In farewell interview, UN Special Representative urges Somalis to “stay courageous, stay strong”

21 May 2024

In farewell interview, UN Special Representative urges Somalis to “stay courageous, stay strong”

Ahead of her departure from Somalia at the end of her assignment, UN Special Representative Catriona Laing sat down for an interview with the ‘Path to Peace’ radio programme. 

INTERVIEWER: As you reflect on your tenure in Somalia, what's your assessment of where Somalia is currently on its path to greater peace, stability and prosperity?

CATRIONA LAING: I've been doing some reflecting on that. The way I like to think about it is around five transitions that Somalia's going through. The first one is your political transition, as you move from a system organized around [the] 4.5 clan-based system to a system of democracy, direct elections and an established constitution with rules of the game.

All transitions, we know from evidence, can be quite destabilizing. So, I think the challenge for the government is to maintain that momentum, to secure buy-in, and to ensure that the transition lands the country in a more stable, more inclusive place. There are losers in every transition, so you have to think hard about how you accommodate the losers while you also focus on those who benefit.  

And those who are losing at the moment are women, youth and marginal clans. It is definitely the right direction of travel but needs to be managed carefully. So that’s the first transition. 

The second transition is the security transition. Somalia is going through a transition within the African Union, from ATMIS [African Union Transition Mission in Somalia] to a new African Union force, but obviously, ultimately, handing over to Somali security forces. We must this time ensure [that] we build the capability of the Somali security forces, including ensuring they have a logistic supply chain that functions effectively.

The way I see this transition is really learning the lessons and making sure we focus on the ‘how’ we do things, as well as the ‘what,’ making sure all the international partners are working much more coherently in support of our own exit strategy to enable Somalis to take over. 

The third transition: economic transition. Somalia, as everyone knows, is caught at the moment in perennial crises – humanitarian crises with floods and droughts and locust attacks, and so on.

We have to help Somalia build resilience to those inevitable climate-related impacts because those will continue. So, we need an economy in Somalia that is able to be resilient to those kinds of climatic shocks. So thinking, for example, [about] how the pastoralist lifestyle may need to be transformed. Should we have, for example, more ranching for cattle rather than moving cattle around?  That’s one example. Thinking about the potential of the huge ‘blue economy,’ the coastline of Somalia.  So that's the third transition.

The fourth transition, I would call a social transition [for] a country which is still quite conservative, [for] traditional sort of societies where women, frankly, are still very excluded from society. So, as Somalia goes through these other transitions, [there is a need for] thinking about how it manages that transition to ensure human rights are embedded in society and the full potential of the country, including women, marginal clans, youth, disabled and people who are marginalized at the moment, can feel their rightful place.

The final transition, which I think pulls it all together, is the kind of narrative I think the government’s very clear about, which is moving Somalia from the image of Somalia as a country full of problems to a country that is solving its own problems and taking its rightful place regionally and globally.

I think a good example of that is Somalia’s hoping to take up its seat on the Security Council next year. It has a female candidate for the African Union chairmanship. It played a very active role at the climate talks last year. So, we see Somalia gradually moving into a more leadership role – from a problem child to a problem solver. So that's how I would frame it – a journey, but a journey in the right direction.

INTERVIEWER: What is the role of the United Nations on that journey?

CATRIONA LAING: I think one of the things uniquely the United Nations can bring is a convening role. We uniquely have the ability to bring the full range of partners together. Here in Somalia, for example, at the core of the partnership is the United Nations with the African Union supporting the government, under government leadership. But around that, we have a range of other partners.

So, the countries in the neighbourhood – like Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda, who are also troop-contributing countries to the African Union – are helping to ensure those regional countries are playing their part. Then you have the Gulf countries. Somalia has a range of Gulf countries of interest in Somalia: Turkey, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, as well as what you might call the traditional partners: the United States, United Kingdom and European Union.

So, we play a convening role in trying to bring coherence to the totality of that effort. In terms of what our core mandate is, it's basically to support state-building and peacebuilding. That's what we're here to do. But the way we do it is, as well as providing direct assistance, is providing that convening role.

INTERVIEWER: Looking ahead, what do you see as the greatest opportunities and threats, to Somalia’s progress?

CATRIONA LAING: I think in terms of opportunities, one, as I mentioned earlier, is the ‘blue economy.’ Somalia has its Centennial Vision 2060 that it's already working to, which is recognizing that with the longest coastline in Africa, there's obviously huge potential: fisheries potential, there is potential around oil and gas, there's potential around all the ports that you have, where there's a lot of interest, as we can see from the current issue around the MOU [Memorandum of Understanding] between Ethiopia and Somaliland. There’s a lot of interest in your ports and also the potential for tourism.

But there are potential tensions between those objectives. So, moving on to some of the challenges, how do you ensure you get the balance right between fisheries and oil and gas?

So, thinking carefully about the balance between those two.

On risks, one of the biggest risks for Somalia is security. So even on the marine side, we see the resurgence of piracy coming back. And we have to work very quickly to ensure we manage that so it doesn't explode again.

Obviously, Al-Shabaab and the government has made some progress in the campaign against Al-Shabaab. But it is really important that those gains are maintained and that when new territory is taken back, the government comes in quickly with an offer of stabilization to show the people that it is better to be with the government than with Al-Shabaab. That means providing rule of law, basic services, and providing a better life for people in areas that were held under Al-Shabaab.

Another big threat is climate change, which I'm afraid is with us. We have to live with it. Even if we are successful in gradually reducing the CO2 in the atmosphere, there is already so much there that we have to live with it. So, Somalia has to prepare for those climatic conditions and think about an economy that is resilient and, ultimately, maybe moves away from pastoralism and more into a coastal-type economy.

The final sort of opportunity I would see is Somalia taking up its seat on the Security Council next year, if all goes well. That will enable Somalia to showcase itself, its own journey, but also demonstrate that Somalia is a country now at peace with itself and with its neighbours hopefully, and able to help solve global problems.

INTERVIEWER: Finally, do you have any parting words for the people of Somalia?

CATRIONA LAING: Well, my first words, I would say is a big thank you to the people of Somalia for welcoming me back. I was first here in 1993-1994, with the original UN Mission, and I felt a great warmth for the people of Somalia. I was able to travel all over the country. I've been all over Somalia in those days when it was easier to do it.

And I always wanted to come back. And I'm so happy that I've been able to spend another wonderful year. So, thank you to the people of Somalia for welcoming me.  

Secondly, stay courageous, stay strong. I'm just full of admiration for how far you've come already. And of course, it's partly down to government, but primarily it's due to the people of Somalia, who are talented and entrepreneurial.

I've been working with some of the most amazing, talented young women, for example. And those people have come back to serve their country. And that gives me great hope for Somalia. So, stay strong, stay courageous, stay on the journey. There will be setbacks. That's inevitable. But let's keep collectively our eye on the prize, which is a peaceful, resilient Somalia, playing its part globally and regionally, and where people have the chance to fulfil their potential, their ambition, all these young kids who want a better future.

And I am with you on that journey wherever I am going to be in the world – I'm going to be an ambassador for Somalia, to help to tell your story, which is a good story.