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THE INTERVIEW: UK ambassador to Somalia on new role and state building

Storyline:National News

Newly appointed UK ambassador to Somalia Benjamin James Fender spoke to Goobjoog News on his new role, United Kingdom’s engagement in Somalia and the Transition Plan in Somalia.

Goobjoog News: You recently presented your credentials to President Mohamed Farmaajo. What was the focus of your discussions with him and what are some of your priority areas as you take up the new role?

Look first I should express my government’s condolences for the passing of Abdirahman Hosh Jibril the Minister for Constitutional Affairs. Thoughts are obviously with his family with his friends and with all of his colleagues. He was doing. A great job in a really important role and I’m sure that we as well as all Somalis will miss him.

Ever since I arrived three weeks ago I’ve had a tremendously positive welcome from Somalis of all kinds starting with the president and the prime minister. When I went to see the president I said to him that there was a great deal of affection for Somalia in the UK. We’ve had Somali communities in Britain for hundreds of years and in recent years Britain’s played a significant role here. We hosted conferences in 2012 and 2017 which Somalis took important decisions about the rebuilding and the reconstruction of their country.

We have a development programme here that’s where last year we spent something like 312 million pounds or almost 400 million dollars. We’ve played a really important role in helping Somalia respond to the terrible drought two years ago. The president said that he thought that Britain was a key partner of Somalia. He felt we were a friend and he hoped that we would work very closely together.

FILE: The UK announced is investing almost £40 million in girls’ education in Somalia through the Girl’s Education Challenge (GEC) between 2017 and 2025. Photo: courtesy

The really important decisions in the next year or two are obviously for Somalis in Somalia to talk about the Constitution, about elections, about security reform, about creating the conditions for economic growth. My priority really is to do what I can alongside other International partners here to help Somalia make progress on all of those issues. There has been a lot of progress already but we think that there is an opportunity in the next couple of years under this government is to achieve some real political stability and to really complete the process of finding the new Somalia whether it’s on the economy or in creating security or in reform and governance.

 Could you highlight some of the development projects the UK undertakes in Somalia and also your approach to channelling funding?

About half of it was on bilateral programs between the U.K. and Somalia directly but much of the rest was on the support that we give to international organizations like parts of the UN family to the EU to AMISOM and so on and so forth. Our programs really cover a huge range of activity here. The three main areas are firstly security and governance. So we are training police officers. We are training members of the Somali national army. We are helping to improve access to justice. We are supporting the government in its efforts to build a more capable stronger government. Whether you’re here in Mogadishu or in the Federal Member States a second area is humanitarian support.

So we are trying to bring assistance to those in greatest need in Somalia whether it’s in food nutrition or sanitation or access to healthcare. And importantly are really trying to make communities more resilient so that if the rains do fail again in future that there is much less impact on ordinary people here. And the third area is in the area of economic growth where we are very keen to support a better business environment here to help private sector growth.

Your country, Germany and the EU suspended support for the Joint Police Programme (JPP) for South West state in December following the controversial elections there. Is the suspension still on?

So we’ve resumed stipend payments in Southwest. Britain’s aim here is to support the security forces to bring order and stability. Which means that we are very happy to support the developments of the police here. But what we don’t want to do is to support people who will contribute to Somalia’s problems if they are corrupt or they’re extorting money or if they’re using force inappropriately.

We were concerned about what happened in the South West state but we’ve been working with the authorities both here in Mogadishu and in South West state to put in place measures to ensure that the police are behaving properly there. Of course, we want to see those implemented but we have we’ve now resumed stipend payments because we feel that progress has been made.

What is the UK’s position on the suspension of immediate former UN boss in Somalia? Will your country be playing a role in choosing the next SRSG?

 Look the United Nations plays a really critical role here in Somalia. The mission plays a role in everything from security reform to holding elections, UNSOS plays a vital role in supporting AMISOM and the delivery of the security sector and the Somali National Army. Agencies like the World Food Program the U.N. Development Program, UNICEF and so on provide truly life-saving support to millions of Somalis. Britain’s a big fan, a big friend of the whole U.N. family. And we hope and expect that all countries across the world will cooperate fully with U.N. organizations.

So we regretted the decision to expel the last special representative of the Secretary-General. My understanding is that that’s a decision for the secretary-general himself. We hope that he will appoint somebody else soon. Of course, the acting special representative is here at the moment and doing an excellent job.

With AMISOM gradually exiting Somalia, in your assessment, do you think the Somali National Army is ready to fully assume its role to stabilize the country?

So the first thing to say of course is that AMISOM is not on the point of leaving Somalia. Britain’s big supporter of AMISOM and everything it’s done here. The countries to contribute have suffered heavy losses for the sake of Somalia’s security and AMISOM really is doing a tremendous job. But it’s right and proper that Somalia is a sovereign and independent country should take control of its own security as and when the Somali National Army is ready to ready to do so and so we are supporters of a transition from AMISOM to Somali Security control as and when that’s possible and we’ve seen good progress even in recent weeks as the Mogadishu Stadium has been handed over.

The UK provides military training and support to Somali National Army and police. FILE Photo: courtesy

Just last week the military academy was handed over so that’s a process that is in hand at the moment. Of course there’s a lot further to go and that’s one reason why we are spending so much time and effort in working with the Somali National Army, with the police, with the Ministry of Defense, with the Prime Minister and the president in their offices to support the strengthening of the Somali National Army including through the direct training that we do in Baidoa including through the support we give to AMISOM and the EU’s training mission and the joint police program where we support the training of thousands of police officers across the country.

 As you may be aware, the youth in Somalia account for over 70% of the population yet the majority are jobless. How can Britain help in creating job opportunities for this critical part of the population?

So I completely agree that this is one of the most important challenges facing the country. I understand that something like 70 per cent of young people in a city like Mogadishu are unemployed. Britain is providing a wide range of support to try to. Create the foundations for long term economic growth. You know we do see lots of potential in the Somali economy in sectors like fisheries agriculture. Fruits and sesame and so on. Or livestock. So we have a number of different programs aimed at developing the economy. So we’re working, for example, to set a good framework for business to make it easier for businesses to register.

We are helping to support the development of the financial sector so that it’s easier for businesses to raise capital. We’re supporting the government in being able to raise taxes and revenues so that it can invest more in infrastructure. We are partnering with businesses in productive sectors to help generate over 10,000 jobs, about a third of which have gone to women.

And so I strongly believe that good relations between Somalia and Kenya are truly in the interests of both countries. And we’ve certainly encouraged both countries to maintain good relationship

And we are working also with the government here to lay the foundations for what we hope will be one day debt relief for Somalia. So there’s a lot of things that we are doing. Let me give you a specific example. Many farmers in Somalia lose an awful lot of their products after they’ve harvested before it can get to market. And thanks to one of our programs in some areas around half the losses that were being made are no longer being made. So there are things that we can do in a very sort of direct and tangible way to ensure that businesses here are more profitable and that the economy starts to grow.

Did the UK play any role in the recent oil and gas conference in London? Secondly, as a key partner of both Somalia and Kenya, will your country step in to help the two countries resolve the ongoing maritime row?

History shows that the oil and gas sector can be both a blessing and it can be a curse. Handled well it can generate revenue for the government and improve the prospects for long-run growth. Handled less well it can easily be a source of instability or corruption. So my friendly advice to Somalis would be to take the time and the effort to lay the foundations for a positive and constructive development of this sector. If there is one in future and that would involve you know working to ensure that there are agreements on how revenue would be shared a best practice sets of legislation, transparent and strong institutions whether regulators or business. It would mean working only with reputable and responsible companies. There are lots of things I think that the government could do to ensure that this sector is developed and some of that will take time but it would be worth it.

UKaid funded maternity hospital in Puntland. Photo: courtesy

On the maritime issue, this is a matter for the Somali and Kenyan governments. It wouldn’t be right for a country like Britain to comment or get involved as you know there is a case before the International Court of Justice and both those countries are waiting to see what will come out. What I would say is Somalia and Kenya depend on each other a great deal for security, for trade, for the welfare of their citizens including refugees. There are thousands of Somalis in Kenya and thousands of Kenyans in Somalia. And so I strongly believe that good relations between Somalia and Kenya are truly in the interests of both countries. And we’ve certainly encouraged both countries to maintain good relationship. And it was very good to see President Farmaajo having such a positive set of talks in Nairobi last week.

 The UK is exiting the EU at the end of this month. What impact will that have on engagements with Somalia in terms of joint projects with the EU and other areas of common interest?

There are still discussions between the UK and the rest of the EU on exactly what the terms will be of our exit from the European Union. What I would say as far as Somalia is concerned is that I don’t think Somalia will see much change. So Britain will continue to be a good friend of Somalia and to take forward all the projects and activities that we have been doing as will the EU. I think the main change for Somalia will be in respect of the European Union’s counter-piracy mission Atalanta. So. As you know Britain has commanded this mission for 10 years and it is fairly well eliminated. The problem of piracy off the coasts of Somalia. It’s been in fact one of the most successful EU missions of all time.

Now last year the EU decided that it wasn’t right for it to be commanded by a country that wasn’t part of the EU. And so we are planning to hand over command of that to Spain as we leave the EU and indeed the British general who has been commanding the operation was here in Mogadishu just a few days ago with the Spanish Admiral. He will hand over to introducing him to members of the government here. But that’s I think essentially the only change people will meters in.

Finally on the Somaliland question, what is your country’s position on unity talks?

No position on Somaliland has changed. The UK doesn’t recognise Somaliland’s so-called unilateral declaration of Independence. Somaliland’s is issue is one that is for the authorities in Hargeisa and the federal government here in Mogadishu to determine not for a country like the UK and it’s really for regional countries to take the lead in recognising whatever agreement they may come to. We welcome any progress that can be made of course in any contacts between President Farmaajo and Muse Bihi.