When Irish Coast Guard director Chris Reynolds goes about his business, he is at all times accompanied by at least two armoured vehicles and a small platoon of armed bodyguards.
These are not the typical transport arrangements for Coast Guard officials. But Reynolds’ current role is anything but typical.
Since September 2019, the Dublin man has served as Head of Mission for EUCap, the EU’s mission to rebuild the rule of law in Somalia, with particular focus on building up a maritime policing capacity.
“The risk here is so high. We take it very, very seriously,” said Reynolds, speaking from EUCap’s compound in the “Green Zone” – Mogadishu International Airport.
The compound is protected by a line of Somali troops, a line of African Union troops and internally by a private security company. Even then, it is still regularly attacked with mortars by al-Shabaab, a terrorist group allied to al-Qaeda.
“When we go outside, we go as a convoy. We use local security at front and behind and we have at least two armoured vehicles with our own armoured people inside. They could take a couple of rounds but a big explosion would be different. We don’t get out of the vehicles until inside another compound.”
Reynolds, who was awarded the EU’s military support medal earlier this month, laughs when asked whether his family joined him in Mogadishu after he was seconded from the Irish Coast Guard.“Oh God no. You couldn’t bring your family.”
The Terenure man is one of five Irish people on the EUCap mission and the first Irish head of an EU civilian capacity-building operation.
Being Irish has its advantages in building relationships in the war-torn country.“It can open a lot of doors and make people relaxed. Ireland has a special place when it comes to working in places like Africa.
‘Trouble with our neighbours’
“The Somalis are the Irish of Africa,” he continues, recalling a quote from the 19th-century explorer Richard Burton. “Surrounded by beautiful waters, a history of famine, a history of migration. And we always have trouble with our neighbours.”
His past experience as an officer in the Irish Naval Service has also helped and he would welcome more Defence Forces members on his 111-strong team.
“It would be fantastic to get a Navy guy here. The Irish Navy is absolutely ideally suited. They do a lot of Coast Guard functions like fisheries protection, drug interdiction, security and safety. And they are extremely well trained.
“I recognise they have recruiting problems at the moment but maybe with Simon Coveney as Minister for Defence as well as Foreign Affairs, you never know.”
When Irish people think of Somalia, if they think of it at all, it is most likely piracy that comes to mind. Indeed, the main aim of EUCap’s predecessor mission Nestor was the suppression of the piracy which has plagued the horn of Africa in recent decades.
Today, according to Reynolds,“piracy is well suppressed”. This was achieved by giving Somalis reasons not to tolerate it. This includes building up ports, the fishing industry and the rule of law.“You don’t chase pirates, you chase politicians,” he says.
Much of this is mundane-sounding work, like helping to pass maritime legislation and establish maritime courts.
Reynolds says his most difficult task is the establishment of a“blue water” coast guard to patrol Somalia’s resource-rich waters. Other jobs include setting up a“brown water” policing capability to protect the ports, and the establishment of a military-style police force to aid in the fight against al-Shabaab.
Measures such as these will allow Somalia to“regain its place as a sovereign nation” after almost three decades of civil war, he says.
Rather than piracy, the biggest obstacle to progress currently is al-Shabaab.
“Mogadishu is still very, very dangerous. There are a lot of close-quarters assassinations. We had a vehicle-borne IED just the other day,” he says.
The other, related, issue is that of corruption, which Reynolds says is a“way of life” in Somalia.“In many ways you can’t blame the Somalis. It was the way they survived. And al-Shabaab are at the route of all corruption. It’s endemic.”
The historic lack of a strong central government can also frustrate reform efforts.“You think you have a grasp on what’s going on, you think you’re moving forward, then all the pieces change. The guy you’re dealing with is swapped to another job and suddenly no one is responding to our phone calls.”
Nevertheless, he is cautiously hopeful about the future. Reynolds has been in Somalia in various positions for four years now.“It is a positive trend but you have to be here for four years to see the positive trend. If you’re here for six or eight months you can’t see it.”
Although the country is still extremely dangerous, violence has decreased and economic life has started to return to the streets of the capital, he says.
Reynolds’s term is up at the end of the year. He says if his mandate is renewed he will have to consult with his family and the Irish Government before deciding to stay on.“I think if it was offered I would be very open to seeing this out. I think we’re making a difference.”