Africa Media Hub
Press Conference on U.S. Policy Towards Post-Transition Somalia
September 17, 2012
U.S. Special Representative for Somalia James Swan discusses recent events in Somalia and U.S. policy towards the country in the post-transition era and answers questions from the media.
Moderator: Good morning to everyone, from the African Regional Media Hub with the United States Department of State. I would like to warmly welcome our participants who are calling from Kenya, Uganda, Somalia and South Africa, as well as those who are gathered in the conference room in Nairobi with Ambassador Swan. Thank you for taking the time to call in this morning. Today we are joined by U.S. Special Representative for Somalia, Ambassador James Swan. We will begin today's call with remarks from Ambassador Swan, and then open it up to your questions. At the end of the remarks, to ask a question, please press "star one" on your phone to join the question queue. Today's call is on the record and will last approximately 45 minutes. And with that I will open it up to remarks from ambassador Swan.
Ambassador James Swan: Good morning everyone. Let me start by just conveying our warm congratulations to President Hasan Shaykh Mahmud, new president of Somalia, who was elected in a very transparent and open process on the 10th of September. And while extending congratulations to the new president, let me also take this opportunity to extend our thanks and congratulations to the speaker of parliament, speaker Jawaari, and the parliamentary leadership who organized a tightly run and transparently executed election on the 10th. Similarly, we want to extend our thanks and congratulations to a number of senior Somali political leaders who in the end opted to set aside their immediate personal ambitions and rally behind a single candidate in order to give the parliamentary electors the opportunity to make a genuine choice on September 10th. And finally, we want to extend our warm thanks to outgoing President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, who in the face of an electoral defeat has responded very gracefully, magnanimously, has pledged his cooperation to the new leadership, and both in his remarks on election night and later at the transfer of power has been only the most gracious. Needless to say this election, while it represents a new and positive opportunity for Somalia, it none the less also means that new leadership will be facing a continued daunting list of challenges. These include obviously the continued need to build on recent security gains against Al Shabaab. These gains have shown significant progress over the last 18 months, but more will still need to be done. Secondly, the new team must continue to demonstrate progress in terms of governance, accountability, and service delivery in order that the Somali people truly benefit from a government that is responsive to its needs. And finally, there will continue to be great demand for reconstruction, development, and frankly a return of Somalia to an era of growth and economic development that it has not seen in more than two decades. So while the challenges remain great, we hope very much that all of the parties who helped make the transition process a success with the election of a new president, will continue to collaborate now and join together to face the challenges of Somalia leading into the future. Thank you.
Question by VOA Somali Service, Yassin Isse Wardere: Thank you Ambassador, and after the congratulations of the new President Hasan, what are the major support the United States will look at, I know Somalia needs recovery, loss of security, challenges there. So what are the major support that you are expecting to give the new president, and transition?
Ambassador James Swan: The United States is already a major provider of support to Somalia and the Somali people in the security arena, in a number of development areas and in the humanitarian sphere. As we go forward, we would want to hear from the new leadership what its priorities are before making any determinations as to where our emphasis should be. So we are very much eager to work in partnership with the new leadership in designing and implementing programs that are responsive to the Somali people. We do expect that the areas in which we have already been active will continue to be important priorities for the Somali leadership. This includes work in the security sector where we support both AMISOM and the Somali national forces, as well as in areas of governance, accountability, and service delivery. And finally in terms of economic reconstruction and development.
Question by Mohamed Garane, Radio Ergo: My name is Mohamed Garane, I work with Radio Ergo, humanitarian radio for Somalia. So in term of humanitarian issues, what sort of assistance are you willing to give, especially to the people fleeing from the towns. Like we are hearing that a lot of people are fleeing from Kismayo and Gono and [word unclear] town. So what is your direct plan in terms of humanitarian assistance, have you implemented or you are willing to implement?
Ambassador James Swan: The United States is currently a major humanitarian donor, not just for Somalia, but for the whole Horn of Africa and since famine conditions were declared in mid-2011, and we’re very pleased that those conditions have abated. The U.S. has provided more than $1.1 billion in assistance to the Horn of Africa for humanitarian response. And that has included well over $250 million in assistance for Somalia alone. But our humanitarian aid programs are fundamentally needs based, and so for us, in terms of deciding what kind of humanitarian assistance will be provided in the future and at what levels, this will be determined by the needs that we see on the ground. And typically, implementation of our assistance programs is through a range of UN, non-governmental and local partners. We will continue to work with those organizations going forward in order to respond to conditions. I will say we have of course been pleased that a collective effort, a collective Somali regional and international effort, has resulted in significant progress in terms of reducing famine conditions that were at extreme levels in mid-2011. And although the number of people requiring humanitarian assistance in Somalia remains very high, those numbers have come down thanks to that concerted effort.
Moderator: Our first question comes from John Burnett from NPR. Your line is open.
Question by John Burnett, NPR: Good morning Mr. Ambassador. Could you tell us what is the status of Kismayo? I have heard varying reports that it is about to fall, refugees are leaving there, that Al Shabaab is still entrenched. Could you give us a progress report, please?
Ambassador James Swan: The effort against Kismayo is part of a broad, strategic concept being implemented by the African Union mission in Somalia, the African Union's peacekeeping operation. It has been announced for the past several weeks that there is an ongoing move towards Kismayo. We have seen progress over the last several weeks in AMISOM forces, led by the Kenyan troop contributing contingent, moving from base in Afmadow in the direction of Kismayo. We understand that that progress continues toward Kismayo. We have seen a variety of reports suggesting that some numbers of civilians are departing Kismayo, although the overall figures that I have seen have still been at less than a thousand at this point. I know that humanitarian agencies have already begun some initial contingency planning should there be a larger and more significant flow of population from that location. We continue to believe that it is -- [changes thought] -- it will be very significant when Al Shabaab leaves Kismayo. It is an important source of revenue for Al Shabaab. It remains the most significant and populous city still in the hands of Al Shabaab, so this further pressure on the part of the African Union forces will maintain further pressure, significant pressure on Al Shabaab at this time.
Question by Yara Bayoumey, Reuters: I just have a couple of questions. One is I was recently in Somalia and we saw first-hand how AMISOM was operating between towns. And we thought that really their supply lines were really very restricted, and very restricted by really old equipment, very reduced manpower as well. Do you think that the AMISOM with its current troop numbers will be able to hold significant territory in Somalia, especially the new ones that it seizes? You know, with the current number of troops and with the current level of equipment that it has. And secondly, is there going to be any move to open a U.S. embassy in Mogadishu?
Ambassador James Swan: First of all, the military prowess and bravery of the AMISON forces absolutely have been critical in recent gains against Al Shabaab and we have seen success by AMISON in collaboration with Somali forces in pushing out from Mogadishu over the last year plus, moving south to important strategic locations, including Afgooye and now into Merca, just in recent weeks. As well as deployments elsewhere in Somalia, including Baidoa in the Bay region, other locations around that and into [word unclear] and central regions. So I think we have seen already that AMISOM forces have been able to expand their zone of territorial presence and to maintain that presence and keep Al Shabaab from returning in a significant way. There are additional AMISOM forces scheduled to be deployed under the current troops ceiling that was agreed by the UN Security Council and the African Union Peace and Security Council back in February. So we are expecting additional force deployments in the coming weeks and months, including some new troop contributing countries. Important to remember that AMISOM alone is not expected to maintain full control of recaptured areas. This is a responsibility not only of AMISOM, but also of the Somali forces. So looking forward we continue to believe it will be of vital importance for further development of the Somali national army and related Somali forces that can help secure their country into the future. With respect to your second question on establishment of a U.S. embassy, we have very frequent visitors into Somalia. We have very active engagement with the senior Somali leadership, both of the preceding government and of the new incoming government. I personally have been in Mogadishu for about eight days over the past month, and we have other staff members who are up there very frequently as well. So we continue to expand our engagement with the Somali leadership and obviously we’ll look at what kind of permanent presence is viable as we go forward. But at the moment we are covering this primarily through frequent and expanded visits into Somalia.
Question by Yara Bayoumey, Reuters: So is this because you are still not confident and happy with the security situation in Mogadishu? Is that your prime concern?
Ambassador James Swan: I think, you see really throughout the international community incremental moves to re-establish a presence in Mogadishu and frequently initial steps include more frequent visits, include multi day stays, include some dedicated stays within Mogadishu where operations can be conducted. And that is the sort of incremental approach that we are following.
Question by Sudarsan Raghavan, Washington Post: Couple of questions. Could you give us a sense of what is happening inside the Al Shabaab leadership? We have heard of divisions within the leadership, we have also heard of efforts to reconcile the various leaders. Could you maybe just talk a little of what you know about what is happening inside the leadership? Secondly, if you can also just stress what is now the relationship between the foreign fighters and local Somali fighters within Al Shabaab? I mean are the foreign fighters still in control as we have heard? Or is there a rift there?
Ambassador James Swan: I think we continued to see that Al Shabaab is under increasing pressure. I think they are under increasing military pressure from AMISOM and Somali forces in their counter insurgency campaign against Al Shabaab. We think frankly that they are under increasing political pressure, as they’re seen to be losing ground. And as whatever limited popular support may previously have existed, appears to be eroding in the face of Al Shabaab's draconian governance methods and frankly abuse of the population in zones where it has previously been in control. Within the senior leadership we have not seen a formal split of the senior figures from that movement, despite multiple reports and rumors of internal debate and conflict. At this point we have not seen any of the senior leadership that have actively turned away from the movement and it is clear to us that Al Shabaab continues to represent a backward view, a look to the past rather than representing a future course that most Somalis wish to pursue. With respect to the foreign fighters, I think they continue to be present inside Somalia and as part of the Al Shabaab structure, however there are also increasing signs that the pressure being placed on Al Shabaab is also being felt by the foreign fighters and many of them are beginning to flee, clearly seeing that the tide has turned and that momentum has shifted away from Al Shabaab.
Question by Sudarsan Raghavan, Washington Post: You said they are fleeing. Are they -- [word unclear] -- to Yemen to join Al Qaida there? How concerned are you about this and is there any strong evidence suggesting that Al Shabaab fighter are going to Yemen to join the Al Qaida affiliate there?
Ambassador James Swan: At this point it's not entirely clear where all the foreign fighters are going, but what we certainly know is that there have been contact and connection between Yemen and Somalia, including facilitators who have made their way between those two locations, including one who was recently prosecuted in the United States. So we think that that those connections exist, but how actively they are now going to be developed and furthered as we see foreign fighters leaving from Somalia, has not yet been established.
Question by Mohamed Garane, Radio Ergo: In terms of -- [changes thought] -- two small questions. The first about President Hasan Shaykh Mahmud has highlighted that the government is ready to talk to Al Shabaab. And previously your government has said they won't negotiate with Al Shabaab. Do you agree with President Hasan Mahmud's new reconciliation efforts to talk to Al Shabaab themselves? And the other one is that, Somalis are very concerned of the IDP and the [word unclear] their communities about the protection issue. We know that there is previous history that Kenyan fighter jets nearly attacked and killed civilians in Kismayo and [word unclear] in this area. So are you concerned about the civilian protection and what sort of mechanisms have you in place in terms of protection to the civilians in Al Shabaab territories?
Ambassador James Swan: With respect to the Al Shabaab leadership, I have not seen any specific statement of outreach to Al Shabaab. I will certainly be interested in hearing more details about what that proposal is, if it is out there. We have been quite clear that for certainly Al Shabaab foot soldiers, or young men and some women who are not particularly ideologically motivated, but have cooperated with the movement, we are eager to see them participate in programs that would have them leave Al Shabaab and reintegrated into civilian life. Similarly there are a number of mid-level figures who again we don’t believe are particularly committed ideologically, and could perhaps be reabsorbed. We continue to be very skeptical that the senior leadership of Al Shabaab is indeed open to a serious dialogue and the kind of concessions that might be required and frankly believe that their behavior, their actions against their own population over the last several years, calls into question the ability to work with them into the future. With respect to protection of civilians, as part of our efforts and support of AMISOM, we place a very high priority on respect for international humanitarian law and human rights. Our government along with others, sponsors a number of training programs for the troop contributing countries and for the ASMISOM force headquarters and we are absolutely certain and careful to ensure that there is a component that deals specifically with respect for international humanitarian law, respect for human rights. I had a chance to address one of the recent graduating classes for AMISOM force headquarters training and personally underscored the importance of these issues. So I am very confident that these messages are being communicated to the senior AMISOM leadership.
Question by Somali National TV/Radio Mogadishu, Mohamed Ahmed Mohamed: [Question unclear/inaudible]
Ambassador James Swan: We are encouraged that the number of successful pirate attacks has actually continued to reduce over the last year plus, and believe that this is the result of a concerted effort in several areas. The result first, of continued very active naval patrolling that has helped secure the sea lanes with increasing confidence. It is the result of a very active effort at prosecution. The United States takes this very seriously and we have been very assertive in prosecuting any individuals who had been involved in pirate acts against the United States or United States citizens. But many other countries are also participating in these efforts to try to make clear that pirates will be led to justice. Third, frankly there has been great progress on the part of commercial shippers in terms of taking additional counter measures aboard their own vessels that have helped dissuade pirate attacks. And these three have really been the three cornerstones of this reduction in piracy, successful piracy attacks, over the last year. In addition to that, the United States does believe it is very important to help communities that have been negatively affected by pirates and so we currently have a program underway in five communities in Puntland, to work with those communities and provide small community development projects in consultation with the community, in consultation with the Puntland administration and indeed in consultation with the government in Mogadishu to ensure that those communities and their populations have alternatives to their continued cooperation with the pirates.
Question by VOA Yassin Isse Wardere: The newly elected president did not specify which elements of Al Shabaab he is supposed to discuss with them, but he said all foreign [words unclear] of the country, but these Al Shabaab members [words unclear]. So what about if he discusses with the people who you already listed as wanted people in your country?
Ambassador James Swan: Well, I think we will need to hear some further details from the new president on what he has, and certainly from our perspective, with the lower level figures, the foot soldiers and others who have not been ideologically committed to the movement, that there is an opening, we think, for them to be reintegrated into civilian life. And there are some programs underway already to try to encourage reintegration of the youth. We will be eager to see those continue to further develop.
Question from Salah Osman, Radio Bar Kulan: Reports say that the new president is about to nominate the position of the prime minister. Do you think that this can come again with the expectation of the international community [words unclear] of bringing [word unclear] onboard? And the second question is, in a [sentence unclear]. Can you explain why?
Ambassador James Swan: With respect to your first question on the appointment of the new Prime Minister, clearly that is a matter for the new president to decide in consultation with his political advisors and with the major political actors and communities in the country. I think we anticipate that the new cabinet will of course include a mix of those new figures and perhaps some with governing experience from the past.
And with respect to the participation in the inaugural ceremony, really from the beginning of the transition process the league of international actors have been the IGAD members, have been the African Union, so we think it was very appropriate that those actors also played the leading role of the moment of the handing over ceremony. We are very pleased to see senior level representation, including the Ethiopian Prime Minister, the Djiboutian President, and the African Union Chairperson, and clearly that reinforces the regional league role in this whole process in supporting this Somali initiative. Obviously from the perspective of the United States, we have issued congratulatory messages, which I believe have received considerable distribution, including from the White House. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also spoke personally by telephone with the new President Hasan Shaykh to congratulate him on his victory. And she also spoke to outgoing President Sheikh Shartif Sheikh Ahmed, again to thank him for his graceful exit and for his pledge of cooperation with the new leadership.
Question by VOA Somali Service, Yassin Isse Wardere: The attack on the president last week, show that Al Shabaab really do have quite good intelligence. To what extent do you think that Somali security forces are compromised and are infiltrated by Al Shabaab?
Ambassador James Swan: There have regrettably been a number of IED or body-borne IED attacks in Somalia in recent years, including some very dramatic ones. The attack on the health graduation in December 2009, the attack on the students seeking scholarships in Turkey back in October 2011, the attack on the theatre back in April or early May. So regrettably these incidents do still occur. I think that perhaps most important, with respect to the incident earlier this week, was that the measure was foiled in the end by AMISOM forces, by alert security forces at that venue. It clearly was an effort of active targeting on the part of Al Shabaab and the quick response ensured that it did not result in a more serious incident than in fact took place. I think we were also very impressed by the composure of the new president in the face of this incident, as he acknowledged that unfortunately these sorts of explosions continue to occur in Somalia, but demonstrated his commitment to focus more on the purpose of the press conference and on his future agenda.
Question by Mohamed Garane, Radio Ergo: In terms of air bombardment, there is a lot of confusion about who is throwing such bombardments and victims still don’t know who killed them and who is this. Can you specify your role in terms of military support to AMISOM in terms of which air bombardments and all this, because we have seen that some incident that killed people and then [word unclear] until the victims are taken justice in terms of support and terms of AMISOM. Can you specify the U.S. roll in air bombardments in Somalia?
Ambassador James Swan: Our support for AMISOM is well documented and is in fact declared publically in terms of our assistance, and that is support for AMISOM ground forces, troop contributing countries' ground forces through pre-deployment training, pre-deployment equipment packages. And that is a matter of public record. So that is the extent of our assistance to these, to AMISOM, troop contributing countries, through pre-deployment training and equipment package.
Question by Mohamed Garane, Radio Ergo: So you are not involved in the air bombardments? You are not doing sort of air military -- [changes thought] -- your troops are not conducting any sort of attacks in Somalia?
Ambassador James Swan: Well, as a matter of worldwide policy, we do not comment from the State Department on anything concerning U.S. military operations or intelligence operations.
Question by Sudarsan Raghavan, Washington Post: There are many observers who believe what we are seeing now is just maybe the first stages of a full blown insurgency. In places like Marca and other places they have just melted away, they have not even tried to fight AMISOM, they have just left. We think that Kismayo might end up in the same situation. So there is a sense that they have just gone underground and create a lot more attacks like the one we have just mentioned just now. The question is, what is your response to people who say it can happen, and secondly, do you think AMISOM and Somali forces are capable or have the capabilities of dealing with a full blown insurgency by Al Shabaab?
Ambassador James Swan: First, again, the trend lines against Al Shabaab are quite positive in terms of reduced areas of territorial control, in terms of frankly seeming loss of momentum with respect to its own messaging and communications with the host country population, and with respect to broader public attitudes toward Al Shabaab. I think as in any counterinsurgency the response is going to have to be multi-faceted and ultimately that will determine whether it can be eliminated permanently. And the elements of a multi-faceted response include obviously continued military action by AMISOM, by the allied Somali forces, which have shown significantly positive results over the last year and a half. It is also going to require very active stabilization programming and recovery programming in newly recaptured areas. Some of that has been done successfully in areas of Mogadishu that have been recovered and there are some incipient programs underway in other locations, including Baidoa, some border areas of the Juba Valley, the Gedo region and the like. But clearly responding near term to the material needs of the population in areas that have been recaptured from Al Shabaab will continue to be critical to maintaining the territorial gains and consolidating the position of the forces against Al Shabaab. And then finally, as we see time and again in other insurgencies, ultimately an effective national government, an effective government that shows that it is accountable, that it is responsive, to the needs of the population, that is delivering on economic growth and recovery, is going to be central to changing the insurgents' narrative. There has to be an appealing alternative to the insurgents and this is why frankly the political developments over the last several weeks are important, not just in term of what they mean for who governs in Mogadishu, but they are important in terms of countering Al Shabaab longer term by showing that there are effective national institutions that respond to the needs of the people and to their will.
Question by Somali National TV/Radio Mogadishu, Mohamed Ahmed Mohamed: The newly elected President Hasan committed that he would continue the dialect between our government and the Somaliland administration. So, what can be expected from that dialogue [phrase unclear]?
Ambassador James Swan: The dialogue between Somaliland administration and the government of Mogadishu began late in the spring under the auspices of the United Kingdom, facilitated also by Norway. In essence the initial conversations were really at a very basic level of planning for future substantive discussions. And so our expectation is that that process may continue and they will build on the initial very basic conversations that have already taken place, to begin to set an agenda, begin to identify what topics should be considered in future discussions. But this appears to be an incremental process in which the two parties are only now beginning to divine the terms of those discussions.
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Questions & Answers (MP3, 31:21 min, 22 mb)
James C. Swan
United States Special Representative for Somalia
Ambassador James Swan has served as the United States Special Representative for Somalia since August 2011. The position is responsible for developing U.S. policy recommendations on Somalia and for coordinating all U.S. programs in Somalia. Current Somalia-related programs of the U.S. government totaled more than $238 million in Fiscal Year 2011. These include major efforts respond to urgent humanitarian needs, improve security, advance economic development, and foster better governance.
Ambassador Swan has devoted most of his Foreign Service career to Africa, and has focused especially on countries facing complex political transitions in challenging security environments. As Ambassador to Djibouti (2008-2011), he led a significant increase in the U.S.-Djibouti security partnership, while also expanding assistance programs in the health, education, and governance sectors.
Prior to his assignment to Djibouti, Ambassador Swan served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs (2006-2008), with broad responsibility for U.S. policies and programs in 23 Central and East African countries. Annual U.S. assistance to these countries totaled more than $2.75 billion. During this period, he was centrally involved in U.S. policy initiatives to address multiple regional crises, including in Burundi, Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, and Somalia. Previously, as Director of Analysis for Africa in the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research (2005-2006), Ambassador Swan led a team of intelligence analysts who produced assessments of significant developments throughout sub-Saharan Africa for senior U.S. policy officials.
As Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Kinshasa (2001-2004), Ambassador Swan advanced negotiations aimed at withdrawal of foreign forces and agreement on an internal political framework leading to elections. As part of his long professional involvement with the Congo, Ambassador Swan was also Zaire/Congo Country Officer in Washington (1996-1998), serving as focal point during the rebellion that led to the fall of Mobutu Sese Seko after 32 years in power and the difficult first year of its successor regime. Ambassador Swan served as Deputy Chief of Mission and for more than a year Charge D’Affaires in Brazzaville, Republic of Congo (1998-2001) leading efforts to resume diplomatic operations and mobilize the U.S. humanitarian response in the aftermath of a civil conflict that displaced nearly a third of the country’s population.
Earlier in his career, Ambassador Swan served as Political Section Chief in Cameroon (1992-1994), Political Officer in Nicaragua (1990-1992), and Consular Officer in Haiti (1988-89). Before joining the Foreign Service, he worked as a Management Analyst in the Office for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education.
Ambassador Swan holds a B.S. degree from Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, an M.A. from Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, and a Master’s in National Security Studies from the National War College, where he was a 2005 distinguished graduate. He is married and has a daughter and a son.