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Why I left Milan for my dream job in Mogadishu

Wednesday May 24, 2023

By Giancarlo Rinaldi

Mike Nithavrianakis' latest role is as ambassador to Somalia

It must have been a pretty difficult conversation for Mike Nithavrianakis to have.

The 56-year-old from Castle Douglas started work as the UK's consul general in Milan in November.

However, he has now left behind that role to become the new ambassador to Somalia, based in Mogadishu.

The father-of-two said that while his family had been thrilled when he took up his post in Italy, there was more explaining to do this time around.

"For me it's a dream job, but my daughter Lucy was not best pleased because it's scuppered her big plans to visit Italy," he admitted.

"The security situation in Somalia means that my family cannot accompany me and it's only natural that they will worry about me being based in Mogadishu.

"I've had many postings which would not likely feature on anyone's list of holiday destinations."

However, he said that he had always found challenging environments to be "interesting, stimulating and rewarding" since joining the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) straight out of school as a teenager.

"In those days, young diplomats tended to be sent to cut their teeth in places like Paris, Brussels and Bonn," he said.

"I remember pleading with HR: 'Look, I didn't join the Foreign Office to go to Germany, France or Belgium - send me somewhere off the beaten track, please'.

"So, they posted me to Malaysia, which was great, as at that time, I didn't even know where Kuala Lumpur was."

In his latest role he will lead more than 80 staff working in Somalia in testing circumstances.
The Scot said he asked to be sent to "somewhere off the beaten track" from the outset of his career. FCDO

"Last year's al-Shabaab attacks mean I'm under no illusion about the dangers," he said.

"I'll have to get used to frequent road trips wearing body armour, which is cumbersome, but an important safety protocol.

"Despite the challenges, the job will be fascinating, as I focus on delivering UK counter-terrorism, stabilisation and humanitarian goals."

The risks faced by diplomats have been underlined recently in nearby Sudan where the UK has completed the largest and longest emergency evacuation of any Western nation - pulling out more than 2,450 people.

Mike is no stranger to working in hazardous environments in an FCDO career that has spanned almost 40 years.

He previously served as deputy head of mission in Kabul and, as a counter-terrorism specialist, was deployed to major incidents including the Istanbul consulate bombing in 2003 and the kidnap and murder of Ken Bigley in Iraq.

"Luckily, there's no-one directly shot at me," he said.

"My closest shave was in Baghdad when I was the crisis manager deployed to lead on the Ken Bigley kidnapping case.

"I vividly remember being on a call during a mortar attack, which landed very near the embassy.

"I was crouched under the table with a computer, a telephone and the sound of explosions going off during a briefing to senior officials in London. They ordered me to get off to the safe room."

Another deployment that will stay with him was being in Sri Lanka in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami.

Mike said that experience counted for a lot in his line of work.

"I was on the ground in Colombo 36 hours after the disaster and it was dreadful," he said.

"My kids were eight and four at the time, so it was heartbreaking to deal with families turning up who had lost their kids."

He described it as "tough work" with the mortuaries "overflowing" but said that was where "professionalism and training kicks in".

He credits the support of his wife Libby and his family - plus running - for helping him to cope with the stress of his job and recently completed the London Marathon for a second time.

"Fortunately I've never struggled with mental health thanks to the support from my family, a close network of friends, and the energy I get through running," he said.

"I get frustrated if I have a niggling injury and haven't run for a few days."

He said he loved his job representing Scotland and the UK even if - on his appointment to Somalia - he was described by someone on social media as an "aged, mummified diplomat".

"I thought that was hilarious, but the serious point behind it is that experience does count for a lot," he said.

"The FCDO is often at the eye of the storm, but public service is at the heart of everything we do.

"Our diplomats are proud to fly the flag for the UK in every hazardous corner of the world."

That is why Mike Nithavrianakis did not hesitate to leave behind Lombardy - even if he might have to make it up to his family at a later date.


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