Q&A: Somalia's Humanitarian Crisis

Worse than Darfur. That was the assessment two weeks ago of the United Nations' top refugee official in Somalia, who called the country Africa's worst humanitarian crisis. Somalia has been without a functioning central government for 17 years and has effectively splintered into three separate states: Somaliland in the north, Puntland in the center and chaotic southern Somalia. In December 2006, U.S.-supported Ethiopian troops invaded the country to oust an Islamist government that briefly controlled Mogadishu and the south, triggering a civil war. Islamist and clan-based militias have battled Ethiopian troops and supporters of the U.S.-backed Transitional Federal Government (TFG). A small force of African Union peacekeepers has been powerless to halt the violence. The war has forced 1 million people from their homes.

The transitional government's Prime Minister Nur Hassan Hussein, who took office three months ago, faces the challenges of reconciling Somalia's warring clans, keeping Islamic terrorists out and squelching a boom in piracy along the coast. And he must survive, of course—when he made the symbolically important step of moving the TFG back to Mogadishu last month, insurgents promptly shelled Somalia's presidential palace. Hussein, previously the chairman of Somalia's Red Crescent society, the Islamic equivalent of the Red Cross, recently spoke with NEWSWEEK's Jason McLure about the humanitarian crisis, his relationship with the Central Intelligence Agency and Somalia's tourism industry. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: A few U.N. officials have said that Somalia is Africa's worst humanitarian crisis. Is it really that bad?
Nur Hassan Hussein:
I would not say the worst, but definitely we have to admit that up to a certain degree there is a humanitarian crisis, which cannot be denied. You can imagine that if the security situation is so bad, the access for humanitarian operations is hampered. But right now we are witnessing a visible improvement. We will try our best so that the relief operations intended to reach the vulnerable people are not hampered.

What kind of support has the United States offered your government? How much direct assistance has the transitional federal government received from the United States?
First of all, the main support is the political support.

Isn't the United States the largest financial supporter of the TFG?
I think the United States plays the leading role.

How important is your relationship with the Ethiopian government? The TFG came back to Somalia with the help of Ethiopian troops, but is the presence of Ethiopian troops there harmful to the legitimacy of your government?
Not at all, not at all. The Ethiopian government came to our aid at a moment when this aid was badly needed. Since then it has continued to support us in relation to the security restoration.

The United States views Somalia as part of its international war against terrorism. How much of the current violence there now is related to international terror groups, and how much is simply clans or factions fighting for power?
For some time Somalia was without government and you can imagine that in this environment or vacuum, without enforcement, there is a possibility to see so many things. There was a conception that the deteriorating situation would allow terrorists to find a haven in Somalia.

So most of the opposition groups you can do business with. Only a few are related to international terrorism?
Yes, yes. I think the majority of the opposition are either opposition because they don't see the government delivering or performing well. So they want some things changed. Others are not included in the power-sharing, so they would like to be in the picture. The ownership of the government belongs to the community, the Somali people.

Terrorism, then, is just a small element in the opposition then?
I see it like that, currently.

How many U.S. troops are in Somalia right now?
I don't think that we have U.S. troops inside Somalia now. Sometimes some teachers may come.

Is the CIA present and supportive in Somalia?
It's supportive, yes. The United States of America is supporting us in different fields. But the presence of the CIA, the presence of troops, is not a big issue. We like that they are here. But right now they don't have a permanent military presence. They come in and out.

The United States says some of the people responsible for the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam are still in Somalia right now. Why are they free, and what will it take to capture them?
I cannot confirm really that they are in Somalia right now. Definitely we are still continuing to fight against the insurgents, against any sort of terrorism. When we reach what we call a complete victory, including reconciliation, I think then we can identify who is here, who is there, who is responsible and so on.

Because now the situation is too chaotic to know for sure?
Yes. It's not too chaotic—but chaotic, yes. [Laughs]

Does the TFG hand people suspected of being terrorists over to the United States or to other countries for trial or interrogation?
No, no, no. Not now. I mean definitely we have in the past. The Somali government is obliged, with regard to terrorism, to be in line with international laws.

Some people have said that much of the conflict in Somalia is a proxy war between Ethiopia and Eritrea. Is that the case?
We have Eritrea supporting the opposition groups. We have Ethiopian troops supporting the Somali transitional government. The relationship between Ethiopia and Eritrea is definitely not good. But I cannot say it is a proxy [war]. I don't think what is happening in Somalia is the [importing of] this problem. There are so many other factors.

Under your predecessor, Ali Mohammed Gedi, the TFG arrested the head of the United Nations World Food Program in Somalia. At the time there was a suspicion that the U.N. chief was arrested because the World Food Program was distributing food in some areas that supported the opposition.
I'm coming from the humanitarian field. And definitely what we believe is that when it comes to the humanitarian operations, the vulnerable people are vulnerable, regardless of their political beliefs, regardless of their religion, regardless of the color, regardless of the clan they belong to. As a humanitarian, I need to support both sides.

Piracy has been a continuing problem and one that has grown worse last year. What needs to be done about it?
Piracy is very much a threat to humanitarian operations. It is the major factor making the crisis worse. Each ransom paid for a ship [seized] by pirates makes the situation worse. So we urge the whole international community to look at this. It needs to be addressed at the international level, [including] adequate support to the Somali government right now to fight piracy.

I understand that you would like the United Nations to send peacekeepers to Somalia. What did they say needs to be done before they will send peacekeepers?
They sent an assessment team already. I think what they identified was that there is a need for U.N. peacekeeping troops.

Does the U.N. have the political will to send troops? When you talk to Americans about Somalia, what they know is the story of "Black Hawk Down."
Yes, but I think that picture is now changing. If yesterday Somalia was seen as such, today I think it is being seen in a different way. And these changes I think will also bring about the possibility to engage troops from Europe, America and Arab [countries].

Southern Somalia has some nice beaches. How long will it be until we see foreign tourists visiting them?
That is the best question you've asked [laughs]. When I was forming the cabinet, I was asking myself whether a ministry of tourism is needed or not. But there is a long way to go. We are focusing on security today. But tomorrow we will have a ministry for tourism.

Some people say Somalia is the third front in the war on terrorism for the United States, after Iraq and Afghanistan. How do you react to that?
My reaction would not be far from that. I don't know whether [we'd be] fourth or fifth or whatever, but one of the fronts definitely. Not because of the current presence of terrorism but because we have the [possibility] of terrorism. I think the best weapon to combat that is reconciliation. I believe that.