Somali security agents detained 32-year-old online journalist Nur Ismail Sheikh in November 2018. He was released after 12 days but was subjected to continued harassment including phone calls, telling him to stop writing.
The following year, he escaped the country using a fake name.
“They accused me of criticizing the presidency,” he said.
He lived for more than two years in Nairobi and was not planning to return to Somalia until May 15 when a power shift took place in Mogadishu, and the government that detained him was voted out.
Two weeks ago, he returned to Mogadishu amid the optimism and enthusiasm surrounding the election of President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud.
“I have returned because of the change in the country,” he said. “Now no one is busy at pressuring me because of my reporting.”
Sheikh is among many optimistic Somalis who welcomed the outcome of May’s election. Hotels in the capital have seen a jump in bookings from people returning to the country, looking for new opportunities and a fresh start with the new government.
Meanwhile, the office of the president has opened its doors to the media, and President Mohamud has given a number of interviews to both local and foreign media. The presidential palace is also holding regular press briefings.
Members of the widespread Somali diaspora hope these are signs that Mohamud’s government will be more stable, able and inclusive than its predecessors.
Kassim Busuri is a former council member of the U.S. city of St. Paul, home to thousands of Somali immigrants. Busuri fled Mogadishu when Somalia’s civil war began in 1991 and has never been back. He told VOA he is planning to go back within a year.
“I am very optimistic about where our country is headed after this election. I believe we can overcome any obstacles that are put in front of our government and people,” he said. “The Somali people are very resilient, the proof of that is shown with the recent election and transition of power from the previous government to the new government, [which] was very peaceful.”
Busuri said he is interested in making the Somali government more representative of its people and “fixing” errors in the Somali constitution. He says the 4.5 power-sharing system — where four major clans take the lion’s share of the power — is not equitable.
US reiterates support
U.S. Ambassador to Somalia Larry André, who joined Somali-Americans in Minnesota in celebrating Somalia’s Independence Day on July 1, said the U.S. shares the “cautious optimism” about the new government expressed by the Somalis he met.
“They’re emphasizing reconciliation, they’re emphasizing national consensus and action that would promote security, protecting the Somali people from extremist violence,” he said. “These are all priorities for the Somali government and they are also priorities for the United States government as a partner of Somalia.”
The U.S. is the largest provider of humanitarian support to Somalia. Last year, the U.S. provided approximately $430 million for humanitarian assistance and $210 million specifically for food assistance to the Horn of Africa country, which is in the grip of a severe, multi-year drought.
The U.S. has also supported Somalia by training the elite Danab military unit and targeting Islamist militant group al-Shabab. The day after Mohamud’s election, President Biden announced the redeployment of U.S. forces to Somalia. Former president Donald Trump had removed the troops near the end of his term.
Mohamud this week ruled out immediate negotiations with the militants.
“We are not right now in a position to negotiate with al-Shabab,” he said speaking at SETA, a think tank in Ankara, Turkey, where he is visiting. “We will at the right time, we will negotiate with them and we will finish peacefully.”
In the meantime, he said, his government will pursue strategies aimed at “eliminating” the al-Qaida-linked group. He said his policy will be based not only on military action, but also on “taking back” the narrative of Islam from al-Shabab and shutting down their sources of revenue.
Al-Shabab has carried out attacks against Somali governments and African Union forces for more than a decade, including the time of Mohamud’s first term as president, from September 2012 to February 2017.
Despite this, the U.S.-Somali partnership is “flawed” and “midwifed by third parties,” according to Hassan Keynan, a retired senior United Nations official who is currently a writer and commentator on politics, governance and developmental challenges in the Horn of Africa.
Since the time of President Dwight Eisenhower in the 1950s, he said, U.S. relations with Somalia have been guided by outside actors and other factors, like “Ethiopia’s geopolitical ambitions, efforts to limit communist influence in the Horn, war on terror and piracy, and issues related to state failure and its implications for regional and global security,” Keynan says.
“The U.S. saw Somalia as a potential trouble to be defused or contained, or a peculiar and stubborn nation that cannot be easily tamed and was/is quite capable of unleashing enormous mischief and chaos.”
André rejects the notion that U.S.-Somalia relations are determined by external factors, adding he is “frustrated with a few commentators who are not looking at what is currently going on there.”
“It’s as if their minds are stuck in previous situations or dynamics in other countries, not Somalia,” he said.
“We are engaging as reliable partners [of] the Somali authorities and in support of the Somali people because we have shared goals,” he said. “These are American goals and Somali goals. We have overlapping interests, overlapping goals. That’s what this is about on each of those sectors I mentioned — security, prosperity, governance.”
Hussein Nur Haji contributed to this report.