A week before Donald Yamamoto arrived in Mogadishu, three car bombs exploded in the heart of the city, just outside the Sahafi Hotel.
Dozens of nearby motorists and pedestrians were killed or maimed. A fourth bomb went off when first responders arrived, bringing the death toll to at least 52, with more than 100 casualties.
It was the latest in a string of attacks by the Islamist terror group al-Shabab, which for more than a decade has sought to dismantle the Somali federal government.
But Yamamoto, the United States’ new ambassador to Somalia, isn’t deterred. By strengthening its institutions and economy, Somalia can achieve security and stability, Yamamoto told VOA’s Somali service.
“We see hope. I think, for the first time in a long time, we’re seeing opportunities that are expanding and growing,” Yamamoto said.
‘We’ve got to be seen’
Yamamoto brings 20 years of experience, both in Somalia and the broader East Africa region, to his new post. He has held top diplomatic positions in Eritrea, Ethiopia and Djibouti.
In Somalia, his experiences include engagement with both the Islamic Courts Union and the Somali Transitional Government, competing factions that preceded the current federal government.
Yamamoto hopes to use his experiences to build on unprecedented rapprochements among East African neighbors to create new opportunities for Somalia.
Now, the goal is to establish a permanent diplomatic presence in the capital, Mogadishu, and find ways to support the Somali people in their efforts to build peace and prosperity.
“What is the old American adage? It’s ‘90 percent is to be seen’? And so we’ve got to be seen. We’ve got to be present. And I travel through most of Somalia, so I think I’d like to do that as well,” Yamamoto said.
He plans to be operating out of Mogadishu on a permanent basis, with a small team, in the next few weeks.
Yamamoto acknowledges the work ahead won’t be easy. Despite an international presence, routine U.S. airstrikes, and elections in 2016 and 2017, security remains elusive.
“Is it dangerous? Sure. Is it challenging? I think it is. But we need to do it because it’s important,” he said.
Yamamoto has nearly four decades of experience in U.S. Foreign Service. He attended Columbia College, at Columbia University, in New York. His graduate degree in international affairs and language studies prepared him for his career in diplomacy where, at the State Department, he has received four Superior Honor awards for exceptional service.
In testimony to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations this summer, Yamamoto said he would, as ambassador, strengthen institutions and governance; shift security responsibilities from AMISOM, the African Union’s peacekeeping mission in Somalia, to Somali forces; build economic opportunities, particularly for Somalia’s young labor force; and address humanitarian food and health crises.
Local, regional, international integration
Key to those efforts, Yamamoto said, is integration — within Somalia and beyond.
“You can’t have peace in East Africa without peace in Eritrea, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Kenya, Somalia, Tanzania. They’re all interrelated, and I think they can all benefit from a vibrant economic program. And that’s what we’re trying to do, not just for Somalia, but for the whole region,” he said.
For Yamamoto, that means tapping into a broad set of resources in East Africa — Djibouti’s port and sea cargo facilities, Eritrea’s strategic coastline and mining industry, and Ethiopia’s level-one airport in Addis Ababa, which permits direct cargo shipments to the U.S.
Yamamoto also sees a need for better communication within Somalia.
“You have to have a really strong integration and coordination and cooperation between the federal government and the federal member states,” he said.
The country is now experiencing “growing pains,” he added, and that highlights the importance of factions in the country understanding one another’s needs and demands.
Encouraging collaboration with a gamut of international players, from Gulf states to Russia and China, is also important, Yamamoto added.
“We’ve talked to the Chinese and the Russians very closely on a lot of areas. We see a lot of commonality. We also see some competition. We see some differences. So we have to resolve differences and emphasize commonality, but more important, we need to … focus [on] what is in the benefit of Somalia and the people of Africa, and how’s it going to help them.”
An African future
Yamamoto cautioned that ignoring Africa isn’t an option.
In less than a century, he said, 40 percent of the world’s population and 30 percent of its labor force will be African. Those numbers mirror United Nations projections.
“So Africa is going to be a major, major player. And you want a stable, vibrant, economically progressive continent. You do not need an unstable or a divided continent,” Yamamoto said.
And that, he added, is cause for optimism.
“The future really is, I think, potentially very bright, particularly in Somalia.”
This story originated in the Somali service, with Sahra Abdi Ahmed conducting the interview with the ambassador and Salem Solomon writing the article.