MOGADISHU, Somalia – I was at the National Theater in Mogadishu yesterday, and witnessed the despicable terrorist attack by a suicide bomber in which more than six people were killed -- including two of the country's dearest sporting heroes. Seeing first-hand the appalling loss of life and harm done to my countrymen was a savage reminder of what is at stake in Somalia. On the one hand, we have an internationally recognized government, one that is growing in strength and steering the country through the last four months of transition towards a new constitution, a new parliament, and presidential elections; on the other, we still face a nihilistic terrorist group, influenced by foreign ideologies, that delights in killing Somalis and has nothing positive to offer.
Although violence has become tragically endemic in Somalia in recent years, it doesn't have to be like this. Conflict is not inevitable here. Go back to 1966, for instance, when an Associated Press news report described Somalia as "the most democratic country in Africa. Half a dozen political parties contest free elections. Government officials get modest salaries and drive modest automobiles." In those days, Mogadishu was a peaceful city of elegant avenues shaded by palm trees, handsome villas, and graceful architecture that combined the best of Africa and Europe.
Today, in the aftermath of more than 20 years of ruinous fighting, hope is once again in the air -- despite the attempts of terrorists to return the country to chaos. We are taking advantage of the longest sustained period of relative peace since 1991 to rebuild the shattered infrastructure of Mogadishu, doing everything we can to restore it to its former glory and set the country on a path to lasting peace and reconciliation.
One of the last times Somalia was featured at length in Foreign Policy, in July last year, Ambassador Boubacar Gaoussou Diarra, head of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), argued that with a little more help from donors, the al Qaeda affiliated terrorist group al-Shabab could be driven out of Mogadishu. Only a month later, that came true.
Seven months later, Mogadishu is a city transformed. Yesterday's attack on myself, the country's government, and the nation's media was unusual. There is no doubt that compared to a year ago, Somalis are more confident of security and of their future. Don't just take my word for it. Actions speak louder than words: Somalis from the diaspora are flocking back to help rebuild the nation and start new enterprises. Business is resuming in earnest -- new shops, markets, hotels, hospitals, restaurants, and cafés are opening. From soccer to basketball, recreation and public entertainment is resuming across neighborhoods. To the delight of the city, musical concerts are taking place again. The seaport is busier than ever; the airport is receiving more international flights than it has for years. Foreign VIPs, such as the Turkish prime minister, the British foreign secretary, and the German development minister among many others have been welcomed visitors in recent months. And earlier this year, the United Nations Political Office for Somalia decided to move its core staff to Mogadishu after 17 years of operating from Nairobi, a genuine vote of confidence in the future of Somalia. We hope that other organizations, agencies, and embassies will follow the UN's example.
The international media has also spotted the change, hence headlines this past week such as "Somalis Embrace Hope and Reconstruction in Mogadishu" (New York Times), "Sports, art, streetlights: A new life in Mogadishu" (AP), and "Is Al Shabaab cracking under the pressure?" (Allafrica). The answer to the last question, incidentally, is a resounding yes. Al Shabab, the principal obstacle to peace, is under pressure as never before and is tearing itself to pieces. By resorting to indiscriminate terrorism, as we saw yesterday, they prove that they are desperate, looking for any means to impose their tyrannical will on Somalis. Every day, they are losing more ground; on the outskirts of Mogadishu, in Bay, and Galmudug to our army, who is fighting alongside our valued partners from AMISOM.
With all this progress behind us, the next four months represent the greatest opportunity we have had for a settlement in Somalia since the collapse of the state in 1991.
The political process under the internationally agreed road map remains firmly on track. We are nearing the end of our quest for a new constitution, the bedrock of a new Somalia. The lead role will be played by an 825-member Constituent Assembly, a body chosen to represent the diverse segments and communities of our country, that will come together in the last two weeks of May. The Constituent Assembly and traditional leaders will be assisted by expertise from a panel of legal and constitutional experts.