United Nations Special Representative Nicholas Kay warned that the significant progress Somalia has made in the past two years could be in peril if the international community does not remain engaged and fails to continue humanitarian aid and support for African Union peacekeepers.

mr kay and mr carson

“If we make a mistake in our security presence and posture and suffer a significant attack, particularly on the U.N., this is likely to lead to us withdrawing from Somalia,” Kay said at a recent USIP event entitled “Progress or Peril in Somalia?” that is part of the Institute’s efforts to expand its work on Somalia and support the country’s political transition. Kay, a former Africa director at the UK Foreign Ministry, has been the Special Representative of the U.N. Secretary-General for Somalia since June.

Somalia has undergone enormous change since 2009, when the Transitional Federal Government controlled only a few blocks of the capital Mogadishu. Now, the militant group al-Shabab has been pushed out of most major population centers and Somalia has an elected president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, as well as a provisional constitution. Democratic elections are scheduled for 2016. 

But Somalia’s institutions remain weak. After more than 20 years of civil war, human capacity is greatly diminished and the government is unable to deliver on its ambitions. Corruption further hinders governance and, as a result, the Somali people continue to rely heavily on clan networks.

These challenges are not surprising, Kay said, but are part of a realistic assessment of Somalia’s current situation. In spite of these challenges, Somalia continues to make security gains against al-Shabab. The peacekeepers of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and the Somali National Army, supported by a broad international coalition that includes the U.S. and the U.N., launched another offensive in March and have already made significant gains. As security forces push al-Shabab out of population centers, they deprive the group of revenue and training camps, weakening the militant group further.

Though AMISOM and the Somali National Army received additional resources prior to their most recent offensive, they still do not have adequate supplies and equipment, specifically helicopters to protect or supplement their food and humanitarian-aid supply routes.

“It is remarkable to me, and deeply disturbing, that no African Union member state has come forward with helicopters for the African Union mission. Without that military air support, AMISOM are in peril,” Kay warned.

The current federal government of Somalia has three objectives in the coming years: first, organizing on the basis of federal states; second, writing a permanent constitution and conducting a constitutional referendum; and third, holding democratic elections in 2016. Achieving any one of these goals would be difficult, particularly given the challenges the government faces, Kay said. It still remains to be seen if the government can extend its writ outside of Mogadishu to newly recaptured areas. But while striving to accomplish all three goals is particularly ambitious, it is possible, Kay said.

In addition to its political projects, the government has made some significant strides in financial governance and improving the economy. Although unregulated, Kay noted that the economy is vibrant and likely to thrive under the newly-appointed finance minister, Hussein Abdi Halane, who has introduced a national taxation plan.

The government cannot accomplish all of its objectives alone; the international community has been engaged and is partnering with Somalia in unique ways. Kay said that the New Deal for Engagement in Fragile States, endorsed at a Nov. 2011 meeting in Busan, South Korea, of 19 fragile and conflict-affected countries, development partners and international organizations, is finally moving forward with support from the World Bank and the U.N. The “New Deal” is aimed at improving the ability of affected countries to reach the U.N.’s Millennium Development Goals. For improved security, the African Union, particularly Ethiopia, is drawing on financial support from the European Union to supply troops for the peacekeeping forces, and the United Nations Assistance Mission in Somalia is providing military logistical support.

Kay is concerned that the international community may be losing interest in Somalia, given the growing number of competing conflicts that are demanding attention. Any significant reduction in international engagement will pose an enormous threat to the gains Somalia has made in the past two years, he said. International supporters provide not only resources, but a form of accountability. Without this involvement, Kay fears that Somali politicians and leaders may “revert to their less-attractive and -productive ways of behaving.”

The international community must think ahead and leverage opportunities for transformation; not doing so would be the greatest peril, said Kay. He recommended senior-level engagement and continued messaging from international political leaders encouraging the federal government, reassuring Somalis and deterring those who may want to spoil the progress that has been made.

Kay advises the international community and the federal government to “stick to the plan.” That means ensuring implementation of the New Deal, renewing the U.N. mission in Somalia and continuing the African Union peacekeeping mission, he said.

Emily Fornof is a program assistant for Africa at USIP.

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