Interview with Augustine Mahiga, SRSG for Somalia

A recent famine in Somalia has complicated progress in stabilizing this war-torn country and provided new challenges for Ambassador Augustine Mahiga, who was appointed Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Somalia and head of the United Nations Political Office for Somalia (UNPOS) on June 9, 2010.

Ambassador Mahiga spoke to Jérémie Labbé, IPI Senior Policy Analyst, on September 20th.

Listen to interview (or download mp3):

Interview Transcript:

Jérémie Labbé (JL): My first question is about the UN presence in Somalia. What is your current access to the country, and are you confident that the United Nations is getting reliable information on the situation in the country, notably in the famine-stricken areas?

Augustine Mahiga (AM): The United Nations has been very creative in providing congenial security conditions for its staff to operate even before the withdrawal of the al-Shabaab from Mogadishu. We started with a light presence in Mogadishu, mainly around the airport and the AMISOM base, and that has improved tremendously in recent weeks after the withdrawal of al-Shabaab. The United Nations is providing – in partnership with AMISOM – facilities for movement, for guarding the facilities, as well as the areas of residence.

We have just asked the Security Council to authorize a force of 300 additional troops for escort and for static protection, and this has increased the prospects of greater deployment of the United Nations–my office, the political office, and the other UN agencies, funds and programs in Mogadishu. My office has presence in the other areas of Somalia, especially in Puntland where we have just staffed our office with up to 15 personnel and a similar number in Hargeisa, Somaliland.

The security challenge remains, as there is a change of tactics by the al-Shabaab to more asymmetrical warfare, but there is greater territory that needs to be covered, and more important, the need for daily interaction with the Somali political actors. So we see the need to go there. What is a limitation now is related to accommodation for living quarters and office space. We hope that will be improved soon and before the end of the year the numbers may increase considerably in Mogadishu.

JL: You mentioned al-Shabaab. Al-Shabaab sent contradictory messages in July on their willingness to accept international humanitarian actors operating in south Somalia. How should these be interpreted according to you?

AM: This is a reflection of the division within the ranks of the leadership of the al-Shabaab. There is one wing, which was more liberal and open to humanitarian assistance from any quarter, whether from the United Nations, or Western agencies, or Islamic agencies. But there is a hard-line faction within the leadership that strictly limited access in their area to a selected number of humanitarian agencies. They have excluded one of the biggest agencies, the World Food Program (WFP), which is the major provider of food and that limits the kinds of life-saving assistance that needs to be brought in those areas. Access and security continue to be a major challenge in the areas that are controlled by the hard-line factions in the south-central. In those [areas] controlled by the reasonably liberal, the humanitarian agencies are able to negotiate their way through with community leaders, and also, at the higher level, with the other leaders and access has improved. But still, humanitarian actors from the international community or international actors are not able to go there, and it is Somali humanitarian workers who are carrying out most of the operations in those areas.

JL: You mentioned the existence of two trends within al-Shabaab, notably a more moderate branch. In Afghanistan, the international community has recently relaxed its absolute “no contact policy” with the Taliban as they increasingly appear as a necessary interlocutor on the way to stabilizing Afghanistan. Do you see a similar trend possible with al-Shabaab, or maybe with one of the trends of al-Shabaab, who control some of the areas most affected by the famine and where humanitarian actors need access?

AM: There can be a window of opportunity. The Security Council of the United Nations has repeatedly said those elements that are embarked on the path of violence and war, are welcome to join the peace process if they can renounce violence and lay down their arms. That offer has been reiterated by the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and by the international community as a whole.

In this moment of division within the leadership of the al-Shabaab, we see a window of opportunity where some elements can be more inclined towards discussions. The Prime Minister of the Transitional Federal Government has gone public and indicated that they have received signals from some elements of the al-Shabaab to start discussions. We have received similar reports from other sources that they are willing to consider discussions, but before that, they would want more discussions among themselves, that is the progressive, more liberal elements. Because there are different strands within the al-Shabaab. It is not a homogenous group. We are watching and following all of these signals. It may be too early to be very optimistic, but the dynamics on the ground due to the humanitarian crisis and the security developments have created new conditions, where there are windows of opportunity that must be utilized quickly and see how these can be mainstreamed into the peace process.

JL: You mentioned the current situation on the ground. We all know that the current humanitarian crisis, the famine in Somalia, is not simply the result of bad rains but has more deeply-rooted causes linked to the political instability of the country and the decades-long conflict affecting Somalia. In your view, what can be the contribution of your office to alleviate the current humanitarian crisis and to help prevent relapse in this type of situation?

AM: The drought that has hit the Horn of Africa is affecting several countries, but it is only in Somalia where it has developed into famine. And it is mainly in the al-Shabaab controlled areas where that famine is striking and spreading. And this shows that it is the absence of governmental authority, of stability, of peace that has contributed to the drought developing into famine.

We see this as an opportunity where international attention is focused on providing humanitarian assistance, but also attention on Somalia, at a time where the peace process has reached a very critical stage with greater prospects for moving forward than ever before. And this would be the beginning of addressing the political causes of famine, which is resolving the conflict, establishing governmental institutions that can address programs and policies of food security, of long-term mitigation policies and adaptation to climate change, which in other countries in the Horn is happening, but is not happening in Somalia.

JL: In the recent past, some tensions have arisen between the stabilization agenda and the humanitarian agenda of the United Nations in Somalia, notably in relation to the support given to the Transitional Federal Government by the UN political mission. How would you qualify the relationship between stabilization and humanitarian actors today in Somalia?

AM: It is a very delicate rope and path to be pursued. On the one hand, the humanitarians are definitely pursuing the humanitarian principles of neutrality and impartiality–neutrality and impartiality from political action, neutrality and impartiality from military action. But at the same time, by the nature of my office, it is political. I have to deal with the political, I have to deal with the peacemakers, I have to deal with the Transitional Federal Government, which some of the humanitarians have seen as one of the factions.

The meeting point is that we are all concerned about peace and stability. For the humanitarians to operate, they need a global environment where there is peace. But when it comes to operational details like escorts by the military, then they have to keep their distance. When it comes to political issues, whether it is with the TFG or any other faction which is central to my work, they certainly have to maintain their distance. It is this very tightrope where the United Nations is called upon to act as one and to deliver as one, but from within, there are all of these matters of principle that have to be safeguarded. But it is my view that it is the long-term and broader picture of political stability which can create conditions for the humanitarian workers in the broader context, rather than detailed operational aspects which have to be maintained in a manner that the basic principles of neutrality and impartiality are maintained.

JL: Ambassador Mahiga, thank you very much for your time and for giving us this insight on your work in Somalia.

AM: Thank you.