Updated at: 02/21/2013 12:38 PM
By ABDI GULED and JASON STRAZIUSO
(AP) MOGADISHU, Somalia - Signaling the latest step forward in rapidly strengthening U.S.-Somalia relations, the administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development spent five hours in Mogadishu on Thursday, the highest ranking U.S. administration official to visit Somalia’s capital in years.
The U.S. is embracing the new government in Mogadishu, a formerly war-torn city that has seen about 18 months of relative peace after African Union troops ousted al-Qaida-linked militants. Last month the U.S. formally recognized Somalia’s government for the first time in two decades, during a visit to Washington by Somalia’s president.
It was less than two years ago that Rajiv Shah, the administrator of USAID, visited a Kenyan refugee camp filled with more than 400,000 Somalis during the middle of a devastating famine, a tragedy the U.N.-backed Somali government was ill-equipped to handle. Shah said Thursday he still carries the vivid memory of seeing babies near death.
By contrast, Shah said his visit Thursday to Mogadishu signaled the desire of the U.S. government to partner with Somalia’s new government "to create a fundamentally different and more hopeful future for the Somali people." He said Somalia was once mired in conflict, famine and terrorism, but that its story line is now one of resilience, recovery and hope.
"America is prepared and committed to stand with the people of Somalia and their new, now-recognized and legitimate government as it tries to build both peace and prosperity, and the task of building peace and prosperity in an environment that has been plagued with extreme ideology and threat, famine and drought," Shah told The Associated Press in an interview in neighboring Kenya.
Shah, who holds the political rank of a deputy secretary, announced $20 million in new U.S. food aid funds for Somalia. Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud said he was grateful for the assistance.
His visit comes 48 hours after a visit by Keith Ellison, a member of Congress from Minnesota. Neither Shah nor Ellis traveled beyond Mogadishu’s airport complex, the most secure area of a city that until recently was known as one of the world’s most dangerous.
Shah met with Somalia’s president, prime minister, foreign minister and aid groups. Corruption has been a problem plaguing Somali administrations for years, and Shah mentioned both in Mogadishu and Nairobi the need for the government to put in place transparent systems to fight graft.
Shah said he believes that if Somali leaders now make the right political decisions and help propel the country forward, the country can succeed in escaping its failed nation status. The country has the longest coastline in Africa, it once exported high value agricultural products, and has oil and gas fields that can be tapped, he noted.
He said that Mogadishu at the height of the 2011 Somalia famine "when people were risking their lives and losing their children and leaving behind everything to be in an overcrowded refugee camp to get basic food and protection," is vastly different than the city he visited Thursday.
"When you take that situation and contrast it to what we saw today, which is a city coming to life, security improving, greater economic activity, and you recognize Somalia is more open today than it has been years, I have hope of it becoming a stable, secure and prosperous Somalia," Shah said.
Straziuso reported from Nairobi, Kenya.
(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)