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Ambassador offers insights into Somali politics, security

By Yang Xue | 2015-09-18 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Yusuf Hassan Ibrahim

People stand in front of the damaged Jazeera Palace Hotel following a suicide attack in Mogadishu on July 26, 2015. Somalia’s al-Shabab insurgents killed at least 15 people when they detonated a huge car bomb.


Yusuf Hassan Ibrahim is the incumbent Somali Ambassador to China. Born on Oct. 12, 1940 in Hargeisa, he has held posts as the Commander of Somali Air Force from 1971 to 1975, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Somali Transitional National Government (TNG) from 2002 to 2004. He was also a Member of the Parliament of the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) from 2004 to 2007 and 2009 to 2010, as well as a Member of the Alliance for the Re-liberate of Somalia. From 1984 to1989 and 2011 until the present, he has served as Somali ambassador to China.


The Horn of Africa has been home to Somalis since ancient times. It is not a large country, but it occasionally makes international headlines. After more than 20 years of civil war, the country has been torn apart and seriously scarred. Piracy and extremist group al-Shabab haunts the once peaceful land, hindering its development in every aspect.


A recent heartbreaking tragedy has propelled the group’s name once again to the heights of global infamy. Al-Shabab staged a suicide bomb attack on the presumably heavily guarded Jazeera Palace Hotel in Mogadishu on July 26, killing at least 15 people and injuring more than 40 others. In the shock and grief of the aftermath, many were left wondering about the political and security situation in Somalia and what is driving al-Shabab’s resurgence. In an interview with CSST, Somali Ambassador to China Yusuf Hassan Ibrahim shared with us his strong desire to restore peace and boost development in the nation as well as his high hopes for China-Somalia relations.

Security conditions
CSST: Since the outbreak of civil war in 1991, Somalia has fallen into chaos. In 2012, Somalia’s first formal parliament in more than 20 years was sworn in at Mogadishu airport, marking an end to the transitional period. In September, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud was elected as the new president. What is the political and security situation like now in Somalia? What are the main concerns?  


Ibrahim: I am so sorry for what happened. Please send my condolences to the families affected. In fact, the political, economic and security situation has improved in Somalia since 2012. We have built the basic political structure for a democratic state. We have a congress and a president, who appointed the premier minister, who afterwards organized the cabinet. It is the first government in a modern sense. It is quite different from the traditional religious governments in the past, which is the first step to a democratic Somalia.

Also, many embassies have reopened in the capital, and airline traffic is improving, so is money transfer.
However, the challenge is still too great and the situation is not perfect. As you may know, the al-Qaeda-linked extremist group al-Shabab constantly carries out terrorist attacks in Somalia and neighboring countries. They are terrorists. They don’t allow any institutional system. Sadly, the government is not strong enough to defeat al-Shabab, because of financial and military reasons. We need more time, so we have made a four-year and eight-year plan and are determined to fully wipe al-Shabab out by 2020.

CSST: In February 2015, Somalia’s federal parliament endorsed the 66-man cabinet of Prime Minister Omar Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke. The new cabinet was sworn in afterwards. Right at the top of the to-do-list facing the new cabinet is the implementation of Vision 2016, which states as one of its objectives that a national election should be held across the country. What is the key to the implementation of Vision 2016? Do you think it will succeed given the period of time left?  


Ibrahim: The government has made a 2012-2016 program that intends to improve the environment for peace, draft a constitution, build a multi-party system and implement democratic election. At this stage, we are collecting public opinion and reviewing the constitution. But it’s not easy because of al-Shabab. We can’t reach people in some rural areas, so I think we will hold the election in 2016 in major cities where security situation is good.


After that, in the 2016 to 2020 program, we can negotiate with Somaliland. Somaliland is part of Somalia and I don’t agree with its declaration of independence. Then, we can truly carry out a nationwide election. We are committed to realizing a “one person, one vote” election.

CSST: What role do intellectuals play in rebuilding the state? 


Ibrahim: Scholars are very important in the course. President Mohamud is also an academician. Now there is an organization called Heritage in Mogadishu. Most researchers there have overseas educational background, and a few are locals. They do political analysis reports and publish their meeting records, which are very valuable to the government and foreigners interested in Somali affairs. This kind of institution is growing in Somalia.

Al-Shabab attacks
CSST: Al-Shabab has staged several horrifying terrorist attacks, raising concerns internationally. It has been said that if Ethiopia had not invaded Somalia in 2006, al-Shabab would not exist. What’s your view on this?  


Ibrahim: Al-Shabab is imported from the outside. They want to build an Islamic state with a radical ideology. That is not what the Somali people want. Some 99 percent of Somali people are moderate Islamic believers. They are devout followers of the religion and believe in tolerance. Islamic leaders have no political roles of their own, but they support the politicians of the day.


At first, al-Shabab was made up of about 200 Muslin youth, including those from Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan and other Arabic states. They were trained and taught to make explosives in Afghanistan. They hide under the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), which is a religious alliance built for the purpose of self-defense at the outbreak of the civil war. In 2006, when Ethiopia sent troops with the aid of the US, Somali people united together under the ICU to safeguard their homeland. Al-Shabab is a militia under the ICU so they fought against Ethiopia, too, and that is why people supported them back then. But now Somali people are not with al-Shabab.

CSST: How many al-Shabab members are there in Somalia right now? Who is fighting them?  


Ibrahim: It’s hard to learn the exact number because they are like guerrillas, hiding in the rural areas in the central and southern Somalia, making explosives and waiting for opportunities to launch attacks.


Now the major forces combating al-Shabab are around 2,000 Somali national army and 22,000 African Union troops. I think only when we build our own military forces can we really keep Somalia safe.


CSST: It is said that clan identity and Islam are central pillars of Somali society, with clan dynamics and inter-clan rivalries magnified by decades of state collapse. Somali clans and sub-clans are geographically interwoven rather than clearly divided between homogeneous clan territories, and geographic divisions often correspond to battle lines, as clans vie for influence and resources. Al-Shabab claims that it transcends clan politics, yet realities on the ground belie this claim, revealing that al-Shabab seeks to manipulate local clan alliances and remains deeply influenced by clan politics. What’s your view on this?


Ibrahim: It is true that al-Shabab claims that it transcends clan politics and it could be said so only on the basis of their higher command and structure. However, the reality on the ground reveals that al-Shabab seeks to manipulate local clan alliances and is deeply influenced by clan politics in Somalia.


Somali pirates disappearing
CSST: Since 2008, Somalia has been associated with pirates. What do you think of such an impression?  

Ibrahim: Somali people have never been pirates. They are ordinary fishermen who lost protection from the nation when the civil war started. Illegal fishing was rampant in the Gulf of Aden at that time.


Somali people had to defend themselves. They got the ransom and wanted to exchange for more weapons, which is when the international mafia got involved.After that, the whole thing became thorny. But since the security situation is improving in Somalia and the international community is sending escort ships, Somali pirates are disappearing. In fact, there were no Somali pirate attacks in the first quarter of 2015.

CSST: Local communities in Somalia protect pirates when they have no better source of income, and they will switch back to taxing legitimate trade and stop protecting pirates when economic conditions improve, according to a report by the University of Oxford and King’s College London in 2014. Do you agree with this argument?  


Ibrahim: Yes, it is safe to support that argument.

CSST: According to media reports, there has been an escalation in piracy and other transnational maritime threats in the Gulf of Guinea. In your opinion, what’s the key to combating pirates in Africa?  


Ibrahim: We must ensure a steady nation and then build strong coastal guards together with international cooperation, which I believe are essential steps to combating pirates. The same goes with other African countries. However, I don’t think piracy is that a big threat in Africa.

At present, the Somali government is more concerned with illegal fishing. Some European countries and Asian countries still fish illegally in our waters.

CSST: There are still some Chinese hostages held by the Somali pirates? Has the central government noticed this?   What it has done so far? 


Ibrahim: I’m deeply sorry for the families. The central government is also following this issue and working to solve it as soon as possible. As I said, pirates have not taken new hostages, and the government has cut off their weapon supply by controlling the major ports. Only a few pirates are active in the central areas.

CSST: Do the Somali pirates have a relationship with jihadi terror groups?  


Ibrahim: Not really. It was said that during the height of pirate ransom operations, al-Shabab received money from pirates. However no political or ideological affiliation between the two has been reported. 

Somalia-China friendship
CSST: Somalia was the first nation in East Africa to establish diplomatic relations with China, but the embassy was closed in 1991, when civil war broke out. China reopened its embassy in Mogadishu last year.  What’s the significance of this event to both Somalia and China? What achievements have been made in Somalia-China political, economic and cultural cooperation? What are your expectations for bilateral relations?  


Ibrahim:  Friendly relations between Somalia and China date back to a long time ago. Zheng He visited Somalia in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), and he met civilized people on the continent, while he was not seeking dominance. In the modern era, Somalia and China supported each other in key issues such as the “One China” policy and helping China restore the UN seat. China has also supported Somalia in terms of security and food supplies.

I want to mention that all Somali presidents since the nation’s independence in 1960 have visited China. That is rare and also a symbol of our friendship. In the meantime, Chinese President Li Xiannian visited Somalia in 1986 after Premier Zhou Enlai’s visit in 1964. President Li taught us how to grow rice but because of the war, it was halted.

Now Somalia has given the Chinese government a piece of land to construct a new embassy. It needs time. I think the bilateral relations will continue to develop in the new era.

CSST: When Prime Minister Sharmarke met with Chinese ambassador Wei Hongtian in December 2014, he invited China to carry out pragmatic and mutually beneficial cooperation with Somalia in infrastructure construction and economic development. He said Somalia will provide security assurance and preferential policy for Chinese enterprises. How will you encourage Chinese enterprises to accept the invitation?


Ibrahim: We encourage more enterprises to come to invest in Somalia when the security condition improves, and the government will guarantee the safety of their capital and property. It won’t be long. In fact, despite the war, the cooperation between the two sides has never ceased. Also, the cooperation is mutually beneficial—quite different from Somalia-Europe cooperation.

China is ready to help Somalia train professionals and we have an understanding in the matter. Somalia hopes to build armed forces in the next two years, and China with other friendly countries is also helping with training and funding. I expect these aspects of cooperation will continue to be fruitful in the future.

CSST: In the autumn of 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping put forward the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road. What does the Somali government think about the initiative? What are our mutual interests in this regard?


Ibrahim: When Chinese President Xi Jinping first put forward this initiative, the Somali foreign minister was visiting China. Our minister praised this historical opportunity and showed our support for this plan. Somalia will take advantage of its long coast and strategic location to participate in the initiative with other African nations.

CSST: Somalia is a member of the League of Arab States, and this year marks the 70th anniversary of its establishment. In what fields do you think Arabic countries and China can further strengthen and expand cooperation?


Ibrahim: Somalia is not only a member of the League of Arab States but also a member of China-African Union Forum. Somalia has the longest coast in Africa, so fishery resources are abundant and so are agricultural resources and livestock, while Arabic nations are important oil exporters. So I think the two parties can further strengthen cooperation in those areas.

At the same time, the China-African Union Forum has been held for 15 years, promoting bilateral cooperation in terms of infrastructure, industry, IT and trade. Somalia is an active player and will be so going forward.

CSST: You have been an ambassador to China twice. Can you tell us your stories about China? What do you want to accomplish during your term?


Ibrahim: China has an ancient civilization. The Somali government has always valued China’s friendship. As an ambassador, I hope I can bring what I’ve seen and learned here in China back to Somalia. I had been Somali ambassador to China during 1984-1989 and had a good relationship with the Chinese government. At that time, China had begun reform and opening up, so its economy was booming. I wanted to introduce China’s experience to Somalia, but because of the war, Somalia’s development was hindered. It is an honor to serve as Somali ambassador to China twice. I hope to carry on the duty of spreading China’s experience in Somalia and boosting the friendship between the two sides.




Yang Xue is a reporter at the Chinese Social Sciences Today.