15 July 2006

Here comes Somalia again. As a potential U.N. success story in Eritrea/Ethiopia was allowed to deteriorate into a border war then into a war-like stalemate, a takeover by the "Islamic Courts" in Somalia surprised the international community overwhelmed by nearby Darfur.

Those at U.N. Headquarters handling Peacekeeping, talking about Peacebuilding, or dispatching frequent flying envoys were taken off guard as pretentious warlords either made their local deals or took to the sea. With little knowledge of that region and almost no sensitivity to its political culture, they were going mainly by media reports as the Islamic courts took over Mogadishu, moved to strategic Jawhar and approached the Ethiopian border as if warning its mobilizing neighbour that any interference would inflame the 40% of its Moslem population.

Crisis management through media headlines was proven to be shortsighted unless you have an alert team to signal a potential crisis. Somalia was neglected -- like Afghanistan -- the moment international troops left. Murderous lawlessness by greedy warlords and connivance of corrupt tribal leaders created a vacuum of misery. Like the Taliban in Afghanistan, "Islamic courts" provided a semblance of protection, offered basic services and devised their own type of clinics and schools. They were financially supported by local businessman fed up with increasingly demanding warlords who spoke English, contacted outside powers and managed to appear as if they were the vanguard of the fight against terrorism. Ethiopian army officers -- like their counterparts in Pakistan who had handled Afghanistan -- were acting as middlemen, with the usual percentage cut. When the weakened local government fell apart and the gang leaders disappeared, no foreign capital had an idea what was going on while the U.N. was unable to identify who was in charge. The irony is that only a week earlier, a big delegation of Security Council members, headed by U.K. Ambassador, including the Ambassador of France and escorted by some news agency reporters were in next door Sudan trying to sort out a different (yet actually related) crisis.

The situation, as diplomats report, remains delicate but not desperate. New risky characters have emerged, balanced by other more cautious ones. Those in charge of Islamic courts have written to key capitals, stressing that they will not host militant terrorists. French troops observe closely from their base in nearby Cjibouti, Yemen, is offering a role. Sudan seems careful not to overplay its (hidden) hand. WHAT IS SERIOUSLY MISSING IS A U.N. VISION FOR A PEACEFUL POLITICAL OUTCOME.

We are then reminded that we have a special high-level envoy for the Horn of Africa! Norwegian former Prime Minister Kjell Bondevik has been appointed merely as an occasional to appoint another "high level" Scandinavian former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari who is now busy with Kosovo. When the appointment was announced by the Secretary General, we were told how much poverty was inflicting the region and to what extent our distinguished Norwegian will be devoting his great attention and enormous skill. A financial contribution by the government of Norway followed. Where did the money go and did part of it go to pay for Mr. Bondevik's salary and travel expenses, we don't know.

What we really want to know during this crisis threatening international peace and security in the Horn of Africa is: Where was the Special Envoy? And, more to the point, WHERE IS HE?