U.S. Formally Recognizes Somali Government For First Time In 20 Years

The U.S. formally recognized the Somali government for the first time in 20 years on Thursday when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mahamud at the State Department. Hassan is the first permanent Somali president since 1991 and faces a daunting task of rebuilding a nation torn by conflict and Islamist insurgencies.

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The United States is supporting the French operation in Mali, according to the State Department, and the U.S. reviewing security across North Africa in light of that crisis and the hostage taking by militants at a natural gas plant in Algeria. The Algerian military stormed that plant today, ending the standoff.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

But as Secretary of State Clinton said today, the work of countering violent extremism in Africa goes on.

SECRETARY HILLARY CLINTON: We know we face a continuing, ongoing problem. And we're going to do everything we can to work together to confront and disrupt al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. We're going to be working with our friends and partners in North Africa.

SIEGEL: Secretary Clinton was meeting with the president of another African Nation. Somalia is also confronting an al-Qaida-linked group and grappling with many other problems.

CORNISH: As NPR's Michele Kelemen reports, the U.S. is opening a new chapter in diplomatic relations with Somalia, hoping to boost the new government's chances of success.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: U.S. officials say Somalia has come a long way from the days of Black Hawk Down, when Somali warlords shot down two U.S. helicopters in 1993 after a failed humanitarian intervention. Somalia has lurched from crisis to crisis since then. But the newly elected president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, calls this a new era for his country.

PRESIDENT HASSAN SHEIKH MOHAMUD: Somalia is emerging from a very long, difficult period, and we are now moving away from instability, extremism, piracy, an era - to an era of peaceful and development.

KELEMEN: Secretary Clinton says for the first time since 1991 the U.S. is recognizing the government in Somalia.

CLINTON: So today is a milestone. It's not the end of the journey, but it's an important milestone to that end.

KELEMEN: The diplomatic recognition means that Somalia can get support from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank and have a new relationship with the USAID agency.

CLINTON: Our diplomats, our development experts are traveling more frequently there, and I do look forward to the day when we can re-establish a permanent U.S. diplomatic presence in Mogadishu.

KELEMEN: Though that's still a ways off, Ken Menkhaus of Davidson College calls this new relationship a real break from the past, pointing out that Somalia's previous governments were transitional, dysfunctional and corrupt.

DR. KEN MENKHAUS: Providing a lot of direct governance, rule of law and other support to previous governments in Somalia has been risky and problematic. Now this sends a signal that we are going to be prepared to work more directly with the government and not just around it.

KELEMEN: Menkhaus says President Mohamud has a good reputation. He's someone who stayed in Somalia throughout these decades of conflict, worked with international aid groups, helped establish a university and has street credibility.

MENKHAUS: I think he's an excellent investment in the international community. Now, the reputation of the government that he presides over is still that it is very weak, and we have to be frank about that. It does not control much territory at all. It has very limited functionality.

KELEMEN: And Menkhaus says the president will need financial assistance just to pay salaries of security forces who are still battling an al-Qaida-linked group known as the Al-Shabaab. U.S. officials say Somali and African peacekeeping forces have broken the back of that rebel group. Menkhaus says Al-Shabaab is weaker but can still do a lot of mischief. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department.

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