Somalia “Pregnant with Possibility” Ahead of Election: Q&A with Michael Keating

Somalis pass posters of candidates for Wednesday’s presidential election. Mogadishu, Somalia. February 7, 2017. (Sadak Mohamed/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Somalia’s recently elected parliamentarians are expected to appoint a new president on Wednesday this week. Michael Keating, the United Nations’ special representative for Somalia, said that if the new president can form an administration quickly and avoid too many political disputes, there is a good chance of fashioning an agenda to take the country forward.

Speaking with International Peace Institute Senior Adviser John Hirsch, Mr. Keating acknowledged Somalia’s continuing challenges, including a lack of state capacity for revenue generation, and delays in forming a national army.

“It’s been painful getting to this point of state formation, elections, and so on, but we can now at least have the conversation in a meaningful way that will allow Somalis to begin to tackle some of these problems,” he said.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

The Somali government faces tremendous social and economic shortcomings, including very low tax revenues, tremendous unemployment, and under-utilization of women. What potential do the government and UN have to achieve the broad objective of national reconciliation and creation of democratic institutions given these?

Well, in some ways it’s remarkable that as much political progress has been made, given these multiple socioeconomic challenges, which are currently being highlighted by the drought affecting millions and millions of Somalis. This includes the dependence of Somalis upon the weather and upon livestock—they’re not able to add value to their exports. There is also an absence of energy development and exploitation of natural resources for survival. And yet the country is quite rich in terms of energy, whether it’s clean energy sources or the likelihood that oil and gas are going to found either offshore or onshore. It’s also a great trading country with a huge diaspora. So, indeed, the question is: Can that be converted into revenues for the state?

The World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the UN are working very hard to try to encourage Somalis to now develop the capacity to collect revenues and to start generating public goods. And the most important public good is security, because without security for business or for ordinary people there is not going to be investment, whether in the public sector or from the private sector. It has not really been possible to have a serious conversation about tackling these problems because the politics have been so messy, and the state did not really have the architecture.

The big development over the last couple of years has been the emergence of the federal model. Just two months ago, the last piece of the federal puzzle was put in place with the creation of Hir-Shabelle—that’s the sixth federal member state. Some of the administrations in some of these states are fairly well developed, but many of them are very, very new and have no capability at all. But now that they exist an important conversation needs to take place about resource and revenue sharing, about tax collection, about how the justice system is going to work, how the policing system is going to work, what is the relationship between the center and the regions, and what is the role of clans in all that. It’s been painful getting to this point of state formation, elections, and so on, but we can now at least have the conversation in a meaningful way that will allow Somalis to begin to tackle some of these problems.

Do you think that the Somali leaders with whom you have spoken are cognizant of these issues in the same way that you have just expressed—that they have to really come together to form a viable state in order to go ahead?

I think they’re definitely cognizant of it; the trouble is they spend most of their time trying to resolve political disputes. We’ve now completed the parliamentary stage of the electoral process, which has been a huge achievement, and in the next couple of weeks we will have the election of the president by the parliamentarians from both houses. If that president comes into power and is able to form an administration quickly, rather than spend a lot of time trying to pay off those who have, as it were, been responsible for him getting there, then I actually have quite high hopes that we can work with the Somalis to fashion an agenda for the next cabinet, both the priorities for the next year and the next four years.

I think they are cognizant of these issues. I have met most of the presidential candidates. I’ve had long conversations with the incumbent president, who may come back, with the prime minister, who is also a candidate, and also former prime ministers and, indeed, former presidents who are also competing. They told me their priorities and they nearly always include the need to build institutions, and maybe they’re not as aware of the importance of things like financial sector reform in order to generate revenues, in order to convert them into goods and services as they will inevitably become once they are in place, but really I’m hoping that with the new government and the new parliament, we can’t walk away from the many different political disputes, but we can start developing an agenda. This is not a theoretical thing because the annual meeting on Somalia takes place in London in May, and a very high-level group of international actors will come together to look at how they are going to continue to support Somalia economically, from a security point of view, and politically, and if they don’t have an agenda it’s going to be very, very odd.

Many of the African Union mission in Somalia’s (AMISOM) member states have declared their intention to draw down, or even withdraw entirely from the mission by the end of 2018. The question is whether the Somali leadership will be able to create a meaningful army in that time frame, given some critics have said that these are just clan groups fighting each other and there is no cohesive security force. Again, are people cognizant of that, and what do you think are the prospects for developing a viable army by the end of 2018?

Well, the first thing to say is that Somalia had a formidable army in the 60s, 70s, and 80s. Actually, it was too formidable for the likes of many countries in the region. So they are perfectly capable of forming an army if they want to. The problem is that after so many years of civil war, the army does not meet many of the basic attributes that a genuine national army needs to—mainly that it is politically accountable to entire leadership, but that’s now more possible because of the federal project. The question is how would it be accountable through the national security council, not just to the federal government, but to the entire leadership of the country? It’s got to be acceptable to the population; that means it’s got to have broad clan composition, and right now even the president himself, who’s from one clan, has said that he recognizes that most people in the army are from that clan and that that’s not going to work.

It’s got to be broadened out; it’s got to be able to have good training, equipment, barracks, public financial management, human resource management, and all the rest, and there, unfortunately, the international community is more focused on the kinetic end and of things than the institution-building end of things, and that has to be sorted out. It’s also got to be affordable, and the question is who is going to pay for this? And, by the way, it’s not just the army, it’s also the police and its intelligence, and at a certain point it will be maritime as well—that’s extremely important.

The question is going to be to what degree are these things paid for and managed and accountable at a federal level, and to what degree are they at a sub-federal level? Typically, policing is local or accountable to sub-state level authorities, and that may be the right formula for Somalia. I don’t think the army can operate on that basis. It’s got to be genuinely nationally owned, and the conversation that we have already begun with the Somali authorities, and they’re being highly responsive, is what are the models in federal states, particularly post-conflict federal states, as to how you can do this? There are good examples and there are bad examples and they have to figure out what they think.

Is there a good example of a post-conflict national army that you could mention?

Well, the one frequently mentioned is Bosnia-Herzegovina. Another that is interesting is Lebanon, where you have many, many different groups, and yet an army that is trusted by everybody. You’ve got to look at what the officer training is, what the recruitment is, and who pays for it. These things are not impossible, but it’s also an important state-building thing; once the public has confidence in the security forces, in a way the state becomes much  more meaningful, because you can then deploy security forces anywhere in the country to try to contain problems. We’re just not there yet.

The UN system has been engaged in Somalia for quite a while. What do you think that new Secretary-General António Guterres should bring to the table over and above what has already been done by his predecessor?

I was very impressed by his first speech to the Security Council, in which he said that conflict prevention and peace consolidation have to be the top priorities. I thought he was talking about Somalia, actually. I thought he had looked at our situation and then decided that this is what he’s going to do for the world.

What I will say to him, if I get an opportunity, is that Somalia is a place where we’re not only in a peace consolidation phase, but we’re also still in a conflict prevention phase. All this work we’re doing in terms of trying to construct a state, and trying to channel conflict from violence into politics, is in a way about those two things. He also mentioned Human Rights Up Front in that first speech, which I was involved in, so I was thrilled by that.

I think my overall message will be that the narrative in Somalia is very different than the narrative in Yemen, Syria, Libya, or many of the other places with which it’s often lumped together. Somalia is a place that is pregnant with possibility. It is not about things just falling apart, it’s got a lot of problems, but with the Somalis something is going on. It’s complicated, it’s messy, but there is a sense—including from the women who are more politically active now than they have been in Somalia’s history ever before—that some of these problems have got to be resolved and this is the time to do it.