Firing squads, blast walls and dangerous diplomacy in Somalia
A navy flak jacket over his sky-blue shirt, Neil Wigan peered through the bulletproof glass window at six uneven wooden poles in front of a sand dune.
Violence is routine in Somalia, whether perpetrated by suicide bombers, jihadists, assassins, soldiers or the judiciary. Chronic insecurity makes the country a study in diplomacy at its most difficult.
Wigan, 44, is Britain’s first resident ambassador to the Horn of Africa country since it collapsed in a hail of gun and rocket fire in 1991. A new embassy opened in April 2013 “inside the wire” of Mogadishu airport’s relatively secure compound.
Diplomacy succeeds or fails on the strength of relationships, so on a recent Wednesday morning Wigan drove into Mogadishu in his convoy of B6-level armoured SUVs accompanied by ex-British military bodyguards wearing earpieces and carrying M4 carbines and pistols.
“There’s a real threat from Shebab,” said Wigan, referring to the Al-Qaeda-aligned militants who launch regular attacks on the Somali government and its foreign backers. “We’re constantly deciding whether a particular meeting is worth the risk.”
“Security is as good as we can make it while still doing our jobs,” he said.
– Political crisis –
Somalia has yet another new government, appointed in early February, and Wigan was eager to get to know them.
That day he visited Deputy Prime Minister Mohamed Omar Arte who will work with foreign donors on a multi-billion euro plan known as the New Deal Compact.
“This is a courtesy call. There’s a lot of new people we don’t really know,” Wigan told AFP on the way to the meeting at Villa Somalia, the fortified government quarter that was attacked by jihadist suicide bombers and gunmen twice in 2014.
The Deputy PM’s office was a classic example of Somali bureaucracy chic: vases of plastic flowers, overstuffed pleather armchairs, flat-screen televisions and a scrum of assistants, advisors and hangers-on.
“The British government is a strong supporter of Somalia,” Wigan told Arte, a rangy man with rimless glasses and a neat goatee. “But to be honest we’ve been frustrated by the political crisis.”
Arte’s boss is the third prime minister Wigan has seen in the last 18-months, as political infighting stalls the constitutional changes needed before elections planned for September 2016.
“Each time we have to start again to get the things we care about back on track,” Wigan said after the half-hour meeting.
Arte and Wigan did not agree on everything but positions were staked out and priorities listed. As Wigan left he told Arte, “We wish you luck – it’s a tough job.”
“It is, it is,” the minister replied.
Two days later, while attending Friday prayers at the nearby Central Hotel, Arte was injured in a Shebab suicide attack that killed at least 25 people.
– Somalia’s Green Zone –
When not meeting the Somali government on its own turf, Wigan does the rounds of Mogadishu International Airport, Somalia’s version of Iraq’s Green Zone.
The four-square kilometre (1.5 square mile) base is a bizarre expatriate ecosystem of muscled and tattooed private security contractors, ambitious young diplomats, jaded aid workers, furtive spies, uniformed soldiers and businessmen with an unusually high risk threshold.
It is encircled by blast barriers and razor wire and defended by African Union soldiers. It is the safest place in the city, yet on Christmas Day Shebab gunmen launched a 36-hour assault that left nine AU soldiers and three foreign contractors dead.
Britain’s chunk of the airport is 100 square metres (1,100 square feet) of well-defended beachfront between the runway and the sea.
Like a Wild West fort, it has four blast barrier walls set back 20-metres (22-yards) from an outer perimeter with an observation tower on each corner manned by Ugandan private security guards armed with AK47 assault rifles and belt-fed PKM machine guns.
“The embassy is designed to withstand an attack,” said Wigan. “On Christmas Day the team carried on having lunch while a complex attack was going on 200 yards away.”
The airport seafront is sought after real estate with the European Union, France and Italy all building embassies.
Turkey and the United Arab Emirates have embassies in town, and China has occupied the top floor of a hotel, but Britain did not consider returning to its abandoned former embassy.
The old whitewashed Italianate building sits on a busy road, its facade bullet-pocked and its courtyard full of squatters.
“In most places there was an existing embassy but this was a blank sheet of paper. We started with security and then added the extras,” said Wigan.
The extras include a gym, the ‘Club Mog’ bar and outside space with pot plants, hammocks, garden furniture and a game called Cornhole that involves tossing beanbags at a board with a hole cut in it.
After work, embassy staff do punishing circuit training with the ex-soldiers or stroll along the breezy beachfront with the embassy’s adopted street-dogs, Max and Vespa.
Although sequestered at the airport Wigan said “a full-time presence” is preferable to commuting from Nairobi, like most ambassadors and UN officials.
“Our depth of engagement and our ability to get stuff done is much greater,” he said.