June 14, 2006

Somalia’s new China envoy sweeps away the cobwebs

By Ben Blanchard

BEIJING (Reuters) - Old typewriters, dusty passports, faded
diplomatic pouches, invitations to embassy parties from 1991
and pictures of a man deposed as president 15 years ago --
Mohamed Awil has a lot of stuff to clear out.

Not the normal duties of a senior diplomat in the world's
most populous nation.

But as Somalia's new ambassador to China, Awil also has a
tougher job ahead of him -- convincing people his country now
has a viable central government, is back on track and will soon
be open for business again.

The former Swedish trade unionist returned to help his
homeland from exile in Sweden in 2002, and for his efforts was
rewarded with the ambassadorship to China, with responsibility
for affairs in Japan, the Koreas, Australia and Thailand.

Yet Somalia is so poor Awil gets no money from his
government back home, which is appealing for international aid.
There is only one other Somali working in the embassy, aside
from himself, and most of the rooms are empty.

"There was still a picture of Mohamed Siad Barre above my
desk when I moved in in December," said Awil, referring to the
man whose ouster in 1991 marked the collapse of central
government in the country of some 10 million people on the horn
of Africa.


Somalia has had an embassy in China since 1960, and it
still stands on its original site off a leafy road in Beijing's
diplomatic quarter, near the Iranian and Argentinean

Though Siad Barre was deposed in 1991, his ambassador to
China stayed on, representing a government which existed no
longer and a country that had descended into fiefdoms run by
competing warlords.

In October 2004, in the 14th attempt since 1991 to restore
a central government, Ethiopian-backed Abdullahi Yusuf was
elected Somali president by lawmakers, though they were until
recently based in Kenya and do not dare enter the capital.

Awil contends they are a viable and legitimate government,
despite widespread skepticism in the international community.

"There is a government. Please stop saying that there is no
government," Awil told Reuters, walking around the building.
"There is a central institution whether the U.S. likes it or

"We have a parliament. We have a head of state," he said,
adding that with warlords having been driven from the capital
Mogadishu by an Islamic militia, the United States should throw
its weight behind the new government.

"America has never supported the peace process. Now they
have a chance."

Somalia's interim president has accused Washington of
covertly supporting the warlords now swept out of Mogadishu.


The signs of the former regime litter the embassy.

Pictures of pre-war Mogadishu and Siad Barre meeting
Chinese leaders are piled up in one room, while portraits of
the man himself have been hidden in musty cupboards, behind
photographs of camels.

In one room sit old passports with visas issued by the long
abandoned Chinese embassy in Mogadishu.

In another can be found the gray diplomatic bags that were
once carried to the capital by European airlines that years ago
stopped landing in Somalia.

Awil says for now the priorities of his government are
rather more mundane than looking for investment from Chinese

"Our priority now is peace and security," he said. "When we
have security, the door is open for any country."

And one day perhaps, Chinese tourists will flock to
Somalia, Awil added, pointing out that the Chinese admiral
Zheng He visited the Somali coast 600 years ago on one of his
voyages of discovery.

However, since December the embassy has only issued about
15 visas, for business.

"We can't guarantee your safety," he said of tourist trips.

Not that having a visa issued by his government would be
much use, as airstrips all over the country are under no single
authority and many charge their own visa or landing fees, often
at the point of a gun.

Somaliland, in the northwest, broke away in 1991 and has
been run as a de-facto independent state ever since.

A blip, insists Awil.

"Other cities and regions are with the government," he
said. "There is no problem outside the capital."

For the time being, Awil is redecorating the embassy,
cutting back the weeds and sorting through the files left by
the previous diplomatic residents. He hopes a large but
desolate reception room, decorated with a few scattered seats
and some wobbly shelves, will be ready for Somali National Day
in a few weeks.

In the garden, which grew unchecked for 15 years, the
ambassador himself made a bid at cutting back the trees and
bushes. But they had come back, leaving the grounds a marked
contrast to the manicured gardens of more affluent Beijing

"We have a gardener now," Awil said with a smile.