MOGADISHU — Somalia on Tuesday was hosting 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.
Security measures were high as Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, Uganda President Yoweri Museveni and Ethiopian Prime Minister Haliemariam Desalegn arrived, and residents said celebrations of the Muslim holiday Eid al-Adha had been severely restricted in recent days.
Sudan President Omar al-Bashir said he would not attend after being invited, Somalia’s Foreign Minister Abdisalam Omer confirmed Tuesday. 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 Djibouti and South Sudan for the summit of the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development regional bloc. But a plane carrying Djibouti’s president had to turn back after developing engine problems that prevented it from landing at the airport, Djibouti’s ambassador to Somalia confirmed.
The crisis in South Sudan and Somalia’s upcoming elections were two of the top issues for discussion.
The summit has been 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.
“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.”
The country 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.