In this interview, we are speaking with Mr. Stephen M. Schwartz, the former United States Ambassador to Somalia, about the many challenges and opportunities facing countries in the Horn of Africa, including Somaliland.
Somaliland Chronicle: Let’s start with Ethiopia: You have been in the U.S. Foreign Service since 1992 and have been a diplomat in many countries around the world and served as ambassador to Somalia. Is the United States able to exert any pressure including sanctions on the warring parties to cease hostilities and reach a negotiated settlement especially in light of the horrific human rights violations that are being reported from Tigray and possibly other parts of Ethiopia?
Schwartz: From what I see in the public domain the United States government is very concerned about the conflict in Ethiopia, the incendiary language, and the number of people killed, injured, raped, displaced, and in urgent need of humanitarian assistance. Secretary Blinken, USAID Administrator Power, and Special Envoy Feltman have pushed the parties to end hostilities. Unfortunately, it appears that Prime Minister Abiy and some of his allies are unwilling to take a constructive approach to dealing with whatever issue they had with Tigray and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). I expect the United States will continue to look for ways to pressure and persuade Abiy to seek a negotiated solution, and with continued stalemate internally and greater multilateral pressure they might succeed.
Somaliland Chronicle: Ethiopia has been viewed as the elder state in the Horn of Africa and a stabilizing force. Given the current trajectory of the conflict and how it is spreading to other regions such as Amhara and Afar, what implications does the conflict in Ethiopia could have on fragile states such as Somalia where Ethiopian forces are stationed as part of AMISOM/AU peace-keeping missions?
Schwartz: The situation in Ethiopia is very concerning. Ethiopia is a large, populous, and important country which is at risk of breaking apart and destabilizing the entire Horn of Africa. It is important to remember that Ethiopia is unique. It remains, in effect, an empire created in the late 1800s under Menelik II. It does not have a tradition of peaceful transfer of political power. Emperor Haile Selassie was overthrown by the Dergue led by Mengistu Haile Mariam, and the Dergue was ousted by rebel movements led by the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front and the TPLF. Now Abiy has been trying to destroy the TPLF even though it was no longer the predominant political power in the country but had already been reduced to running Tigray.
The TPLF-led government in the early 1990s established ethnic federalism in Ethiopia. Abiy’s government is now trying to crush one of those federal states, and by bringing other ethnic state militias into the contest, he risks creating ethnic nationalist forces he, his Prosperity Party, and the central government cannot manage. The conflict’s impact on Somalia has been limited thus far but that could change.
Somaliland Chronicle: The outgoing President of the Federal Republic of Somalia, Mr. Mohamed Abdullahi Farmaajo, took office during your tenure as the US Ambassador to Somalia. You have worked with him. What is your view on how things have turned out in Somalia given that he is still in power past his mandate and seems intent on instigating constitutional crises to remain in office?
Schwartz: Mr. Farmaajo came to office in 2017 with tremendous popular support from Somalis across the Horn of Africa. Under his predecessor, Hassan Sheikh Mohammed, Somalia completed the establishment of its new federal character and the government developed further from being “transitional.” Somalis and the international community had high hopes that as president, Mr. Farmaajo would strengthen Somalia’s new and weak institutions, both civilian and military. Sadly, this did not occur. Al Shabaab controls at least as much territory today as it did when Mr. Farmaajo took office. Rather than strengthen the federal system, he did everything he could to control, ignore, and weaken the federal member states. He failed to finalize the negotiated national security architecture to reform the Somali National Army and Police and clarify federal and member state authorities and responsibilities. He made no progress on reconciliation – including with Somaliland – or ratification of the constitution. And he made no progress creating the conditions for One Person One Vote, or a vote of any kind. Three and a half years into his four-year presidency he was forced to accept an electoral process that is almost identical to the one used in 2016. Since then, he continues to try to influence the process – including through the appointment of loyal or vulnerable people to various electoral bodies – to extend his time in office and improve his chances of retaining the presidency.
Somaliland Chronicle: In your latest piece “Somalia’s Leaders Need to Seize Immediately the Lessons of Afghanistan“ you have drawn a parallel to the spectacular implosion of the Afghan army following the US withdrawal and you have warned about a similar outcome in Somalia as you have written on the eve of the US’s withdrawal from Somalia in January. Your main argument is that the problem lies not in the equipment or the size of the army but the fact that the government institutions are hollowed out by rampant corruption. Is it fair to say that the United States and its successive Ambassadors bear some responsibility by not holding the Somali government and particularly President Farmaajo accountable to ensure their taxpayer’s funds are spent as intended?
Schwartz: I can only speak for what occurred during my tenure as ambassador, though I believe the general approach has some relevance to how things were managed after I left. As best as I can recall, no U.S. funding went directly to the Somali government to support its military effort. The U.S. directly funded the recruitment, training, and equipping the Danab special operations battalion and provided salary stipends and food rations to about 1/3 of the SNA. In 2017, after failing to get an adequate accounting of which SNA soldiers were receiving the stipends, the U.S. suspended the payments. The U.S. investment in Danab has been extremely successful and provided Somalia with a multi-clan, capable force that operates nationally and in three of the four southern and central member states. It is worth noting that the U.S. government helped create the Puntland Security Force and conducted operations with it for a number of years, and now it operates successfully and is independent of the U.S. or other external support.
Somaliland Chronicle: Although Mr. Farmaajo has renounced his US citizenship, many in his inner circle have dual citizenship and may include US citizens. Is there anything that the United States and possibly other countries can do to hold their citizens accountable for corruption and allegations of human rights violations in a foreign territory?
Schwartz: I am not an attorney, but I believe the United States and most western governments can investigate and hold accountable their citizens for at least some crimes committed outside of their country of nationality. Those citizens often have family and property in their adopted country and would seek to travel to that country whether or not they retain its citizenship. If, like Mr. Farmaajo, they have renounced their foreign citizenship, presumably they would need to apply for a visa to visit that country and the visa-issuance process has many laws and procedures governing who can travel to the United States and for what reason. Personally, I have no idea whether Mr. Farmaajo has committed crimes, or whether sufficient evidence exists of such possible crimes, for him to be held accountable in the United States. Ideally, if such evidence exists, he should be tried in a Somali court under Somali law for crimes committed in Somalia.
Somaliland Chronicle: Now on to Djibouti, an extremely important ally of the United States that is currently hosting a U.S. military base in addition to other countries’ militaries including China. General Townsend’s predecessor General Thomas D Waldhauser testified to the US Senate on concerns “preponderance of foreign forces”. Do you see any long-term strategic risks to the United States in maintaining a foothold in Djibouti given China’s huge investments in the country?
Schwartz: Djibouti has been an important partner for the United States since its independence and for the U.S. military for almost 20 years. Its location, stability, and infrastructure have served U.S. strategic interests well over this period. In general, there should be no reason why the United States and China cannot maintain military facilities in Djibouti that serve their respective interests. Unfortunately, China has not been content to co-exist with the U.S. in Djibouti but has undertaken a number of acts hostile to the United States. One well-publicized act was the repeated use by China of lasers to blind pilots flying military jets. To address your question, I think it would be advantageous for the United States to have alternate sites in the Red Sea/Gulf of Aden region which would be used to base some of the military personnel and equipment currently in Djibouti. Having options increases U.S. negotiating power, adds flexibility, and reduces the negative impact on U.S. capabilities if an external shock develops.
Somaliland Chronicle: In contrast to his concern over the presence of multiple foreign armies in Djibouti, General Waldhauser has said “Berbera’s location, close to the entry and exit point of the Bab-el-Mandeb strait, will be strategically valuable for both Somaliland and with whomever they choose to partner.” What is your thought on this and how much value do you think the US should place in Somaliland’s strategic location in the Red Sea?
Schwartz: Berbera appears to offer a desirable location and infrastructure for any country looking for military basing in a strategic part of the world. That said, Berbera featured as a potentially useful deep water port for both the Soviet Union and then the United States during the Cold War, but its potential was never needed or developed. Also, as attractive a strategic location as Somaliland and Berbera might be, their value would be affected by what other possible sites exist in the area and what their attributes might be.
Somaliland Chronicle: We have recently reported a United States Air Force C-130J-30 Super Hercules transport aircraft that landed in the recently renovated Berbera Airport and a high-level meeting between Somaliland and US military personnel has taken place, both sides have declined to shed any light on the flight and the meeting but as someone who understands the dynamics of the region and the United States strategic interests, what do you make of this? To
Schwartz: I have not had any discussions on this topic with anyone in the U.S. government, so I have no actual idea what the purpose of the trip was. That said, it would be smart and prudent for the United States military to visit and assess all sites anywhere with potential military use. In most cases that use would be relatively short notice and there would not be time to conduct a full assessment before the operation. Such eventualities could be an emergency humanitarian operation, aircraft landing, ship visit, or hundreds of other possible contingencies.
Somaliland Chronicle: Somaliland and Taiwan diplomatic ties which the People’s Republic of China was unsuccessful in unraveling was viewed as good news by the former U.S. administration’s NSC and many current US government officials, how do you see this particular nexus between Taiwan and Somaliland? And in your view why hasn’t Somaliland benefited from the TAIPEI Act?
Schwartz: I collaborated with Taiwan officials while working on some issues related to the Pacific Island nations and believe Taiwan can offer useful assistance. This would appear to be the same conclusion reached by Somaliland officials. The TAIPEI act became U.S. law well after I retired and I am unfamiliar with its provisions and application so cannot address that aspect of your question.
Somaliland Chronicle: What is your view on Somaliland’s offer to host some Afghan SIVs temporarily?
Schwartz: It was a generous humanitarian gesture. It also portrays Somaliland authorities as responsible international partners willing to work constructively to address global challenges.
Somaliland Chronicle: As the former US Ambassador to Somalia, you were able to work with the government of Somaliland to a certain degree without presenting credentials due to its lack of recognition, and this is the case for every foreign Ambassador to Somalia, in your view what signal does this send to you, your government about the seriousness of Somaliland in terms of its independence and quest for recognition?
Schwartz: Somaliland has done a tremendous job creating, financing, and sustaining the full array of government functions. As a result, anyone wanting to do business with Somaliland must deal with its authorities and jurisdiction. During my tenure, the embassy staff and I worked well with Somaliland officials on a range of issues. We dealt with the officials and institutions that had effective authority and control over the situations we were working on. I recall one important issue involving assisting American citizens in Somaliland in which a number of Somaliland officials provided critical assistance.
The question of Somaliland’s sovereignty being recognized internationally is obviously a top priority for Somaliland officials and has been for 30 years. My view, which I have shared with senior Somaliland officials, is that the best way to pursue their goal is through a negotiated agreement with the Somalia government. All new states that have attained a seat in the United Nations – the ultimate determination of international recognition – have obtained their sovereignty with the consent of the former state to which it belonged. Some recent examples are Ethiopia consented to Eritrea’s independence, Sudan consented to South Sudan’s independence, Indonesia consented to Timor Leste’s independence, and Serbia consented to Montenegro’s independence. By contrast, Serbia has not consented to Kosovo’s declaration of independence and despite being recognized by about 100 countries, Kosovo is not seated in the United Nations and struggles to achieve full independence. Whether negotiations with authorities in Mogadishu leads to independence or some form of association is entirely up to the negotiators. What should not occur is that Mogadishu prolong a resolution of Somaliland’s status by refusing to enter undertake serious negotiations.
Somaliland Chronicle: Lastly, as a career and seasoned diplomat who knows the region very well, what advice would you give Somaliland in terms of how it engages with the world and particularly the United States.
Schwartz: I think the best thing Somaliland can do to engage with the world is to continue to improve its internal situation. Building a state with security and the rule of law, a strong and growing economy, a healthy well-educated population, and productive physical infrastructure would be a huge service to the people of Somaliland and a worthy end in itself. It would also attract increasing attention from people, businesses, and governments outside. Somaliland has very capable representation in the United States. This could be boosted by occasional high-level visits by leaders from both governments.
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