Does Kerry’s surprise visit to Somalia prelude a renewed US-Somali relationship?

Does Kerry’s surprise visit to Somalia prelude a renewed US-Somali relationship?

John Kerry’s surprise visit to Somalia is the latest sign of strengthening relations between the US and Somalia.

John Kerry arrived in Mogadishu on May 5, where he met Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud and provincial leaders, making him the first US Secretary of State to visit the war-torn country. Though the three hour visit was unannounced until the day before, and was confined to the fortified airport complex for security reasons, it is not completely unexpected.

Indeed, the US has been reinforcing its ties with Somalia over the past months in order to support counter-terrorism efforts.

Kerry has justified his visit by the pointing to the country’s progress in its mission “to turn things around.” It is true that Somalia has made numerous efforts to rebuild itself and bring peace; in 2012, the national constituent assembly adopted a provisional constitution, and a new federal parliament and president were elected.

Moreover, Somali and African Union forces, supported by US drones, have driven the al-Shabaab militant group out of former strongholds and strategically important population centers all across the country.

Yet, more than a simple recognition of the country’s progress towards stability, the visit reaffirmed US involvement in Somalia and sent a message to a resurgent al-Shabaab.

Despite military defeats, the al-Shabaab group remains operational in Somalia and neighboring countries, such as Kenya. Recent losses have forced the group to change tactics and privilege a cheaper, asymmetrical war, in line with its regional expansion strategy.

After losing ground at home, the group has become more aggressive abroad, launching deadlier attacks to draw media attention. Hence the attacks of Westgate Mall and Garissa, each time led by a commando unit of a few men who exploited security breaches.

The last attack in Garissa was yet another reminder for the international community of the necessity to reinforce counter-terrorism efforts.

With al-Shabaab growing from a domestic threat to an international one, a US rapprochement with Somalia is more necessary than ever, especially as the weak Somali government struggles to consolidate its power beyond Mogadishu (and relying entirely on the international community’s financial and military support).

For now, the US message seems not to have intimidated al-Shabaab, as the terrorist group has killed a Somali government official a day after Kerry’s visit.

It is worth noting that the US has already taken steps towards closer ties with Somalia, even before Kerry visited on May 5. The United States formally recognized the new Somali government on January 17, 2013.

Last February, President Obama nominated Katherine S. Dhanani as the US first ambassador to Somalia since 1991 (the embassy was closed that year, as the civil war led to the central government’s collapse). That the long-time diplomat with substantial experience was sent could be a show of US commitment in re-establishing significant relations with Somalia.

However, it is also worth noting the embassy will not reopen right away, as security has not sufficiently improved. The next ambassador will operate from the U.S. embassy in Nairobi. However, on May 12, the White House announced that Dhanani withdrew her nomination for “personal reasons”. Washington has not given any details or timeline for a replacement.

That the US continues to increase diplomatic presence in Somalia also shows that the traumatic 1993 Black Hawk Down incident is now being put behind them. The United States pulled out its forces shortly after this incident, which prompted a 20-year hiatus in bilateral relations and contributed to Washington’s reluctance to intervene in foreign crises.

Finally, this “diplomatic comeback” shows that Washington is aware that tackling security is not enough, and must be accomplished with political and economic progress, as well.

Prospects for political and economic progress

With Somalia expected to hold a referendum on a new constitution and a presidential election in 2016, the US diplomatic upgrade is welcome. If rhetoric can be believed, Washington seems committed to help the Somali government implement reforms for peaceful elections in 2016, a process that has been hampered by political rivalries and government reshuffles.

There is a long road ahead before Somalia achieves political and economic stability. The security context remains too fragile to support a safe economy, scaring away investors that might otherwise help the country grow itself.

Recently the country has faced a high influx of refugees due to the conflict in Yemen, straining the ailing Somali economy further.

But a deepening US-Somali relationship is a good sign of Somalia’s progress, which should reassure donors and observers. Infrastructure destroyed during the civil war is being rebuilt in Mogadishu, which should stimulate investment. The re-establishment of a US diplomatic mission could also slightly increase bilateral trade and investment, which has been low for the last several years.

But if the US is really committed to helping Somali development, it first needs to set a timeline for finding a new ambassador and reopening the embassy. US engagement over the coming years will be important for Somalia’s political transition.

The US also needs to review the strict money-laundering regulations that have hampered the flow of remittances to the country. These remittances comprise between 25 and 45% of Somalia’s GDP.

Money transfers from family and friends abroad are a vital source of income for Somalis, whose country lacks a functioning banking system.  Though these regulations were implemented to prevent terrorism funding, they could prove counterproductive given that they threaten the survival of young Somalis, who could then turn to armed groups for income.

Somalia receives $1.3 billion each year from its diaspora, more than foreign direct investment, humanitarian and development aid combined.

About Author

Djenabou Cisse

Djenabou Cisse is a political analyst. She holds a Master's in International Security and a Bachelor in Political Science from Sciences Po Paris. She currently works for the think tank G-NOVA where her research focuses on digital diplomacy, defence, MENA/Subsaharan Africa and transatlalantic issues.