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A return to Africa

Nima Elmi was a Litigation associate at A&O in 2014 when she took a six-month sabbatical to Somaliland – and stayed. Now she’s advising the republic’s government.

In the Horn of Africa, just to the east of Djibouti and north-east of Ethiopia, is the Republic of Somaliland, a selfdeclared de facto independent state since it declared independence from Somalia on 18 May 1991.

The government of Somaliland, elected peacefully and democratically, faces serious challenges. Like any other government, it wants to encourage economic development for its citizens and ensure security and prosperity for all. However, its most crucial issue is gaining international recognition as a sovereign state, without which Somaliland is cut off from the normal sources of international aid.

Working at the epicentre of the government’s push for recognition is Nima Elmi, an ex-A&O associate. As Special Adviser on International Law and Policy, among other issues, to the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Nima is helping lead the drive toward recognition and true independence.

It’s an extraordinary role for the young Mogadishu-born Londoner, and has been recognised as such by the World Economic Forum. For her work supporting the government of Somaliland, Nima was named a Young Global Leader in a highly competitive process that culminated with being vetted by a panel chaired by the Queen of Jordan.

“It means a lot to me,” says Nima. “It means some serious and senior people in the international political arena became aware of my activities and felt I was making a significant contribution. The hard work that I’ve been doing is paying off.”

What happened on sabbatical

Nima never meant to stay in Somaliland. “I was in the arbitration group at A&O, working with a lovely team of people, enjoying the work I was doing. I took a sabbatical because I had had a few years of intense cases and I wanted to take a bit of a breather,” she said.

It so happened that about the time Nima was considering her sabbatical, her parents retired to Somaliland. Nima decided to join them to see something of her native country. Though born in Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia, she had never spent any time there or in Somaliland. “I took the opportunity to come to East Africa and spend some time out with my parents on the continent.”

However, life was about to deal Nima something of a wild card. On arrival in Somaliland, as Nima says, “the Minister for Foreign Affairs heard about my background. The Ministry didn’t have an international law expert and so he invited me for a meeting. After our discussion, he suggested that I support the Ministry on an ad hoc basis. So I spent part of my sabbatical providing pro bono assistance.”

As the legal advice started to snowball into more general advice, Nima realised there was a real need for support, given the size of the Somaliland government and the range of issues it has to deal with.

“In this part of the world, most competent ministers are given portfolios which cover everything,” she explains. This meant the Minister for Foreign Affairs was looking at energy, trade, security, international relations, public policy and development.

As her short-term ad hoc advice evolved into more long-term support, she realised she was needed on the ground in Somaliland. “There was an opportunity to continue my work... to try and achieve some of the goals which the government had set.”

The impact of soft skills

Fortunately, Nima found her training with A&O had equipped her well for her new role. Not long before her sabbatical, she had been on the management committee for A&O’s Project Rwanda, essentially designing a programme to assist local lawyers in Rwanda as the country moved from a French civil law system to an English common law system.

Nima’s experience with Project Rwanda had a profound effect. She says: “A&O saw there was a real need on the ground to help a developing economy achieve something rather ambitious which would take most countries decades to achieve. A&O stepped up to provide that support when very few law firms were doing much in sub-Saharan Africa. A&O was genuinely there because the firm saw a need to help.

“It’s another A&O lesson – identifying a need and not being afraid to take that step.” When Nima found herself in a situation where there was a real need that she herself could address, she found she couldn’t say no.

“Working in pro bono, enjoying the feeling of developing a project that was doing good, was something that stemmed out of my experience at A&O,” she says. “I was ready to take up a greater challenge where I could make an impact and influence change in a developing country on a more full-time basis.”

The differences

The Somaliland Ministry of Foreign Affairs comprises 60 people, around ten of whom provide ministerial advice. For Nima, the move was something of a culture shock. She realises now how fortunate she was at A&O to have a support team of paralegals, trainees, IT technicians and PAs helping in her daily work. “Now, we don’t have all the resources we need. Sometimes it’s something as little as insufficient printing paper – it runs out and can take a couple of weeks before we get more,” Nima says.

“If I need research done before I brief the minister, I have to be the PA, the paralegal, the trainee and the associate all in one for him on that issue. I have to work more efficiently, be more effective, be conscious of my time management and make my delivery powerful so the minister can see the real issue and how we need to address it.

“These are skills that I definitely picked up at A&O which have made my life easier, but I do miss the days of having everything at my fingertips and a team of people to help me with it.”

In addition, having a life outside work can be tricky. “Ironically, I think I work harder now than I did at A&O, despite being in the public sector. The job I do now doesn’t really have working hours, whereas with A&O there was a lot more discussion about work-life balance. Here, it’s a much harder line to draw: the needs of my country can’t wait while I have dinner with friends.”

That said, she has been typically creative in her approach. “The way I manage is to take blocks of five or six-week holidays every 18 months or so. I go back to Europe and see family and friends and find that I come back energised and ready for the next phase of work.”

An uncertain road

Somaliland celebrated its 25th year of de facto independence in May. Nima says the nation “came together” to focus on continuing its upward trajectory to achieving political independence from Somalia and economic prosperity. It’s easy to see the effects on the country of its lack of official recognition. “It has a real day-to-day impact on the people,” says Nima. “We don’t have a national grid or basic infrastructure. We can’t build roads by getting loans from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) or World Bank. Everything is built through funding from the country’s own accounts or through foreign direct investment to the extent that they can actually receive some.”

The issues are crystallised in the Yemeni refugee problem. The civil war raging since early 2015 in Yemen, just across the Gulf of Aden, has resulted in a large influx of refugees into Somaliland. However, international agencies wishing to help Somaliland have to go through the Somali government in Mogadishu for sign-off, despite the fact that Somalia has no representation in or links to Somaliland. “We have to come up with creative ways to work around the issues, particularly because Somalia is a state which is still trying to achieve stability, peace and security,” says Nima. “We’re very dynamic in finding compromises to get support for the refugees or getting the development assistance we need without offending international laws and the sovereign status of states.”

The prospect of change

Having international recognition would make life in Somaliland much easier. In 2016, a year in which there will be a new chair of the African Union Commission, new leadership in the African regional Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), a new secretary general at the UN and a change of U.S. president, Nima is hopeful.

“We have to galvanise and take advantage of the changing of the guard at so many different levels, both on the continent and internationally,” she says. “We need to make sure any new institution is attuned to the needs of Somaliland.”

She is excited about the future of Somaliland. “Despite the struggles, I am hopeful. As the government and people of Somaliland continue to be positive in their outlook, I believe they will get there sooner, rather than later.”

For Nima, change may also be on the cards. “One of the lessons I’ve learned from my time here is how much I enjoy the process of learning. From being an international law specialist with A&O, I’m evolving into international relations and public policy at a global level. That is where I feel my experience is taking me. It’s an exciting journey.” 

Reconnect with Nima Elmi.

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