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Somalia coming back from the brink

By Lucie Morangi | China Daily Africa | Updated: 2015-07-26 15:54

Former UN humanitarian chief says nation still needs international help, but hope starting to grow

For more than two decades, Somalia has had a reputation as a failed state in the eyes of many around the world. It has been known for tribal and jihadi warfare, famine and high-seas piracy.

But while many huge challenges remain, there is a glimmer of hope in the Horn of Africa, signs that things could be better in the future, according to Philippe Lazzarini, the outgoing United Nations humanitarian chief for Somalia.

 Somalia coming back from the brink

China and the rest of the international community have an immeasurable role to play in supporting the country's recovery process. Provided to China Daily

"Though we still have a long way to recovery, Mogadishu is rapidly transforming into a bustling commercial capital, with new businesses, an airport and a new hospital," says Lazzarini, a Swiss-born diplomat who completed his assignment of some two years in early July. "These are visible signs that something is changing not only in the capital, but also at the peripheries."

Another positive sign, he says, is China's reopening last year of its embassy in the capital, Mogadishu, after more than 23 years.

"China has a fully fledged diplomatic mission in Somalia with an ambassador who can speak the native language," says Lazzarini, who was speaking in Nairobi on his way to starting a new role as UN humanitarian coordinator in Lebanon.

While reopening China's embassy is symbolic, he called it "an indication that there is progress by the government to work toward bringing stability and creating a conducive environment for both international partners and its citizens".

China closed its diplomatic offices after the escalation of civil war and the fall of Siad Barre's administration in 1991. Like other countries, it continued its relationship with the country through its mission based in Nairobi.

China sent more than $28 million in aid to Somalia between 2003 and 2011, according to AidData, including $100,000 in July 2004 to facilitate the last phase of the Somali peace process held in Kenya under joint supervision of the UN.

Before 1991, Somalia had maintained close relationship with China for many years. It was the first East African nation to establish diplomatic relations with the country, in 1960, and strongly backed China's bid for permanent membership on the UN Security Council.

China invested heavily in Somalia's infrastructure, building a 900-kilometer highway linking the north and south of the country, among many other projects. Most of that, and much of the rest of the country, lay in ruins after years of intertribal conflict and infiltration by al-Shabab, an al-Qaida-affiliated militant Islamic group that captured most of southern Somalia in 2006. It was militarily defeated by Somali and Ethiopian forces the next year, but still has significant power.

The current situation puts Somalia in a precarious position. "The country is at a precipice as it is seen to be emerging from a civil war, meanwhile it is still battling the al-Shabab insurgency," Lazzarini says. The country is committed, he says, to shedding the label of a failed state by putting government institutions into place.

In 2012, the country held its first general elections, ushering into office President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud. It also led to the signing of the New Deal Compact in September 2013 in Brussels in an event co-hosted by the Somali Federal government and the European Union with participation from Somali regions and civil society as well as international partners.

The New Deal Framework is a platform developed by the g7+ group, an intergovernmental organization founded in 2011 by countries emerging from conflict.

The new pact gives the state reins to address peace-building, state-building and development, and to better coordinate donors to support those objectives, Lazzarini says.

"China and the rest of the international community have an immeasurable role to play in supporting the country's recovery process. And this can only be done if we help them implement the New Deal Compact.

"I know there is temptation by the donor communities to embark on what they perceive to be urgent. But we have realized that this has turned out to be uncoordinated and duplicates roles," says Lazzarini, whose jobs included serving as a liaison between Somali officials and the international community.

"Now more than 20 agencies are rallying behind one strategy and implement programs jointly. We have managed to harmonize humanitarian and development activities with the government."

Still, it is important, Lazzarini says, that the global community not take its focus off Somalia as a result of "donor fatigue" as other emerging conflicts flare up.

"The country is still not out of the woods in terms of its humanitarian needs. Periodic famine has weakened the resilience of the people - 700,000 people are still in emergency crisis, and they are people who ordinarily cannot afford daily meals. Another 2 million people are on the edge of food insecurity."

The situation has been made even more precarious with the coming of hundreds of refugees from Yemen.

Lazzarini says insecurity continues to present the biggest challenge to achieving new goals.

"Security is the bottom pillar, and without it no development nor governance can take place. The UN complex has been bombarded six times by al-Shabab extremists. We have lost seven UN employees and tens of thousands of innocent bystanders."

Lazzarini says despite the problems, there are signs Somalia is making progress. He says he has noted the continuing rebuilding of Somalia's police and military forces.

The reestablishment of more diplomatic relations, such as with China, has also helped. "Somalia is at a turning point, and such efforts are critical to its post-conflict recovery," says Lazzarini.

Ambassador Zhong Jianhua, China's special envoy for African affairs, told China Central Television in regards to the embassy reopening that Somalia is not a burden, but a friend.

"The embassy makes China's presence more visible and approachable. We will also get firsthand information on the humanitarian and development needs of Somalia," he said.

Lazzarini says the private sector also can play a role, and the UN is ramping up its presence. "More investments are needed to create a conducive environment," he says. "There are at least 1,400 UN employees working in the country at any given time. The UN has a fully fledged office still based in Nairobi but has a mission in Somalia. There are ongoing plans to relocate the office to the Horn of Africa."

Lazzarini's successor, who is starting his new role this month, is Peter de Clercq of the Netherlands, who previously served as the UN humanitarian lead in Haiti. Prior to that, De Clercq served as senior adviser and UN deputy special representative for Somalia.

"Somalia still remains high on the UN agenda," Lazzarini says.


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