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Obama selects first U.S. ambassador to Somalia since 1991

President Obama has nominated Katherine Dhanani, a long-time diplomat with a specialty in African affairs, to be the first U.S. ambassador to Somalia since 1991.

Dhanani is currently director of regional and security affairs at the State Department’s Africa bureau. Her past posts include India, Mexico, Guyana, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and other African countries.

If confirmed by the Senate, Dhanani would lead the U.S. mission in Somalia, which for security reasons is still based in Nairobi, Kenya. “As security conditions permit, we look forward to increasing our diplomatic presence in Somalia and eventually reopening the U.S. Embassy in Mogadishu,” said State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki on Tuesday.

The reinstallation of an ambassador in Mogadishu is “a reflection both of our deepening relationship with the country and of our faith that better times are ahead,” Wendy Sherman, undersecretary of state for political affairs, said in June about the upcoming announcement.

She said increased U.S. aid to the East African nation includes military assistance to help fight militant group al-Shabab. “The campaign against al-Shabab is an essential part of Somalia’s struggle to recover. Equally critical, however, is progress in establishing governing institutions that are capable and credible.”

The U.S. Embassy in Mogadishu closed in 1991 after the Somali government collapsed and the country entered a civil war. A U.S. military presence remained in Somalia, but that withdrew as well after what became known as the Black Hawk Down incident in 1993, when Somali militiamen shot down two U.S. helicopters, killing 18 service members.

Relations began to improve after civil and political activist Hassan Sheikh Mohamud was elected president in 2012, and the United States officially recognized the Somali government in 2013.

“Somalia has considerable work ahead to complete its transition to a peaceful, democratic, and prosperous nation,” said Psaki. “The United States is committed to supporting Somalia on this journey as a steadfast partner.”

Ahmed Samatar, Somali-born founding dean of the Institute for Global Citizenship at Macalester College, said the new ambassador will have her hands full in a country plagued by terrorist violence, corruption, an impoverished society including a large refugee population, and the secessionist struggle over the northern region of Somaliland, which declared its independence from Somalia after the overthrow of the Siad Barre dictatorship in 1991.

“Since the vast majority of the people of Somaliland are adamant to go their own way, how would this ambassador deal with this and look after U.S. interests?” he asked.

Now isn’t the time for the United States to officially recognize the Somali government, let alone appoint an ambassador, said J. Peter Pham, director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center.

The Somali government has little influence beyond the capital. Instability within the current regime has meant the turnover of two prime ministers and “countless cabinet reshuffles,” he said. “Given the relatively brief tenures which they can expect to hold, senior government officials largely view their appointments as opportunities for self-enrichment and other corruption before they are forced to move on.”

The progress that Somalia has made recently is mainly on the military front against al-Shabab militants, and that “has been largely the work of the African Union forces which have deployed in larger numbers and with better training,” along with help from U.S. intelligence and special operations, said Pham.

So “the decision to recognize such a so-called government is the worst of both worlds: recognized sovereignty hampers freedom of action against terrorist threats by U.S. forces while ineffective sovereignty means we don’t really get a worthwhile ally in exchange for the limitations,” he said.

Richard Downie, deputy director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Africa Program, said in order to move forward, the Somali government needs to start delivering tangible gains to its citizens, including security, water, basic health services and education.

Its regular bouts of political infighting “confirm the suspicions of the general public that their leaders are more concerned with satisfying their own ambitions than with improving the lives of ordinary Somalis,” he said.