The specter of the Black Hawk Down trauma for the United States in Somalia appears to be materializing again. Blame for the recent collapse of the Garowe talks between the Federal Government and Federal Member States of Somalia has been directed at the US, and particularly its Ambassador in Somalia, Donald Yamamoto. Divisions within the central government and in and amongst the federated states led immediately to hostile confrontation with talk of renewed civil war. A clan-based frontline between the powerful Hawiye and the US, as in the early 1990s, made the historical reference apt.
The Garowe talks were a victim of ‘going it alone’ by a network of interests amidst a fragmented international community in Somalia. In the course of petroleum deal making, Yamamoto had sought to control the necessary political space, though apparently not clearly as a policy of the US Administration. Somali social media has reported on Yamamoto’s network including the European Union Special Envoy for Somalia, Alex Rondos, Somali Foreign Minister Ahmed Isse Awad, and Somali UN Ambassador Abukar Osman (Baale), amongst others, all aiding the US at the cost of their home institutions. That political space, however, has now dissipated and marooned the network behind it.
Yamamoto had pushed the Somali President and Prime Minister into a meeting that had no foundation for any agreement, causing embarrassment and political loss for both. He did so against the backdrop of the Hawiye clan feeling challenged by Yamamoto’s moves to secure oil resources in Lower Shabelle, seen to be against the Abgaal and Habr Gedir subclans in this area of South West State. The collapse of the talks polarized Federal Member States with, for instance, Jubaland President Ahmed Mohamed Islam (Madobe) anticipating an armed attack from the Federal Government and seeking security assistance from Hawiye militia. These tensions unfolded as an offensive against Al-Shabaab had been planned in Lower Shabelle. Similar frictions emerged in Galmudug, where there were already sensitive divisions simmering between factions in Adado and Dhusamareb.
As the talks failed, it was therefore with some alarm that information spread the same day through social media that the United Nations was considering appointing an American to the post of Special Representative of the Secretary-General. Hawiye commentators expressed immediate opposition, predicted bloodshed and evoked the memory of the last time an American, Admiral Jonathan Howe, led the UN in the fight against Hawiye factions. The UN was itself labeled a warlord at the time, culminating in the battle for Mogadishu, the televised images of downed Black Hawks and the question on the Congressional floor the day after by Senator Robert Byrd asking why the US was there. The gradual death of a UN mission as the US withdrew was a haunting experience for decades to come.
The memory was so bitter that when in its last days the Bush Administration sponsored a Security Council resolution for the redeployment of blue-hatted UN peacekeepers to Somalia as Ethiopian forces withdrew in 2008, the UN system seized up. It claimed there was no peace to be kept and would indefinitely plan a military mission until the time was ripe for a deployment. Instead, the ball was passed to the African Union to establish a multinational force, the AU Mission in Somalia (AMISOM).
The parallels of past and present were obvious. The UN Assistance Mission in Somalia (UNSOM) has been in rapid decline and decreasing relevance, and as a UN presence it is probably at its lowest point since the UN’s first entry into Somalia in 1992. The UN has been without leadership for five months now. It has lacked clear direction since the Somali Government expelled the previous Special Representative, Nicholas Haysom, at the beginning of the year. Political talks are usually the UN’s bread and butter business. Yet the Garowe talks, like the Somaliland-Somalia talks, demonstrated that the UN is losing its seat at the political table. Whether it realizes it or not, the UN in Somalia is at some fundamental kind of turning point. Reinvention or withdrawal of the mission altogether from Somalia become options as the status quo ruptures.
It was no surprise that there would have been a strong Somali reaction to the notion of an American taking over the helm of a fragile and wayward UN political mission. The combination was evocative of the past and provocative in the present, and interpreted as another risk of UN cover for exclusive control of petroleum resources. It would represent the final ruin of what is left of UN impartiality. It would also graft on to the UN an evolving US-Hawiye confrontation, this time without Black Hawk or Cobra helicopters and Abrams tanks, but in the vulnerable precinct of Mogadishu’s airport compound.
It is not clear where Somali authorities and international diplomacy will go in the wake of the Garowe debacle. There is, though, clearly a fork in the road leading either to a managed outcome or destructive competition. Petroleum rivalries are distorting Somali politics in unprecedented and unpredictable ways. Combined with the terrorism dimension, the mixture is combustible. The general preoccupation is the prospect of elections, which will be another struggle for partnership in oil concerns, and not the fulfillment of universal suffrage. Even for Somalia, it can be concluded that the situation is somehow broken and in need of a fresh approach.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Caasimada Online’s editorial stance.