Why a stable Somalia is in our interests

February 21, 2012

As the first British Ambassador to Somalia for twenty years, people often ask me why we should get involved with Somalia at all: haven’t we got enough to worry about?

Somalia has an unenviable record as a failed state. Its twenty-year civil war has brought lawlessness and chaos at a massive human cost: one million Somalis are believed to have died; another 750,000 Somalis are currently seeking refuge in neighbouring countries. Last year alone, as the effects of drought, conflict and famine took hold across southern Somalia, it is estimated that between 50,000 and 100,000 people died; half of that number were probably children.

Somalia’s lawlessness is also breeding new threats. Large parts of the country are controlled by a group of extremists and criminals known as Al Shabaab – an organisation that only a few weeks ago publicly declared its relationship with Al Qaeda. Its leadership encourage fighters and sympathisers from around the world to use Somalia as a base for terrorism. The bombings that claimed the lives of 74 people in Kampala in July 2010 were planned and executed in Somalia.

Piracy off the coast of Somalia continues to pose a threat to international shipping: in the first half of 2011 more than 154 ships were attacked, with 21 hijacked and a total of 362 people taken hostage [1]. Piracy is costing an eye-watering amount. The One Earth Foundation estimates that in 2010 alone the costs of Somali piracy to the global economy ranged between $7billion and $12 billion.

And the costs keep mounting. A recent report by the Center for American Progress suggests that the international community has collectively spent just over $55 billion responding to Somalia since the civil war erupted in 1991 [2]. As the authors of this report recognise, the costs of such failed states ‘are immense and long-lasting’, encompassing more than just security concerns – failed states, such as Somalia, can make regional instability more likely and they can make it harder for business to invest in neighbouring states.

A more stable Somalia is therefore essential. We cannot afford to ignore the human suffering or the threats posed by Somalia’s instability to Somalis, to East Africa, or to the UK. We therefore have common cause in helping Somalia back from the brink. It’s for these reasons that Somalia matters.

‘But why now?’ many ask.

It’s because, despite all this suffering, there are glimmers of hope. There are opportunities to help Somalis put their country onto a more stable path. Now, before it’s too late.

Thanks to the extraordinary bravery of African Union and Somali troops, the city of Mogadishu, a once beautiful, now bullet hole-ridden city, has been recovered from Al Shabaab. I’ve seen for myself the renewed confidence in Mogadishu – streets bustling with people, shops open, and homes being rebuilt. A city torn apart by two decades of war is slowly beginning to recover – thanks to greater security and the leadership of people like Mohamed Nur, the Mayor of Mogadishu.

Al Shabaab is also under pressure, thanks to African troops and ongoing counter-terrorist operation. And for the first time in several years the threat of piracy is being reduced, as the naval task forces, of which the British Navy is a key part, arrest and detain pirates intent on taking ships and seafarers hostage.

Politically, there is also a real opportunity to help support a broader, more inclusive political process when the mandate of the Transitional Federal Institutions expires in August. Somalia’s government is committed to ensuring progress, as are Somalia’s regional leaders.

These opportunities need to be grasped to help the Somali people rebuild their lives, by strengthening their security, by tackling the shared threats of terrorism and piracy, by supporting communities become more resilient to drought and famine, by helping to make sure that as many Somalis as possible have a stake in their country’s political future. This is the best chance in a generation to help support a Somalia where the basic needs of the Somali people can be met, and where Somalia’s children can have a brighter future.

Clearly Somalia’s challenges won’t be solved overnight – we all realise that.  But we also realise that Somalia is no longer a ‘regional’ issue; it’s a global one. We also realise that these challenges can only be addressed by working together with Somalia’s leaders, the United Nations and the African Union.

It’s for these reasons that, on 23 February, the Prime Minister will host a meeting of over 50 countries and international organisations from across Africa, the Gulf, Europe and North America, including the UN, the African Union and the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation – all with a single purpose: to galvanise international support and agree a new international strategy to help turn round Somalia.

We hope the London Conference can mark the beginning of a renewed international commitment to work together and support a country and its people that have suffered enough.  Greater security in Somalia means greater security for the Somali people so they can rebuild their lives; it means greater security for the region, meaning businesses can invest more because Somalia no longer poses an international threat; it means greater security for us.

This shared interest is our national interest.

That’s ‘Why’.


[1] Piracy News and Figures, available at http://www.icc-ccs.org/piracy-reporting-centre/piracynewsafigures.

[2] Norris and Bruton, “Twenty Years of Collapse and Counting: The Cost of Failure in Somalia”, Center for American Progress, Sept 2011

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