An odious affair: The UN in Somalia

The organisation may destroy the country’s political autonomy if there is no immediate pro-Somali intervention.

UN agencies are under fire for allegedly undermining Somali efforts to rebuild the country [EPA]

Mogadishu, Somalia – The Somali people have suffered a great deal and are heading towards oblivion unless dramatic action is urgently taken. Somalia’s condition is the product of internal and external actors’ attempt to realise their respective political agendas. The cumulative effects of the military dictatorship, cold/terror warriors, faction leaders, warlords, client Somali regimes, Ethiopian and Kenyan invasions, and most recently, Uganda and the United Nations interventions have all contributed to Somalia’s devastation.

This brief essay examines the particular roles played by two UN agencies – the Monitoring Group for Somalia and Eritrea (MG) and the United Nations Special Representative (SR) – in the reproduction of the disaster in the country. These two agencies have separate mandates, but collectively they have been engaged in activities that undermine Somali efforts to rebuild the country.

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The MG was established to undertake investigations that would expose countries, groups and individuals that contravened the UN’s arms embargo on Somalia. The group’s reports are submitted to the UN Security Council’s Sanctions Committee which then has the authority to impose penalties on those who have breached the arms embargo.

My aim in this essay is to expose some of the fraudulent reports the MG has produced, which have illegitimately marred the reputation of Somalis and which have been used by the Sanctions Committee to impose penalties on Somali economic entities without due process. Three instances clearly show that the MG’s reports were politically motivated to allow dominant powers to achieve their political ends in Somalia.

Fraudulent reports

First, in its report of 2006[PDF], the MG claimed that the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) which had defeated the warlords and pacified much of southern Somalia had a terrorist agenda. The authors falsely asserted that UIC sent several hundreds of its militia members to Lebanon to assist Hezbollah. No trace of evidence has been discovered since the assertion was made, but the accusation provided a pretext for the West and its Ethiopian ally to attack the UIC.

Second, MG’s March 2010 report [PDF] callously politicised humanitarian assistance. One of the most astonishing claims it made was that Somali transport contractors employed by the World Food Programme (WFP) were in cahoots with “terrorist groups” or diverting food aid to the black market, thus enabling contractors to earn hundreds of millions of dollars, while local WFP operatives looked the other way.

This incredibly sensational report, which named several Somali individuals as culprits, was leaked to the media before it was officially adopted by the Sanctions Committee. These leaks triggered a cascade of media reports which damned those individuals and that led to the United States restricting its substantial financial support of the WFP.

The reports virtually crippled the WFP’s capacity to deliver food to Somalis in areas controlled by Al-Shabaab. WFP immediately dropped the named contractors without careful examination of the claims against them in order to please its donors. Meanwhile, Al-Shabaab reacted to the claims and banned many humanitarian agencies, including WFP, from operating in its areas. Such politics produced the worst famine in the country since 1992. Two years on, the MG’s claims have yet to be supported by any independent investigation.       

Third, MG’s July 2011 report [PDF] made yet another unfounded accusation that a number of Somali businessmen were assisting Al-Shabaab. Using the aforementioned report, the Sanctions Committee imposed penalties on Somali personalities. Among the most problematic of those named was one Ahmed Ali Jimale.

Jimale was the largest shareholder of the defunct Somali money transfer agency, Barakat, which was shut down by the US government shortly after 9/11. He and the company were accused of supporting al-Qaeda, but so far, US investigations have uncovered no evidence to nail Jimale.

“It has been alleged that the Barkaat Group of Companies were assisting, sponsoring, or providing financial, material, or other services in support of known terrorist organisation. Media & US law enforcement reports have linked Al-Barkaat Companies & their principle manager, Ahmed Nur Ali Jimaleh, to Usama bin Ladin & bin Ladin’s efforts to fund terrorist activities. However, this information is generally not firsthand information or it has not been corroborated by documentary or other circumstantial evidence that supports the allegation… At this time, these items of information have not been substantiated through investigative means.” (National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, 2004:83-82)

Only recently was Barakaat de-listed from the sanction’s list. However, Barakat was liquidated and its assets sold off after its closure. Those who bought the assets established a telephone company, namely Hormud, which has become the largest telecom operator in the country. Hormud has 3,000 Somali shareholders and Jimale is reportedly not one of these. 

Somalis burning through charcoal supply

The MG report provides no evidence, linking Jimale to Hormud. But naming Hormud in association with Jimale means that the largest employer in Somalia could be brought under UN sanctions and such an act will devastate more than 5,000 employees, as well as business associates and dependents estimated at 150,000 people. More critically, it will unjustly destroy a firm that has not committed any crime.

Finally, the irony is that on October 19, 2010, Al-Shabaab – which Hormud supposedly supports, via the imagined Jimale connection – has accused the telecomms company of engaging in businesses that aid the West (October 19, 2010).

‘Creating its own facts’

From the available evidence in the three instances cited, it appears the MG does not take its responsibilities seriously, instead it seems to be an operation that collects rumours and innuendo to support its political objectives. After several years of making claims about WFP, its contractors and other Somali businesses, the MG’s assertions about these entities is yet to be corroborated by independent investigation.

The irony is that the biggest violator of the arms embargo is a neighbouring country which the Sanctions Committee has yet to act against. Consequently, one is forced to conclude that the MG “creates its own facts” to paraphrase a former adviser to President Bush.

The United Nations Political Office for Somalia (UNPOS) is another agency that has played a disabling role in the country. In particular, its Special Representative’s (SR) interventions since 2007 have undermined any autonomous Somali effort to rebuild their country’s institutions. A careful study of the SR’s involvement in the Djibouti-based political process (2008), and his contributions since, are illustrative of a diplomat who acts as the authority of the country rather than a facilitator of Somali efforts to define their destiny.

The Djibouti process, which came on the heels of the tough Somali resistance to the US-supported Ethiopian occupation of Somalia, had two objectives. First, once it became clear that the Ethiopian forces could not defeat the resistance, the forum was planned to recast the Transitional Federal Government in order to provide the pretext for the Ethiopians to go home and claim victory.

Second, to make the above scenario feasible, a scheme was developed to split the resistance into two groups, moderates deemed amenable to Western influence – and the rest. The former group was groomed to inherit the mantle of the Islamic Courts and take over the TFG, while the second group was to be destroyed.

During the Djibouti conference, the SR, Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, emerged as the key manager who directed the deliberations. Consequently, Somali participants became clients who sought his favours rather than behaving as legitimate actors negotiating with their political opponents. An Ethiopian official central to the occupying force mockingly noted that his regime did not humiliate Somalis as much as the SR had done.

The conference produced another pliant Somali leadership and plunged the country into greater violence – engineered by those who orchestrated the Djibouti conference. This context made the new TFG even more dependent on outsiders and the SR.

A year and half later, a new envoy – Augustine Philip Mahiga – was appointed. From all the available evidence, he has come to dominate Somalis even more. He privileges certain individuals among the TFG and parliament rather than encouraging a holistic approach which would respect the transitional character and authority of parliament.

As the end of the transitional period loomed large in the spring of 2011, internal power struggles between the speaker of parliament, the prime minister and the president intensified as the first two jostled for dominance. The envoy intervened and, with the help of Uganda, bypassed parliamentary procedures and the charter by producing the Kampala Accord [PDF]. This accord forced the prime minister out, extended the transition period by a year, stipulated that parliament could not replace the president or speaker, and outlined a “road map” to end the transition.

Subsequently, the speaker was emboldened to ignore calls from MPs to seat parliament, so it could examine the agreements reached in Uganda, Garowe and elsewhere. After a long stalemate, a small majority in parliament endorsed the accord. Now, the speaker felt immune to pressure from parliament, locked up the parliament building and failed to call it into session.

Little progress on crafting the post-transition agenda was made for several months, when the SR decided to bypass parliament altogether. A meeting was convened in Garowe, Puntland, where the prime minister, his ally in Puntland and a few others were invited to chart the way out of the transition period.

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Parliamentarians in Mogadishu called on the speaker to convene parliament, but these requests fell on deaf ears and the Garowe affair received the blessing of the SR. Finally, a majority of MPs decided to take matters into their hands and asked one of the speaker’s deputies to seat parliament, as stipulated in the charter. 

SR base at airport

Parliament convened, a motion to fire the speaker was passed and a new one was appointed by 285 votes. The SR, the TFG president and the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development described the move as illegal and depicted parliament as an obstacle to progress. This constellation of forces is least interested in following the Transitional Charter and has since bypassed parliament to pursue a parallel process which culminated in Garowe II and now Galkayo I.

Parliament has demanded that Garowe II should be brought for debate, but the SR, the prime minister and the TFG president have failed to heed the call. To add insult to injury, the British government convened a conference in London and endorsed the Garowe II agreement without minding the latter’s illegitimacy.

Since then, the SR has established a base at the Mogadishu airport which has become the political hub of the country, as he demands that the TFG President, the prime minister and the deposed speaker come to his court, rather than visit them in their offices.

This state of affairs has not been lost to Mogadishu’s denizens who speak of “Somalia’s emperor”. It is clear from the available evidence that the SR’s relation with the TFG leaders is one of master and servant. His behaviour does not only degrade the TFG personalities, but it is an affront to all Somalis, as he transgresses on both diplomatic and cultural ethos. Twice he has publicly stated his preference for a balkanised Somalia without a central government.  

In an earlier era, the UN was a major friend and supporter of disenfranchised people in the colonial world. In the 1950s, Somalis under Italian colonialism wished for a civic republic, rather than a fragmented tribal dispensation – which the Italians preferred and received ample support at the UN.

Now, the Somalis remember that history will find the operations and the behaviour of the MG and the SR unfathomable. The MG and the Sanctions Committee run a kangaroo court, while the SR and UNPOS reinvent colonial servitude. Hence, one cannot but conclude that these two UN agencies will destroy Somalis’ livelihoods and political autonomy, unless there is an immediate pro-Somali intervention.   

Abdi Ismail Samatar is a Professor of Geography at the University of Minnesota & Research Fellow at the University of Pretoria, South Africa.