Somalia is hosting the Heads of State and Government from the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) summit in the Somali capital, Mogadishu for the first time since the regional body was established in 1986.
The one day summit which kicked off Tuesday is also the first of its kind in the Somali capital since the Horn of Africa nation plunged into conflict in 1991.
The regional leaders are discussing Somalia’s upcoming vote for a new parliament and president, as well the situation in South Sudan, where fighting in July has further destabilized the five-year-old nation.
Among the presidents attending are Presidents of Kenya and Djibouti, and the prime minister of Ethiopia, while Uganda is represented by a minister.
“It symbolizes the reconstruction of Somalia and Somalia coming back to the (family of) nations,” Somalia Foreign Minister Abdusalam Omer told journalists as heads of state flew in. “It signifies that we are defeating international terrorism.”
Somalia has hosted visits of individual heads of state, but Omer said this is the first summit gathering for about four decades, since the rule of President Siad Barre, whose toppling in 1991 was followed by two decades of conflict.
Streets are shut down to traffic in Mogadishu, which regularly faces attacks from the Islamist al Shabaab militants, for the one-day summit of IGAD, a grouping that includes Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda, Djibouti, Sudan, Uganda and Somalia.
Many senior visitors to Mogadishu stay in the airport area, a compound surrounded by high blast walls with barbed wire and patrolled by the African Union AMISOM force. Tuesday’s summit was being held just outside the perimeter at a nearby hotel.
“The presence of the heads of state in Somalia is a clear dividend of returning stability in the country,” AMISOM said in a statement.
Ordinary Somalis were forced to walk around the capital as traffic was blocked from many streets. Al Shabaab has often used vehicles packed with explosives to launch attacks on sites in Mogadishu, blowing up security posts so fighters can storm in.
Mogadishu still bears the scars of war, with many buildings little more than bombed out shells. But there has been a construction boom in recent years, that has seen new buildings erected, often financed by Somalis returning from abroad.
Al Shabaab, which once ruled most of Somalia, has been waging an insurgency to topple the Western-backed government of President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, who seeks re-election later this year.