US diplomats in Somalia have often aroused controversy. In fact, for nearly three decades after Somalia fell among warlords, the diplomats didn’t return to Mogadishu until after 2012, having run ‘relations’ with Mogadishu from Nairobi.
But Mr Larry E André, the departing US Ambassador to Mogadishu, has often tried to do things differently. This week, he began bidding farewell to the locals, just over 16 months after he reported to duty back in January 2022.
Although both Washington and Mogadishu have often pledged strong ties, Americans hadn’t always been of the likeable type here. Mr Andre, arriving during the tense election season had to walk a tight rope, but still had to push through the usual ailments of Somalia: conflict, drought, repressed media and al-Shabaab.
“Amb André enjoyed, while in Somalia, the boundless appreciation and confidence of both journalists and the media freedom community at large,” said the National Union of Somali Journalists (NUSOJ) in a statement on Monday.
“Ambassador André has consistently been a staunch ally and defender of journalists’ rights and tireless in his efforts to protect these freedoms.”
On Monday, NUSOJ paid the envoy a rare visit to his offices inside the city’s highly guarded airport perimeter wall in Mogadishu where they honoured him with a plaque.
The envoy, in his year-long stay, was critical of press repressions and often granted interviews to media outlets.
“A free, responsible and effective media is essential to Somalia’s full revival,” the US Embassy in Mogadishu said on Monday.
According to him, transparent and trustworthy governance must be based on a free media which critiques every step or decision by government officials.
Somalia has many problems and lack of proper press freedom is among them. Since he set up the first Somali Affairs Unit, there have been 80 journalists killed in Somalia, mostly targeted by militants
This week, he received praise for trying to cut that trend.
“The US embassy, in its capacity acted as a voice for journalists and journalism profession both in an out of Somalia,” said NUSOJ Secretary-General Omar Faruk Osman.
Many other sectors in Somalia equally appreciated the envoy’s seeming honest and straightforward interventions.
During a major investment conference arranged by Somalia Investment Promotion Office (SOMINVEST) in Mogadishu in early December last year, Amb André’s talked of reforms as a first step for long-term prosperity was noted for his argument that Somalia must build institutions for international lenders to want in.
“As the World Bank’s largest shareholder, we (the United States) support the partnership between Somalia and the International Financial Institutions,” he argued then.
During the visit to the US Embassy, NUSOJ officials and Ambassador André discussed the importance of a free press to transparent & trustworthy governance.
Some, including NUSOJ officials have asked him to take up local residence. But not everyone was always happy with his speeches. Somaliland often picked up a fight with him. In March, the administration of Muse Bihi in Hargesia lampooned him for ‘indignifying’ Somalilanders after he called theirs a ‘region’ of Somalia.
In truth, in spite of trying to go its way in 1993, no other country has ever recognised Somaliland as independent. Washington policy, Andre told a local outlet in Somalia last year, is to work with Somalia’s Federal Government and all its regional administrations.
At 62, Mr André may probably be retiring, having toured most parts of Africa and the Middle East throughout his diplomatic service. Yet it may be in Somalia where he could have left an impact and little controversy. His predecessors routinely ran into trouble with federal states in Somalia, and the federal government itself.
He replaced Donald Yamamoto, who served in Somalia from 2018 to 2021, leaving before Somalis could hold the much-delayed elections whose planning also saw him routinely battered by local politicians for interference. President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud was later elected in May last year, after months of haggling over format.
When Mr André was nominated Ambassador in 2021, he seemed to have found a familiar place. He was once in charge of Somali Affairs while he served as Political Counselor at the US Embassy Nairobi from 2006 to 2008, becoming a familiar representative for the US at Somali conferences. He would, in 2007, set up the Somali Affairs Unit, which eventually became US Mission Somalia.
“Ambassador André arrives at a crucial time for Somalia’s federal elections,” said the US Embassy in Mogadishu in January last year.
“He is eager to work in partnership with the Somali people and their state and federal governments to advance our shared objective of Somalia’s revival as a secure, prosperous, and democratic nation.”
Mr André will be replaced by Richard Riley, another veteran diplomat in the State Department.