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Flashlights Over Mogadishu

United States

new internationalist
issue 262 - December 1994

The peacemaker. Mohamed Sahnoun at work in Somalia in 1991.
Flashlights over Mogadishu
Damned if it acts, damned if it doesn’t – after the event we can all be wise about UN intervention.
But Mohamed Sahnoun was the man sent in 1991 to assess what kind of intervention
the UN should make in Somalia – and who saw his advice ignored as
US troops staged their invasion for the world’s cameras.

My first appeal to Somalis was ironically from Nairobi, Kenya, because I knew that anyone with a small transistor radio tends to turn on at six o’clock to listen to the Somali Service of the BBC. ‘I am here on behalf of the United Nations and the international community,’ I said. ‘I’ll try to get as much assistance as I can to fight the famine but you have to find within yourself forces and people who can help rebuild Somalia, can stabilize the country and create peace.’

The reaction was extraordinary. People came from all over to see me, people who were starving or who came out of hiding especially to respond to my message. There were teachers and police officers, professors and community leaders. Many had tears in their eyes saying ‘Mr Sahnoun, we want to help, we understand your message’. I was in contact with women’s leaders who were ready to create an association. ‘All we need,’ they said, ‘is some way to show we are useful. If you bring in the supplies and ask us to manage them then we can become a real alternative to the warlords.’

I reported this to the UN because it seemed to me to be of the utmost significance: it showed that the warlords were not the solution. I told the Secretary-General’s office that while clearly we had to talk to the warlords we had a real alternative in these community leaders. There was a civil society out there just waiting to be empowered if only emergency relief had come in on a large scale and enabled them to start organizing themselves. There was the potential for a bottom-up approach that would provide a real challenge to the warlords.

But this message was not understood in New York by Boutros Boutros-Ghali and his assistants. What they always want is big fixes, spectacular solutions. This time it was no different – they wanted the warlords to meet in Nairobi and have them shake hands for the flashlights. And that is the road the UN chose to go down. By avoiding the grassroots approach it gave power and prestige to the warlords, built up the sense that they were the only people who could resolve the problem. As a result the potential community leaders became dispirited, realizing they had no alternative but to ally themselves with one warlord or another – instead of seeking within themselves for the solutions to Somalia’s problems.

I was appointed as the UN’s Special Representative in Somalia because I’d spent 10 years in the Horn of Africa as a Deputy Secretary-General of the Organization of African Unity (OAU). I knew the Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali then, while he was lecturing at a university in Cairo, and also later while I was Algerian ambassador to Germany, France, the US and the UN.

When I arrived in Somalia in March 1992 it was a shock. We could not even land at the airport in Mogadishu – we had to land on a small strip in the bush to the north. And driving in the landrover we passed many thousands of displaced people who had fled the capital and were now living in the worst conditions imaginable.

The capital itself was deserted – the only people to be seen were carrying guns and even they were starving. The only UN agency at work there was UNICEF, and they were limited to the capital. There were just a few voluntary agencies – notably the International Committee of the Red Cross and Save the Children – doing a fantastic job with virtually no means.

It was then I contacted community leaders and recommended to New York that we needed a massive humanitarian intervention on the scale of Ethiopia in the 1980s and Biafra in the 1960s. The only people, I argued, who were able to discuss or analyze things at the time were the warlords because they were the only ones with full stomachs.

Instead of this massive operation what did we get? A trickle of food. UN agencies remained reluctant even to send representatives to Mogadishu, arguing that the security situation was too bad. At that time, though, it wasn’t – in the whole seven months I spent in Somalia not a single expatriate was killed. There were people dying of starvation and skirmishes between Somalis but nobody touched the aid workers who went into the bush without protection. Yet the UN agencies preferred to stay in Nairobi or Djibouti and send reports from there. This addiction to security of UN staff is a huge problem in emergencies. It leads me to believe more aid should be channelled directly to voluntary organizations, whose staff are more prepared to take risks.

This was bad enough but we had wasted a whole year already. Let’s not forget that Siad Barre had left Mogadishu in January 1991, 14 months before I arrived. All those months Somalia was without government, without administration, without money – it was total chaos. Yet for nine of those months there was no serious fighting. All over Somalia people were waiting for mediation and the fighting between the clans in Mogadishu only started in October 1991. Yet in all this time the UN did not move. When in June 1991 the neighbouring country of Djibouti organized a conference of the different factions and asked the UN for help the response was blunt: ‘We are not going to involve ourselves in Somalia; the issue is too complex.’

Procrastination continued even after I’d been dispatched on my mission. By August 1992 I realized that the only way to make things happen was to involve the media. The New York Times and The Guardian were approached – and they wrote the first articles. After that CNN came and then 60 Minutes [a flagship US TV documentary] and the snowball was rolling. Once media coverage became overwhelming and people could see on their TV screens what a tragedy it was, donor countries finally began airlifting supplies.

Then all of a sudden, after months of delay and distance, the urgent priority of the UN in New York was to send forces. I knew how sensitive the situation in Somalia was and urged them not to send troops until the conditions for that had been negotiated. The warlords had been against any UN military force from the beginning and even community leaders had been suspicious. But I had persuaded the community leaders that 500 troops were needed to stop looting and banditry at the port and the airport – really a police force rather than an army.

Then in New York, when the 500 soldiers were not even operational, they started making statements about sending 3,000 troops to Somalia. This made the Somalis very nervous – they started asking me what the hell I was up to. ‘You told us you were going to send 500; these 500 have not even come and you want to send 3,000 more. Are you plotting to put Somalia under UN trusteeship?’

In the end the UN had 30,000 troops in Somalia. They were completely rejected by the population. It turned into a total mess and at least 6,000 people died in clashes between UN forces and Somalis. Things became so dire that we even talk about a Somalia Syndrome now.

This must never happen again. The UN tends to think the more blue helmets you have the more likely you are to solve the problem. This is absurd. Naturally blue helmets are needed sometimes but we need to create conditions for their deployment. Military intervention should be well timed, the ground should be prepared, the troops should be efficient and should know exactly why they are there. You can’t bring in UN troops for humanitarian purposes and then change the mandate – as they did in Somalia when they started pursuing the warlord Aideed. If you do, you have a total mess.

In sensible medicine you look to strengthen the immune system at the same time as you apply a remedy from outside. So within the society of Somalia, Rwanda or the next vulnerable country you must find people who can create conditions for peaceful, political solutions. But we don’t do it – we try to have quick fixes again and again.

People talk about UN intervention as if the only intervention possible is military. But we urgently need to intervene at a much earlier point – one that removes the need for blue helmets later. People talk about stopping the genocide in Rwanda but we should be looking at how we could have avoided it altogether. It would have been possible. If the UN had used all its powers to enhance the negotiations that took place under the auspices of the OAU in Tanzania; if the UN had really seen to it that there was a proper embargo on arms to Rwanda...   

The UN is still not prepared today to have a preventive policy, only to react. The result is that the cost of peacekeeping has jumped tenfold over the last two years while at the same time development assistance to the Third World has decreased from 60 million dollars to 50 million dollars. So at the same time as people talk about building up the UN, they allow it to withdraw from development assistance – and by doing so might be creating the conditions for future Rwandas.

The question is not whether or not the UN should intervene – if there is a humanitarian catastrophe the international community is morally bound to intervene. But that intervention should happen early so that it can succeed at the diplomatic level without recourse to the military.

Diplomacy should always come first – and it should be done with great seriousness. That does not mean sending some UN official with no knowledge of what the problems are, who arrives in his suit and tie, stays one hour, and goes back again. He or she must be prepared to spend as long as is necessary – and to risk his or her life too. It would be best if the envoy were not a UN civil servant but a personality of international stature such as Jimmy Carter – and they should be backed by all kinds of pressure from the international community.

My own recent experience in the Congo confirms my belief that early intervention can work miracles. The fact that you have probably not heard of the crisis in the Congo is evidence in itself – it shows the situation was defused before it reached the world’s attention.

In Congo the crisis began last year after the change from a one-party system to a multi-party system. There were elections which the opposition considered unfair; they took up arms and put up barricades all over the capital, Brazzaville, which was their power base. Several hundred people were killed; there were people displaced and others in detention. It began to look like another African tragedy.

The Secretary-General of the OAU then asked me to go as mediator and I spent a couple of weeks shuttling between the two sides. There was no security: I had continually to cross the no-man’s land between the Government-controlled parts of the capital and those held by the Opposition. But I kept at it until we had the basis for some kind of agreement. We then took delegates from both sides to Libreville and arrived at an agreement sponsored by the European Union. That sponsorship was important – this is the first time that two regional organizations have co-operated to sponsor negotiations and monitor the resulting agreement.

We left the UN out. I felt it was better to see how two regional organizations could work things out without bringing in the UN and its bureaucracy. As a result Congo had elections early this year and there is now a parliament in which the Opposition is present – in fact the Opposition’s leader has been elected Mayor of Brazzaville with government support. They have serious economic problems still to face. But here was an example where early intervention enabled us to avoid a large-scale civil war.

I started with a disaster story and I’ve ended with a success. Successes like these are perfectly possible if the UN shows the right vision and moral leadership. Unfortunately it is precisely this kind of moral leadership which is now so absent.

Mohamed Sahnoun is currently a Pearson Fellow at the International Development Research Centre in Ottawa. He also acts as a consultant to the Earth Council and to UNESCO.

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New Internationalist issue 262 magazine cover This article is from the December 1994 issue of New Internationalist.
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