Interview

PrintPrint EmailEmail ShareShare CiteCite
Style:MLAAPAChicagoClose

loading...

U.S. Special Envoy Cites Widespread 'Lack of Confidence' in Somali Government

Interviewee: John M. Yates, U.S. Special Envoy to Somalia
Interviewer: Stephanie Hanson
September 19, 2007

Since the United States tacitly supported an Ethiopian invasion of Somalia that ousted the Islamic Courts Union controlling much of the country, Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government has struggled in its stabilization efforts. Ambassador John M. Yates, U.S. special envoy to Somalia, says there has been “some momentum” since the close of a six-week reconciliation conference in August, and that the “first priority will be the drafting of a constitution.” Yates notes, however, that the security situation in Mogadishu remains “fairly dismal,” and there is a “lack of confidence in the Transitional Federal Government in its capacity to carry forward.” He says the Eritrea provides support to insurgents in Somalia, but the U.S. ability to influence Eritrea “seems to be limited.”

As the U.S. special envoy to Somalia you’ve kept a pretty low profile. Can you discuss what your focus has been since you took this role, and some of the different challenges that you’ve faced thus far?

I’ve been running within the embassy in Nairobi, the Somali unit. We’re now up to about five Americans and two Foreign Service Nationals, and my main focus has been on dealing with the [Transitional] Federal Government, with all the different stripes of Somali leaders, and with the international community. I’ve been traveling quite a bit, especially to Addis Ababa. You should understand that the ambassador to Kenya, Michael Ranneberger, is also officially responsible for the conduct of foreign relations with Somalia, so he is also very much involved. We work very closely together, of course with the assistant secretary, [Jendayi] Frazer.

And have you been traveling to Somalia?

No, so far we are not because of the security concerns. Except one time in the time that I’ve been here, I flew in with Assistant Secretary Frazer to meet with the prime minister and speak with parliament.

The Transitional Federal Government recently concluded this big reconciliation conference that lasted through most of July and August. Can you tell me, from your perspective, what actually came out of this conference?

[The Transitional Federal Government] did issue a report on the reconciliations and the recommendations of the National Reconciliation Congress, which came out about a week and a half ago. It has a number of good items, we think, both on social reconciliation and the political way forward to transition in 2009.

In addition to issuing this publicly, the president, the prime minister, the chairman of the reconciliation process and the speaker and more than two hundred elders from the conference are in Saudi Arabia now with an invitation for a ceremonial signing.

It is true that important elements did stay outside of the congress. They were all invited, including members of the [Islamic Courts Union] who were not on the international terrorist list and who renounce terrorism. They were invited and they chose not to come. They had a big meeting in a rump congress in Asmara [the capital of Eritrea] last Friday, on the fourteenth, pretending they were the opposition. There are people in Asmara who we and the Somalis hope will eventually come back to the reconciliation process that was begun, which is by no means over, in Mogadishu.

We had a breakdown of government in the early nineties, then the total deterioration of law and order, and then effectively warlords and clan-based administration in local areas. The real issue now is having a government that can deliver services to the people.

One of the things it does say in the National Reconciliation document is that the congress is in effect still seized with the issue of reconciliation and they invite other people to come back and associate themselves with it. There has been some momentum on that score.

Can you speak a little more specifically about that momentum? Are you yourself working to encourage that and, if so, in what way?

Immediately after the congress there were some meetings amongst a segment of the business community in Djibouti that hadn’t participated, and several members of them did go back. We ourselves have been especially speaking with former members of parliament, including the speaker. I spoke personally with him myself in Dubai and we have been trying to encourage him to come back.

The actual implementation of the congress resolutions is really still to get started. Now that it’s been ceremonially signed, the process will be for it to be turned over to the Transitional Federal Government. Some things might require parliamentary action, we’re hoping very quickly. This is one of the things the International Contact Group talked about in Rome last Monday, the importance of road-mapping timetables, especially on the political parts that would lead them to 2009.

It’s been a number of years that Somalia has existed without a central government, so it would be ambitious to expect overnight improvement in the country. What do you see as realistic goals in terms of political or economic development and can you identify some benchmarks that you’d like to see met in the next year?

Amongst the things that are referred to in the final recommendations of the Reconciliation Congress are the things that are mandated by the Transitional Federal Charter (PDF) that was adopted here in Nairobi in 2004 for a five-year transition period. They include writing a new constitution and having a referendum on the constitution, permitting the setup of a multi-party system, creating electoral laws, creating an electoral commission and holding elections by 2009. We consider the first priority will be the drafting of a constitution.

And what are some of the conflicts, the primary issues, in drafting of a constitution between the different clans in Somalia?

The Ethiopian troops are still an issue, especially with the people in Asmara [the Islamic Courts Union members]. It seems to be really a question of confidence and capability in some regards of the Transitional Federal Government, more than the critical issues of the constitution. I’m not going to talk about the economy because there are so many things that could be done to help the economy, the most important of which would be a cessation of hostilities.

It’s quite amazing, in some regards, the amount of business that does go on in Somalia. In some ways their technology, their Internet capacity, is more sophisticated and better than Kenya’s. There are an awful lot of bad things too: the breakdown of infrastructure, and what I found in talking to people outside of the process—and these are not necessarily the Courts although earlier on we did talk to some of them, too—is their lack of confidence in the Transitional Federal Government in its capacity to carry forward.

In the resolution from the congress there is also a recommendation about increasing the capacity of the government. One of the perceived drawbacks is that ministers could only be appointed from within the parliament. And of course everybody knows there are thousands of talented Somalis in Somalia and in the diaspora who might be able to serve in a technocratic position in helping the competence of the government. The real issue amongst people who have stayed and kept the process at arms length, or even been somewhat opposed to it, has been the competence of the government.

One of our objectives is certainly fighting terrorism. Part of that is to help establish a stable state in Somalia that they could help monitor on their own. For Somalia to ever have a real capacity to prevent itself from being used as a terrorist agent, it has to have a working government, which we’re trying very hard to work for.

Have you seen some evolution in this feeling of confidence in the Transitional Federal government?

Honestly I couldn’t say that confidence is on a deep up-slope. There is some evidence and, frequently, the evidence is brought about by the international community insisting on lifting roadblocks and things like that. But, in fact, if you talk about things like taxation or the delivery of medical services to the people, the big issue is one of security.

We had a breakdown of government in the early nineties, then the total deterioration of law and order, and then effectively warlords and clan-based administration in local areas. The real issue now is having a government that can deliver services to the people.

Who is responsible for the violence in Mogadishu, and is the Transitional Federal Government addressing it in any way?

The 1,800 Ugandans that you mentioned are really in a static position. The main part of the division of security or cracking down in Somalia is done by the Transitional Federal Government forces, which tend to be ill-trained and somewhat ill-disciplined, and by the Ethiopians. A lot of the violence is caused by remnants of the courts of the Shabbabs [a radical element of the Islamic Courts Union]. In fact, several of the more radical speeches in Asmara condoned violence to throw out the Ethiopians. Some of them go as far as to say throw out the Ugandans. It’s pretty easy for a rebel to lob a mortar shell somewhere and then unfortunately, especially the Transitional Federal Government, overreacts in the retaliation. The situation has not improved to the degree that one would want.

In fact, it is quite an achievement on its own that for forty-five days the National Reconciliation Congress could go on, and there were no direct attacks against the congress venue. The capability is there, but day-to-day security for most people who live in Mogadishu is fairly dismal.

There’s obviously a lot of tension between Ethiopia and Eritrea and some analysts say this is really contributing to some of the problems in Somalia. What role do you see Eritrea playing in what’s going on in Somalia, and how is that affecting U.S. efforts to help stabilize the country?

There’s no doubt that the Eritreans make very strong statements about the Ethiopians, the United States, about IGAD [Intergovernmental Authority on Development], Uganda, Kenya, about their attitude. There is credible evidence they are helping the supply of insurgent forces in Somalia. You may have seen recent statements by Assistant Secretary Frazer about the possibility of putting Eritrea on the state sponsors of terrorism list, which is based on solid evidence that they are supporting [the insurgents in Somalia]. We hear reports of both money and weapons being provided to the opposition forces in Somalia.

Since Assistant Secretary Frazer made that announcement, has there been any shift in behavior from the Eritreans?

On the contrary, the statements seem to be even more bellicose. But the Eritrea-Ethiopia situation is acidic at best, and our own ability to have influence with Asmara, although that’s not my beat, seems to be limited. I wouldn’t say the threat of being added to the list of state-sponsored terrorism had any damaging effect on the Eritrean behavior.

Earlier this year the United States launched air strikes on Somalia, claiming to be targeting Al-Qaeda affiliates. What is your feeling now as to what extent Somalia is being used as a terrorist haven?

We certainly think there is a likelihood that it is a safe haven for terrorists, including some who were responsible for the bombing of the embassy in Nairobi. I think the probability of terrorists being in Somalia does exist.

So one aim of U.S. policy is to limit the spread of terrorism in the Horn of Africa and another is to stabilize Somalia. In the past year, these air strikes sent a certain message, which media in the Horn of Africa responded to somewhat negatively. The mission to help stabilize Somalia sends a completely different message. Do you think the terrorism message overshadows the stabilization one?

It depends on who’s reporting on it. One of our objectives is certainly fighting terrorism. Part of that is to help establish a stable state in Somalia that they could help monitor on their own. For Somalia to ever have a real capacity to prevent itself from being used as a terrorist agent, it has to have a working government, which we’re trying very hard to work for.

More on This Topic