15 January 2007

It may be unwise to keep highlighting the dispatch of Jan Iliasson as a Special Envoy to Darfur as one way of showing action taken. There have been so many envoys before the earnest Swede and even the Secretary General Kofi Annan, an African expatriate, was literally taken round in circles during his widely televised visit a year ago. Actually, part of the problem is that there have been so many Special Envoys and Representatives that host countries treat their arrival and departure with a revolving door approach -- an embrace at the entrance and satirical smile at the exit.

What are those EIGHTEEN Special Representatives and Envoys of the Secretary General in Africa doing? Very few would know. What the general public knows is that despite political posturing, the U.N. Secretariat has been useless in Darfur and is clueless in Somalia. It took around two years for the Secretary General to move on Darfur. Careful not to offend the Sudanese government, he started to shuffle when a new U.S. Ambassador, a former envoy to Southern Sudan, took his seat at the Security Council. His visit "coincided" with that of then-Secretary of State Colin Powell. An attempt to make a public splash in New York backfired when refugee camps were changed on him; his team spent valuable time "sorting things out" until another photo opportunity with available elderly women was tracked some miles away. Then there were different envoys who went and returned to New York, promising imminent U.N. participation. The most irresponsible of all was allowing the Special Rep for Darfur to issue his own political operation without due supervision by Headquarters, thus playing into the hands of those in Khartoum looking for a pretext to block U.N. participation. In highlighting Darfur during the last two months of his ten year tenure, Mr. Annan did not seriously aim at solving the crisis as much as pursuing a hot political potato to his successor. Announcements he made to the Security Council were more directed to the New York Times rather than to the destitute people in Sudan. A serious effort by envoy Mohammed Ould Abdallah, a former Mauritanian Ambassador to Washington, went almost unnoticed although it could have progressed somewhere given adequate political perseverance. Reports of sexual exploitation of children by U.N. Peacekeepers did not help. The position on Somalia which exploded again is not similarly confused. It is clueless. Although the U.N. was involved there in 1993 - 94; although the current crisis has been brewing for a while, the issue was merely left in the helpless hands of Linsaney Fall, who was left pleading for a ceasefire while an Ethiopian "incursion" turned into "restoring the government." The warlords are back, the Islamic courts are out. But is the conflict over?

Somalis may be among the poorest of the world, but the country is rich in minerals, potential oil and gas resources. Like in Southern Sudan (and Darfur), various western oil companies are competing with Chinese interests. Its strategic position in the Horn of Africa, close to the only naval exit of oil tankers exiting the Gulf is as important as its complex proximity to key regional players: Ethiopia (U.S. influence), Djibonti (French influence), Eritrea (a wild card), Chad (French influence with U.S. impact), Kenya (little big brother) and across the Red Sea to Yemen and Saudi Arabia.

Civil war in the early nineties left THREE Somalis, not just one. The "Land of Northern Somal," declared independence within three provinces with its own set-up, including an army and a parliament. The state of "Ponte," also with an elected parliament and a President (who, by the way, holds Canadian citizenship), is the second. The third is the currently contested government in Mogadishu where warlords, which had fled to sea returned with Ethiopian support to take over again from the dogmatically zealous Islamic courts. An announcement by the returning Prime Minister Ali Gedi that all weapons should be handed to the authorities is not likely to be heeded. Carrying arms is an incurable tribal habit. Another issue is the unsettled longstanding dispute between Somalia and Ethiopia, not because one is totally Moslem and the other is predominantly Christian Orthodox, but over the control of Ogaden, an Ethiopian province with Somali majority. Like everything else in that region, the fight has taken a personal twist between Ethiopian's President Meles Zenawi and Islamic Courts leader Sheikh Hassan Daher Oueiss, a former army general who had led troops against the Ethiopian army in Ogaden -- while Zenaris belongs to the Tigre tribe (like Eritrea's President Afwerki) Oueiss belongs to the "Habrayedir" whose origins go to the Arab Peninsula. As to interim President Abdallah Youseff, he is allied with Ethiopia mainly to crush the Islamic Courts, having earlier taught Ethiopians as an army officer under Siad Berri. He belongs to the largest tribe, Giberti Ismail, which is spread all over Somalia as well as in Ethiopia and Kenya. The interim Prime Minister Ali Gedi is a respected technocrat whose main advantage is that he was not involved in any of the blood feuds over the past decade.

An increasingly complicated situation in an increasingly rough neighbourhood. It may not necessarily require immediate action. But it does require alerted close follow-up. What role to play and when would depend on an enlightened well-informed evaluation. Varied options should be made available to the new Secretary General to make a decision at the right time. Meanwhile, we return to our earlier question and repeated refrain: what are those EIGHTEEN Special Envoys of the Secretary General in Africa doing? Where are they? WHO are they?!