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My surprising, startling experience in Somalia this August

  • Somolai-tax-AP.jpg

    FILE -- July 22, 2013: A Somali tailor sews cloth in the open-air Hamarweyne market of Mogadishu, Somalia.AP Photo/Farah Abdi Warsameh

  • doctorswithoutborders.jpg

    Aug. 14, 2013: Medecins Sans Frontiers (MSF) International President Dr. Unni Karunakara addresses journalists during a press conference in Nairobi, Kenya.AP

When Americans think of Somalia, famine or violence comes to mind -- a fair perception because the country has suffered both -- or they think of the movie "Black Hawk Down" about U.S. attacks in Mogadishu.

The reality in Mogadishu, however, and throughout Somalia, is much different.

America’s response to, and treatment of, this country, therefore, must also be different.

The status quo, tried for decades, will not work any longer.

Whether it was the thousands flocking to Mogadishu’s beautiful beaches last week, celebrating Eid al-Fitr after Ramadan, or the busy, bustling streets of Mogadishu filled with new business, optimism and opportunity, from what I witnessed, a new dawn is rising.

This is a country trying to liberate itself from the oppression of foreign intervention by next-door neighbors, Arab League states, and Western nations.

This was unexpected.

When I departed Washington, D.C. in early August, there were reports of new violence coming on the heels of summer bombings at the UN mission and the Turkish embassy. But to walk the streets of Mogadishu’s old city, in Shangani and Hamar Weyne, with friends who grew up here, who witnessed decades’ worth of destruction, and who still hold out hope for a foreseeable turning point, is inspiring.

A positive future is palpable. You can taste it.

This a country trying to free itself from a painful past – not merely from mass atrocities that came with warlordism (which America supported), weapons trafficking, extreme poverty, and the anarchy of non-state actor violence.

This is a country trying to liberate itself from the oppression of foreign intervention by next-door neighbors, Arab League states, and Western nations.

Everyone wants a piece of Somalia. And no wonder, it is a country rich with resources.

Agriculture, if sustainably developed, could feed an estimated 100 million people.

Oil resources are estimated at 100 billion barrels, which is why BP, Chevron, Conoco, Eni and Shell bought oil blocks in Somalia decades ago.

Fish stocks rival the world’s best and, when threatened by overfishing or toxic dumping by Arab and Asian countries, became the genesis of Somali piracy (for income generation and protection of coastal waters).

Last week, after meeting with the Prime Minister, the Ministers of Defense, Foreign Affairs, Interior and National Security , and Natural Resources, Members of Parliament, the Speaker of the Parliament, and civil society leaders, the path toward rebuilding Somalia became clear.

It must be Somali-led. That means the African Union Mission in Somalia, the security force the West has invested in, must exit and Somali security must be trained and equipped to protect its people.

That means that the Monitoring Group, run by the Western “advisers” who have undermined Somali leaders and institutions, must be dismantled and decommissioned.

That means that the U.S. defense, state and intelligence must stop funding illegal private security firms and stop seeing the military option as the way to create stability in Somalia.

That means that Western banks, like Barclays, must reverse their bans on financial remittances from the Somali diaspora, so that Somalia’s poor can receive subsistence funding.

That’s what the West must stop doing.

Here’s what the West should start doing.

Help the new government feed and employ its people, as there are too many unemployed youth.

Help rebuild the city and country infrastructure.

Help with a renewable energy-reliant power grid. Help with sustainable development, not exploitative extraction and deforestation.

Help the government become a sovereign state, rather than supportive fractious elements.

Help the executive branch (since the Parliament is more representative) be inclusive of all clans since the marginalization of some has led to new recruits for the rebel group al-Shabaab.

This is how Americans can help Somalia.

There are clear opportunities for partnership and engagement and we should pursue them, but Somali people must lead them.

Peace is possible, now let’s help them pursue it.

Michael Shank is director of foreign policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation.