Somalia on Tuesday hosted its first regional summit of African heads of state in 30 years, a source of pride in this Horn of Africa country after decades of chaos and deadly attacks by al-Shabab extremists. On social media, people marveled that their country was trending for something other than explosions.
Security measures were high as Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, Uganda President Yoweri Museveni and Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn arrived, and residents said celebrations of the Muslim holiday Eid al-Adha had been severely restricted in recent days.
The summit was seen as the latest sign of confidence in a return to normal life in Somalia, which was plunged into decades of conflict in 1991 when warlords overthrew the regime of dictator Siad Barre.
Even so, the summit “was decided to be held at the last minute,” Ethiopia’s foreign minister, Tedros Adhanom, told The Associated Press, without giving details. “There were previous plans to abandon it.”
Sudan President Omar al-Bashir said he would not attend after being invited, Somalia’s Foreign Minister Abdisalam Omer confirmed. Al-Bashir would have been defying a warrant for his arrest from the International Criminal Court with his presence.
Somalia’s government had said leaders also were expected from South Sudan and Djibouti for the summit of the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development regional bloc. But a plane carrying Djibouti’s president turned back after developing engine problems that prevented it from landing, that country’s ambassador to Somalia confirmed.
While the South Sudan crisis was set to be a top issue for discussion, President Salva Kiir did not show up.
“The presence of the heads of state in Somalia is a clear dividend of returning stability in the country. It is an endorsement of Somalia’s recovery,” the African Union’s special representative for Somalia, Francisco Caetano Madeira, said in a statement. The United Nations mission in Somalia called it a “great achievement.”
Somalia is now preparing for a presidential election in October, another significant step forward.
But homegrown Islamic extremist group al-Shabab continues to strike at the heart of Somalia’s seaside capital, killing scores of people so far this year. In the latest attack, a suicide bomber detonated an explosives-laden truck near the gate of the presidential palace in Mogadishu late last month, killing at least 12 people.
Several of the countries invited to the summit take part in a 22,000-strong African Union force protecting Somalia, though the force faces funding cuts and troop shortages that experts have warned could further destabilize the country.
The summit’s communique called on the AU force and Somalia’s security forces to “expand their operations, deal with evolving terror threats and immediately recover the remaining areas controlled by al-Shabab.”
It also encouraged the “voluntary return of all Somali refugees.” Hundreds of thousands of Somalis have spent years in the world’s largest refugee camp across the border in Kenya. Kenyatta has said his government will close Dadaab camp this year, leading to fears that some people would be forced to return.
Elias Meseret in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, contributed.