There have been 15 attempts to create a functioning government in Somalia since the overthrow of dictator Siad Barre in 1991. None of them have come close to working. Overrun by warlords and Islamist insurgents, the country is in the grips of another potential famine.
Proliferating acts of piracy on one of the world’s busiest trading routes off the Somali coast have forced up shipping insurance costs and are affecting global commodity markets. But they are also focusing international attention on the need for stability on land as well as sea.
Before Ethiopia invaded in 2006 Sheikh Ahmed was the leader of the Islamic Courts Union, an alliance of Islamic militias that during a six month period came closer than any other body to re-establishing order. In January he returned to Somalia from exile, and was elected by a UN-backed transitional parliament to lead the country out of chaos.
Last week at an international donors conference in Brussels, he won $213m of backing for African peacekeepers and for his plans to build a national security force, raising hopes that finally a concerted effort to put Somalia back together again is under way.
William Wallis, Financial Times Africa editor, interviewed Sheikh Ahmed at his hotel in Brussels after the conference.
Financial Times: What is the significance of today’s events for Somalia?
Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed: What happened today is very important for two reasons. Firstly, there has always been this issue of the international community not being forthcoming enough and not being forthcoming at the right time. Secondly there has been a lack of leadership on the Somali side to seize the opportunity and establish a partnership with the international community. Today we believe these two things have come together.
FT: How do you plan to go about using the goodwill that has been generated at an international level, and the cash that is now coming with it?
SSSA: The funds and the political support need to be translated into actions on the ground first and foremost with regards to security. Security has to be established. Then it is important to translate this security and political will into actions that affect the needs of the public and to help reconstruction, education, and all the elements that give normality to life. The public must feel the change and see the change.
FT: But how will you be able to expand the writ of your government from what appears to be the very small part of Somalia you control?
SSSA: There are already many provinces … where government support and structures are present. Where our administration and reach exists, the delivery of services and justice should be strengthened and reinforced. Where it does not exist yet, these areas we must stretch our reach to.
FT: Will this necessarily involve force?
SSSA: Preparations in terms of the readiness of the public for peace are gathering pace by the day, and are already substantially established. In parallel, if we are also able to get the security forces on the ground and operational and these two forces are able to come together we believe it will be almost a natural process for the rule of law and the administration to reach those parts where they don’t already exist.
FT: How formidable do you consider the forces your government are up against?
SSSA: We believe that in essence there is no logic and no sustainable basis for armed forces opposing the government. The only options open for these opposing forces will be to either come into the reconciliation process either as the government or as opposition. Or, to return to civilian life, into their homes and into normal livelihoods.
FT: They seem pretty determined from the outside and at least a minority of them have backing from another pretty determined bunch [of people] headquartered out of the tribal areas of Pakistan [al-Qaeda].
SSSA: Once the government is strong enough and is fully on the ground there will come a time when those who act illegally either have to leave or will have to give themselves up. That moment will come.
FT: How far are you prepared to accommodate these forces in order to absorb them into the reconciliation process?
SSSA: We are prepared in a major way to accommodate and negotiate but the essential factor is there must be dialogue; there must be negotiation for that to happen.
FT: Are you already talking for example to [radical Islamic cleric] Hassan Dawir Aweys, or some of the leaders of the al Shabab militia?
SSSA: Not directly but many well-intentioned and well meaning Somalis are busy and engaged explaining to them the need for dialogue and peace. From our side they know and we have stated that we are ready for dialogue and negotiation.
FT: What do you make of the arrival in Mogadishu today [after more than two years in exile] of Mr Aweys?
SSSA: I think his return today will remind him that he left at a time when there was conflict and war and show him that today we are rebuilding peace. We believe he will choose to take part and support the peace process and re-establishment of security in the country.
FT: Do you consider him someone who is important in that process?
SSSA: There is no one who is not needed for this process of reconciliation and peace. Everyone is needed.
FT: How signficant is the recent passage in parliament of Sharia law in re-establishing state authority?
SSSA: It is very important for several reasons. One Sharia is a normal part of Muslim life and Muslim culture and tradition. Secondly there were people for whom this was a major factor, necessity, and in passing the bill and putting it through cabinet and parliament this enables us to show goodwill and to take that element out of the conflict and ensure it does not become an obstacle. It is part of the reconciliation process but also bringing people on board for the reconstruction of the state. Both psychologically and practically it is very important.
FT: How quickly can you bring back the court system? Is it something you can do very quickly given your experience at the head of the Islamic Courts Union in 2006?
SSSA: The government is actually very busy with that issue. It will need to absorb and take on experienced and knowledgeable people in that field.
FT: In 2006 the administration you were involved in was very effective in fighting piracy. Is that something you can reproduce now and what was the secret before?
SSSA: This is part and parcel of the security infrastructure and policies that we have. We believe that this will also be effective in tackling that issue successfully.
FT: Some of the countries [US, Ethiopia] that seemed very happy to see the back of you in 2006 when the Ethiopia invaded Somalia are now applauding you. Are these countries you can trust?
SSSA: Without a shadow of doubt we have to look forward and not back.