Thursday, January 23, 2020
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UN Track-record in Somalia: A legacy of missed opportunities and malign incompetence

By Prof. Hassan Keynan

Prompted into existence by the carnage of World War Two, the United Nations System has been informed by lofty ideals, beautiful mandates, and noble missions aimed at promoting international peace and security. Over the past seven decades its size, mandate and operations have been considerably expanded. Peace-keeping, sustainable development, and climate change have become some of the key priorities highlighted and underscored in the UN’s current programs and funds.

UN headquarters, New York

Predictably, noble ideals and enlightened visions have remained what they have always been, glorious abstractions. The task of transforming beautiful mandates into concrete results has proven much harder. There have been areas in which the UN has done commendable job. But overall the performance of the UN has fallen short of expectations. There are many reasons for this, including a number of structural flaws deeply rooted in the design and business model of the UN as well as a culture of opportunism, arrogance, and impunity displayed by some of the top leadership and senior management of the Organization. These deficiencies have been cynically exploited to build and sustain lucrative careers for a small, well-connected international expatriate class.

However, for the hundreds of millions of people and myriad nations whose peace and futures have been rudely and recklessly wrecked, the mercurial behavior and duplicitous actions of the self-serving lords of misery have been calamitous. Evidence of the litany of missed opportunities, costly blunders, catastrophic failures, criminal negligence, and ruinous legacies left behind by UN or UN-led missions across the globe can be seen in great, and at times graphic, details in countries like Bosnia, Rwanda, Cambodia, East Timor, Haiti, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, and ,of course, Somalia. In Bosnia and Rwanda, the dangerous dispositions of top UN leaders and associated partners had contributed to the genocides that were perpetrated in the two countries, i.e. the slaughter of 8000 young boys and men in Bosnia and about a million overwhelmingly Tutsi civilians. The level of obfuscation, indecision, and tragic errors of judgement displayed by the top UN leadership in Rwanda had become a dark stain on its integrity and reputation.

Failed UN Missions in Somalia: Highlights

The UN’s association with Somalia is one unequaled and probably unsurpassed in its longevity, malign incompetence, utter wastefulness, corrosive corruption, stubborn and self-serving persistence in wrong-doing, and near total impunity. It is a well-known and well-documented fact that the UN’s fiasco in Somalia in the early 1990s had been a key and heavily consequential factor in the catastrophic role it had played in the Rwandan genocide. Below are highlights of some of the UN’s myriad and inherently flawed interventions in Somalia.

1945 – 1954 Following the defeat of Fascist Italy, the geopolitical equation in the Horn of Africa was thrown into confusion with Eritrea, Italian Somaliland and the Ogaden being up for grabs, and the situation in British Somaliland and Ethiopia facing an uncertain future. The fate of the Horn countries was placed in the hands of the victorious powers – the US, what was the Soviet Union France and the Britain – and the then infant United Nations. The UN messed up the process of managing the disposal former Italian colonies of Eritrea and Southern Somalia. The protracted conflicts that have blighted and bankrupted the countries of the region for nearly half a century can be largely attributed to the manner in which the future of former Italian colonies had been handled. And a big junk of the blame could be directed, quite rightly, at the UN.

The Trusteeship period (1950-1960): Between 1950 and 1960 Italian Somaliland was placed under a UN trusteeship regime with Italy as administering authority, a process in which the US was heavily involved. The fate of Somalia even featured in the 1948 US presidential election, mainly because one of the candidates supported Italy’s campaign to return to Somalia to woo the Italian vote. The experiment, which was essentially an international project in nation-building, turned out to be an ill-conceived and costly experiment. The UN Trusteeship Administration even failed to perform one of its basic duties: demarcation of the borders of Italian Somalia, especially the long border between Southern Somalia and Ethiopia. This border still remains a provisional and heavily contested one, and has been a principal source of conflict between Ethiopia and Somalia. The UN also bungled the process that led to the unification of the British Protectorate of Somaliland and the Trusteeship Territory (former Italian Somaliland) it presided over. This dereliction of duty on the part of the UN in the late 1950s, the disintegration and eventual collapse of Somali state in 1991, and the subsequent re-emergence of Somaliland as an independent state are inseparably linked.

UNOSOM I & II (1992-1993): The United Nations Operation in Somalia (UNOSOM I & II) was initially envisaged and deployed as a mission of peace and mercy, with abundant goodwill and a groundswell of support from the international community led by the sole global super power.  But it soon metamorphosed into something bigger and more sinister, leading to a precipitous change of mandate under Chapter VII of the UN Charter. Within a matter of two years, things fell apart. The international consensus and cooperation that established and sustained UNOSOM collapsed. During the following decades, Somalia had plunged into a suspended dystopian state, earning it the notorious but well-deserved reputation of being the first and most enduring failed state.

UNSOM (2013-present): The UN returned to Somalia in 2013 under the United Nations Assistance Mission in Somalia (UNSOM). This time around it has come back with a pang, a bigger profile, and a bolder mandate. UNSOM coincided with the birth of the first internationally recognized Somali Government in over two decades, a new and potentially hopeful development brokered and backed by the US and UK. The mandate of UNSOM encompasses a wide and immensely diverse range of functions, including “provision of policy advice on peacebuilding and state-building, development of a federal system, constitutional review, democratization, and coordination of international donor support.” To implement this mandate, the UN appointed high-profile, career diplomats (British 2, South African 1, American 1) to serve as Special Representatives of the Secretary-General for Somalia (SRSG) and Heads of UNSOM, and deployed 22 UN agencies. More importantly, UNSOM together with its partner, AMISOM, received and consumed billions of dollars.

However, after six years and nearly over ten billion dollars, UNSOM has gone the way of its predecessors: making huge promises, consuming billions of dollars, and delivering little. Peace-building and state-building efforts stagnated and, in some places, regressed. The Provisional Constitution seems to be frozen, even fossilized, in a permanent state of incompletion, although millions of dollars have been mobilized and spent to fix it. The development of the federal system has hit a snag, mainly because the Mogadishu-based Federal Government has been vehemently opposed to it, and has done everything in its power to undermine the federalist project. And UNSOM whose mandate includes support for the implementation of the federal system seems unable or unwilling to commit itself to fulfilling one of the strategic goals of its mission and work plan in Somalia.

The long-standing issue of Somaliland remains unresolved, even seemingly unresolvable. Puntland seems to be dancing on the horns of a terrible dilemma: to be or not to be part of Somalia. Southwest’s prospect for consolidating its credentials as a fully developed federal member state has been arrogantly and violently shattered by Mogadishu. And when the SRSG, Mr. Nicholas Haysom, tried to intervene and hold Mogadishu accountable, he was threatened and declared persona non grata. Concerned for the safety of his representative, the UN Secretary-General was forced to take Mr. Haysom back. HirShabelle has been reduced to a vassal entity perpetually beholden to and at the mercy of its tormentors in Villa Somalia. The State of Galmudug has been subjected to a protracted and nasty campaign of destabilization and perversion, causing the infant and fragile regional government to disintegrate and ultimately collapse. Presently, Galmudug is without a leader, without a parliament, without a government, and without peace.

 Wrecking the Peace and Stability in Jubbaland

The UN seems to be on course to preside over its latest and arguably most reckless act of incompetence yet in its long and tortuous tenure in Somalia: wrecking the hard-won peace and stability of the last standing federal member state, Jubbaland, and in the process contributing to the dismantling of the constitutionally mandated federal system of government. And the current SRSG, Mr. James Swan, stands accused of actively assisting Villa Somalia’s brazen attempts to meddle in the parliamentary and presidential elections in Jubbaland. Villa Somalia’s intention is clear: to reduce Jubbaland to the messy state of affairs currently prevailing in Southwest and Galmudug, the former a vassal state the latter a hollowed headless, rudderless and conflict-ridden administration.

President Madoobe with UNSOM chief Mr Swan

What is not clear is what has prompted Mr. Swan to allow himself to be caught up in the serious and potentially calamitous developments currently unfolding in Jubbaland. James Swan, was appointed on 30 May 2019. He has been in office for less than three months. He is a highly experienced diplomat with a long international career, including a number of postings in Africa. Between 2006 and 2008 he worked in the US Government as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Africa. So, what has gone wrong? Is there substance into the serious offences he stands accused of?

To be fair to the new SRSG, the tensions between the Federal Government and Federal Member States (FMS) have existed long before Mr. Swan began his work in Somalia. However, there are credible indications that the newly installed SRSG, has jumped into the complex and messy Somali political landscape with little preparation and plenty of arrogance and self-serving opportunism. And in the case of Jubbaland, Mr. Swan has displayed a great deal of ignorance and incompetence laced with a heavy and intoxicating dose of duplicity and hypocrisy. The following points explain why the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Somalia, Mr. James Swan, has indeed committed the serious offences he stands accused of.

  1. Failure to uphold the cardinal principles of neutrality and consensus that define and underpin the UN. The series of letters Mr. Swan wrote, in quick and hasty succession, to the Jubbaland Independent Boundaries and Electoral Commission (JIBEC) in mid-August bear testimony to Mr. Swan’s provocative and undiplomatic transgressions. His letter of 17 August 2019 was particularly over the top and uncalled for. He blatantly misrepresented and distorted the facts and events pertaining to the elections underway in Jubbaland. What is more, Mr. Swan issued what appeared to be an imperial directive threatening that the international community would not recognize the outcome of the elections in Jubbaland.
  2. JIBEC’s Chairman acted more maturely and more constructively, and was absolutely right in demanding, in his letter of 18 August, that Mr. Swan apologize to the people of Jubbaland. Mr. Swan’s letter was drafted and dispatched, with astonishing haste, on Saturday and under dubious circumstances. He has not consulted all relevant stakeholders on whose behalf he claimed to speak. This has prompted the Government of Kenya, a key AMISOM stakeholder, to strongly object to the contents of Mr. Swan’s 17 August letter, and to demand its immediate withdrawal.
  3. Preoccupation with the fate of his predecessor, Mr. Nicholas Haysom, who was declared persona non grata and expelled from the country by President Farmaajo. Mr. Haysom’s sin was that he called for accountability following Villa Somalia’s unconstitutional and violent intervention in the elections in the Southwest. Mr. Swan seems to have put his career before principle and duty. Fear of being expelled seems to paralyze him and condition his actions and behavior.
  4. Collusion with Villa Somalia’s deeply partisan and immensely destabilizing stance as well as the hidden agenda harbored by certain regional actors with vested strategic interests in Somalia. Mr. Swan has allegedly become a partisan ally of President Farmaajo and his backers.
  5. Failure to fully understand the history, geography, and demography of Jubbaland. Jubbaland has a lot in common with other Federal Member States. At the same time, it has specific particularities that are peculiar to it.
  6. Failure to appropriately supervise and monitor the role and activities of UN agencies in Somalia. There are reports of some UN projects and programs being used as a political weapon by the Federal Government to put pressure on and marginalize Federal Member States seen or labelled as enemies of Villa Somalia. In the case of Jubbaland there is evidence of such practice involving specific UN agencies and their Federal counterparts. Incompetence and the scourge of corruption are also evident in the work of many UN agencies in Somalia.
  7. Failure to assess and report the sinister role played by Qatar and its corrosive and destructive impact on peace-building and state-building efforts underway in Somalia under the leadership of UNSOM.
  8. Failure to adequately understand and properly assess the complex and messy geopolitical equation in the Horn of Africa, specially the perennial Somali conundrum that lies at the heart of the region. Mr. Swan came to Somalia awfully under-prepared.
  9. Failure to understand and learn lessons from the missed opportunities and malign incompetence that characterized almost all previous UN interventions in Somalia during the past seven decades.

In his capacity as the SRSG and Head of UNSOM, Mr. James Swan wields a great deal of power and influence.  He also has the authority to exercise them in the service of peace and meaningful reconciliation in Somalia in accordance with the UN principles and the terms of his employment. Unfortunately, Mr. Swan seems to have acted and behaved in a manner that violates the UN’s fundamental principles and established protocols.

Mr. Swan’s letters to the JIBEC contained exaggerated accounts combined with unsubstantiated allegations and blatant misrepresentations that have become a propaganda and recruiting bonanza for the purveyors of conflict and extremism and their associated networks of dissolution, including Al-Shabab. And the ugly demons unleashed by Mr. Swan are already at work, wrecking the fragile and hard-won peace and stability in Jubbaland. He has betrayed the UN, the international community, and, most importantly, the vulnerable and traumatized people of Somalia. He ought to be personally held accountable for the consequences of his actions and transgressions.

Prof Hassan Keynan
Email: [email protected]

Prof. Hassan Keynan is a retired senior UN official who worked in South Asia, Africa and Europe

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