabaab is a difficult and ongoing project.”
Owing to the insecurity in Somalia, Mohamud’s lifestyle has undergone major changes, with security agents tagging along around the clock.
Although it was hard for him to accept, the new life he started was full of risks. African Union peacekeepers whisked him away immediately after his election victory to brief him about their mandate, general security in the country and security services they could provide him.
“I preferred my past lifestyle, but I was made to believe that I was at risk,” he said. “It was not an exaggeration. It was real and it became a reality just days later, although it was hard for me to accept.” Mohamud leaves home at 8am and returns at 2am. Between 6am and 7.30am he reads government reports and books. He recently read A Doctor in the House by former Malaysia Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed and Fixing Failed States: A Framework for Rebuilding a Fractured World by Ashraf Ghani and Clare Lockhart.
“I believe that today Somalia has leaders who are serious about bringing about change, leaders who have the capacity to bring about that change. So I believe Somalia has returned to the right path. It has definitely turned the corner,” he concluded.