British Prime Minister David Cameron warned on Tuesday that failure to support the rebuilding of Somalia would lead to “terrorism and mass migration”, as he opened an international conference aimed at helping to end more than 20 years of conflict.
Representatives of more than 50 countries and organisations attended the London meeting, which is co-hosted by Cameron and Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud.
The meeting is aimed at boosting political stability in the impoverished Horn of Africa country, which has had no effective government since 1991.
It is also expected to pledge action on rape, which the United Nations says is “pervasive” in Somalia.
Opening the conference, Cameron praised improvements in Somalia’s security in recent months, but warned that huge challenges remained in preventing it from sliding back into abject lawlessness.
“To anyone who says this isn’t a priority or we can’t afford to deal with it, I would say that is what we’ve said in the past and look where it has got us — terrorism and mass migration,” Cameron said.
“These challenges are not just issues for Somalia. They matter to Britain — and to the whole international community. Why? Because when young minds are poisoned by radicalism and they go on to export terrorism and extremism, the security of the whole world is at stake.”
Britain has raised eyebrows by inviting Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, who faces an international trial for crimes against humanity, to the meeting.
A British government source said the invitation counted as “essential contact” with Kenyatta, who is due to go on trial at the International Criminal Court in July.
Downing Street said Kenya played a “vital” role in Somalia, because it has nearly 5,000 troops stationed there and it hosts more Somali refugees than any other nation.
The UN, African Union and International Monetary Fund are among the organisations attending.
Somalia has been battered by conflict since 1991 but a new UN-backed government took power in September, ending more than a decade of transitional rule.
Al-Qaeda-linked Shebab militants were driven out of the Somali capital Mogadishu by African troops in August 2011, but the Islamists have carried out a series of brutal attacks in recent months.
About a dozen people were killed in the city on Sunday when a suicide bomber rammed a car full of explosives into a government convoy carrying officials from Qatar. No one immediately claimed responsibility.
Despite the unrest, Somalia appears to be slowly turning a corner, with businesses reporting growth in activity. Business is booming at the country’s ports in particular.
Britain last month became the first EU country to re-open an embassy there since the conflict broke out, while the UN Security Council set up a special mission to Somalia last week that will bring in up to 200 security, human rights, political and financial experts to work with the fledgling government.
Somalia’s president urged the international community to pour investment into his country, arguing that his government’s progress over the last year had defied sceptics.
“We are here today to begin a four-year process that must begin with considerable investment and support but which I hope will finish with very little,” he told the conference.
“My vision is for a federal Somalia at peace with itself and its neighbours and which poses no threat to the world; a Somalia with a resurgent economy.”
Mohamud’s government remains weak, and large parts of Somalia are still carved up between rival militias.
Pirates operating from the Somali coast are still causing trouble for international shipping companies, although Cameron said piracy had dropped 80 percent since London hosted the first Somalia conference in February 2012.
A second conference was held in Istanbul four months later.
Campaigners Human Rights Watch say rape by soldiers and gunmen is an “enormous problem” in Somalia.
Britain and the UAE last month announced £1 million ($1.6 million, 1.2 million euros) each to help tackle sexual violence.
More than a million Somalis are refugees in surrounding nations and another million are displaced inside the country, often living in terrible conditions.
Somalia was also hit by a terrible famine between 2010 and 2012, leaving almost 260,000 people dead, half of them children, according to the UN.