15 APRIL 2009


In conflict-prone Somalia, "wake up" has a certain ring applied to varied people and occasions. It comes from the fact that the national anthem starts with the words: "Wake up Somalia; Join hands to gather." It is often being applied to a number of U.N. officials and Special Representatives, and during the last two years -- very regrettably -- to the U.N. Secretary General.

Perhaps because he had indicated that Africa will be a priority, Ban Ki-moon issued a statement only four days after taking over, volunteering the view that he was "closely" following events in Somalia and that "a new opportunity may exist." Very optimistic for anyone who knows or was indeed burned by Somalia's series of tragedies. Some weeks later, he had to reverse gears saying how "gravely concerned" he was about hundreds of people killed and hundreds of thousands displaced since his earlier promising statement. He replaced Mr. Annan's Special Representative Francois Lonseny Fall with his very own, Ahmadou Ould Abdallah, who had actually also served as Mr. Annan's Representative to the "Great Lakes Region" -- another vague designation with even more vague results. Yet the ebb and flow of hot and cold statements continued unabated. One day, there would be an encouraged sense about an opening window only to be followed by very deep regret for the unwarranted loss of human life, with some addition urging all sides to refrain from exchanging fire; as if those carrying the guns were holding their breath to hear the latest update on the Secretary General's emotional status.

Obviously, Ban Ki-moon is no expert on Africa. No Secretary General needs to be. His expert staff or at least his Special Representative -- if well selected -- should be doing the heavy lifting and have close relations with field contacts. Monitoring statements are not necessary and could be withheld to make a visible impact when something really special happens. Repeatedly failed projections may sound trivial in New York where tens of statements are issued per day, but they deal with life and death in Somalia, where U.N. leadership looks increasingly clueless. The Special Representatives never actually stayed in Somalia or even visited Mogadishu; they merely hovered around it in Kenya, Ethiopia or Djibouti, holding irrelevant meetings with invalid politicians. A recent example of conflicting predictions was noted a few months ago when a statement by the Special Representative welcomed a fictitious "agreement" reached in Addis Abeba between Somalia President Yusuf, Prime Minister Hussein, and House Speaker Sheikh Madobe. Ould Abdallah on behalf of the Secretary General paid tribute to those officials who, presumably, "have resolved to promote reconciliation, the rule of law, and good governance." The former Ambassador of Mauritania to Washington knows very well that such pretentious wording, however irrelevant, would sound very politically correct across the Atlantic. Days later, a hurried statement expressed extreme alarm "at what was happening," particularly "the increasing rate of piracy which has become a threat to international navigation."

Weeks later, Ethiopean troops withdrew. Every one of the three "resolvers" of good governance disappeared hot foot into a safe refuge. One irony is that President Yusuf, who had been staunchly supported by Ould Abdallah and hence -- unwisely -- by Ban Ki-moon, went to his tribal Darood folks in Somalia Puntland. For the uninitiated, Puntland is the main base for the infamous recent wave of piracy; the Darood tribe supplies the bulk of the pirates. While our own Ould Abdallah may be looking forward to his next sunny brunch in New York's Downtown Cipriani, Somali's former President Yusuf is most likely laughing all the way to the bank, perhaps singing the national anthem with a slight variation -- Wake up!