Selling Somalia: we need indomitable investors, not aid, says foreign minister

Somalia may be wracked by conflict, politically fragile and braced for potentially devastating floods, but Abdusalam Omer believes it is ripe for foreign investment.

He admits his job is a tough one – in fact, his wife thinks he is having a “mid-life meltdown” – but the Somali foreign minister Abdusalam Omer is determined to sell the Horn of Africa nation, insisting it has lucrative natural resources that could benefit intrepid investors.

“Somalia can be world leader in livestock,” Omer, a former central bank governor who was appointed minister six months ago, told an audience at London’s Chatham House this week. “We have the most goats. We have agriculture. We need a critical investment to come to Somalia and invest so Somali children can stay home and be happy.”

Somalia has been locked in conflict since the fall of the dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991. Battles between rival warlords brought the country to its knees in the 90s, a disastrous intervention by UN and US forces cemented its reputation as a no-go zone, and, since 2005, the extremists of al-Shabaab have been fighting the government and African Union peacekeepers, known as Amisom.

Al-Shabaab mostly withdrew from the capital Mogadishu in 2011 after an offensive by Amisom troops. Its forces are now based in southern Somalia, but they also carry out bombing attacks and assassinations in the capital, as well as in neighbouring Kenya.

There have been tentative signs of a return to some kind of normalcy – at least in Mogadishu – since President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud took office in 2012. But his government is still fragile, with frequent changes of prime minister, internal squabbling and accusations of corruption.

Although Omer declared that al-Shabaab “is militarily defeated”, he admitted it was still a challenge to protect the population from “opportunistic” attacks.

Al-Shabaab demonstrated its power last week with a devastating attack on an Amisom base in Janale, in the south. The militants said they killed 50 peacekeepers, while other reports claimed 12 soldiers were killed.

Omer sought to portray a different image of Somalia in his speech, saying early-bird investors would reap financial rewards. He would be travelling to the United Arab Emirates later this month to meet with potential investors, he added.

“I believe that the traditional aid that goes to a developing country … can only go so far. We need to invest in our countries so our young children don’t join the terrorists or go to the high seas,” he said, referring to al-Shabaab extremists and piracy in the Indian Ocean.

“Our message to partners and business is clear: invest in Somalia. Don’t give us aid.”

Some might challenge that rejection of aid, especially amid gloomy predictions that the El Niño weather phenomenon, caused by a warming of the sea-surface temperature in the Pacific Ocean, could hit harvests hard in Somalia.

In August, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) said that much higher than normal rains in the last third of this year could reverse many of the humanitarian gains made in Somalia since 2011, when more than a quarter of a million people died during a famine.

Some experts are warning that this year’s El Niño could match the 1997-98 event when large areas of Somalia were flooded and about 2,000 people were killed.

“If El Niño conditions materialise, an estimated population of 900,000 people living in the riverine areas of the Juba and Shabelle rivers inside Somalia are likely to be affected by the floods,” said Hussein Gadain, chief technical advisor of the FAO’s water and land information management unit.

Even without floods, there is still acute malnutrition across Somalia today: the FAO’s food security and nutrition analysis unit said in late August that more than 855,000 people faced acute food shortages through to this December because of poor cereal harvests, poor rains, and trade disruption because of conflict.

However, there is potential for improvement if security returns. Somalia’s economy grew 3.7% in 2014, according to the International Monetary Fund, which in July published the results of its first review of the country’s economy in 25 years. The growth was driven by agriculture, construction and telecommunications, with the IMF forecasting 2.7% real growth this year.

Somalia is due to hold elections next year, but even Omer admitted the prevailing conditions leave a lot to be desired.

“We should strive for free and fair elections,” he said, before going on to list the conditions that must be in place, including an up-to-date census, registration of voters, and clear delineation of districts.

“Those conditions are not present today. I don’t think they will be present in the near future,” he said.

In a research paper released this week, Jason Mosley, an associate fellow of the Africa Programme at Chatham House, said pressure was still high for an electoral transition.

“The desire for direct elections is in the process of yielding to the reality that there is insufficient time or political will to establish the required legislative and institutional frameworks. However, pressure is mounting to develop an acceptable alternative mechanism in the time remaining,” he wrote.

Somalia is looking to refine a federal system, but Mosley pointed out that respect for minority and smaller clans will be critical. At present, Somalia’s government is based on a clan power-sharing deal – which gives most power to the four biggest clans – but Mosley said that the logic of this “feeds the grievances of smaller groups, allowing continued openings for spoilers.”

Omer was asked about a lack of trust in the government. He did not deny a public lack of confidence, but said: “I’m not selling the government. I’m selling Somalia … It’s a person selling a house. It leaks a bit, some of the doors don’t work but we want to sell it.”