The Horn Of Africa States: The Failures Of The UN Systems In The Region – OpEd


The Somali State and governance collapsed in early 1991, when the leader of the military regime then, General Mohamed Siad Barre, left the country without a suitable replacement governance system. This led to a clan warfare throughout the length and breadth of the country with millions fleeing the country and thousands perishing in the process which necessitated the entry of the United Nations systems into the country where, ever since after some 34 years, it is still operating without apparently any success in re-establishing the country to its pre-1991 state unity, and almost forming the backbone of the country’s governance, which is now divided into legalized clan fiefdoms, with the UN in between and an arbiter.

Was this a successful operation of the UN systems or can one say it is, indeed, a failed operation, which has caused more problems than it solved? Would Somalia have been in a better shape than it is today had no UN systems ever showed up? Could Somalis have been able to handle their problems, the Somali way, long ago under the shade of traditional umbrella tree, most often of the tall savannah acacia stock? We will explore in this article the successes and failures of the UN in Somalia and its current predicament.

The first United nations Mission in Somalia often referred to as UNOSOM I lasted from 1992 to 1993. It was an attempt to alleviate the humanitarian crisis in the country at the time but other than feeding some of the displaced people and perhaps making some handshake process between some of the factions in Mogadishu at the time, the mission is generally reported to have been a total failure. The mission is also reported to have spent some US$ 43 million. Perhaps, it provided some information on the country and people to the UN for its future activities in Somalia.

The second United nations Mission in Somalia, also referred to as UNOSOM II, lasted from 1993 to 1995. This was a larger operation and valued at some US$ 1.6 billion, where the UN systems tried to take advantage of some the intelligence and information it gained in Operation UNSOM I, to try to restore a stable Somali government. But it only ended up as a total failure, supporting some (only those Somalis who also supported the mission) as opposed to others. This caused a mistrust of many Somalis of the UN and its operation, which led to its failure but also to the abuse and waste and misappropriation of large amounts of monies. This put in the seeds of Somali mistrust of the UN as being a corrupt organization, which some of the local activists and clan-based organizations could take advantage of. It is still how many Somalis read the UN systems.

UNOSOM II was replaced by the United Nations Political Office for Somalia (“UNPOS”), which lasted from 1995 to 2013. It was designed to assist the UN Secretary-general  to reconcile the many and growing Somali factions. It was organized to be guiding Somali leaders on how to reconstruct their country. During its presence came the terror groups that have disrupted lives and lovies in Somalia, helped institutionalize clan-governance infrastructure in the country instead of helping a one country system, despite all the fanfare of recognizing Somalia’s sovereignty. It organized meeting and conferences across the globe which  eventually also brought in African forces, the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) later transformed into African Union Transition Mission in Somalia (ATMIS), and eventually the current the clan-based Federal Government of Somalia. The total cost of that operation is not known or is not published.

The United nations Political Office (UPOS) was transformed into UNOSOM IV in 2013, which still operates in the country, and which was the subject of a dispute between current Somali Federal government and the United Nations organization. UNSOM III was established to last for one year but has ever since been renewed annually and currently its mandate ends in October 2024.

The mandate of UNSOM IVI was to assist the Federal Government and the African Union Mission in Somalia now ATMIS, the African Transition Mission in Somalia, on peacebuilding and state-building. Both UNSOM IV and ATMIS have been present in the country for over a decade and the country is still as divided as it was since the creation of these two bodies or organizations, which can be interpreted to mean that they did not achieve much, except perhaps to cost the UN a lot of monies. Governance in Somalia is still weak, rule of law is not apparent, terror groups still operate, almost at will and democracy appears to have been abused and misused through clan prisms, all under the gaze of the United Nations.

Somalia is not unique with respect to the failure of both the UN and the African Union. They seem to have failed in all the countries where they got involved in Africa. The DR Congo, South Sudan, Mali, Sudan, Libya, and others are all clear manifestations of countries where they both got involved and have not achieve much with respect to the grandiose projects they assume. The UN missions are even larger and cover many countries such as Kashmiri issue, the Palestinian/Israeli issue and others, which remain unresolved despite the long passage of time.

The origins of both organizations were humble and their goals are lofty. Who would not like peace, stability, and security? Who would not like to live in a clean environment, technologically develop forward and improve one’s life processes? Who would not like to have the support of some 194 countries at one’s disposal? But then, one must know that the two organizations have no power and no authority, which goes back and belongs to the individual member countries and when the stronger countries are at each other’s throats, what would happen to the weaker members or those who fall of the ledge?

The Secretary-General of the United Nations Organization and the Chairperson of the African Union Commission have no power and, indeed, have little of persuasive influences on any party. The organizations depend on what the members agree with each other or not agree, and apparently since inception of both organizations there has never been a moment when all members of these groups agreed on anything. There could have been peace and tranquility but because of fear of each other and not because of genuine desire for peace. How could these organizations help build peace or better governance in weaker countries such as the Horn of Africa States represent and most appropriately Somalia or Ethiopia, which have been hanging from a ledge since 1991? Tribal and clan wars have been the norm in both countries and they did not realize that they could, indeed, create their own peace and development. But Djibouti and Eritrea appear to be safe but they know they are not. There is no help from beyond the region, which only represents countries pursuing their interests.

And the world bodies that many look up to have no real authority or the wherewithal to support or help them. Major powers and even regional powers pursue their interests and what is to their benefit and if this is to the detriment of the Horn of Africa states region, they would still carry them out, unless the region defends its turf, with all its resources. However, currently, it appears that the region is divided and a region divided or a country divided is weak and susceptible to be taken advantage of. Somalia is and so is Ethiopia, and Djibouti and Eritrea are not far behind. Disagreements, Indecisiveness or decisions that fall far below what is required to be done of an issue in the United Nations Organization or the African Union are what leads to most troubles. 

In Somalia, the UN bodies have been operating in the country for over three decades of non-governance or weak governance? It is incredible to believe that they have not achieved much in terms of reconciling the different groups and the country still remains more divided than when they first came. The only peaceful part of the country, which has since 1991 been a functioning polity is north Somalia or Somaliland whose peace infrastructure was created by its own people, Somalis, even though they are from different clans. South Somalia where most of the activities of the United Nations and the African Union were concentrated, remains divided, troubled and unstable. How does that reflect on the United Nations and the African Union. They should not perhaps have come. Somalis in that region would have found their own peace and an organized polity, like their brethren in Somaliland and the two could have settled and recreated a peaceful Somalia able to contribute to the wellbeing of the world instead of being a pain.

The infrastructure of the United Nations or the African Union, which does not empower those in authority is perhaps what leads to the failures of these international organizations not only in Somalia but also in other countries across the globe, including the region of the Horn of Africa States. It is no wonder the Federal Government of Somalia recently asked the United Nations to close the office of the UNSOM IV although it reversed its course and requested for a restructuring of the office to involve the Somali Federal Government.

While some blame goes to the Somalis themselves, international organizations should keep their promises or stay away. Their experiences in Somalia and other regions have not been exemplary at best, although they may have saved some lives. They have not contributed to the rebuilding of the country’s infrastructures, or helped the country’s agriculture or fishing or any of the resources that may have contributed to the creation of peace and stability – a stable economic activity that keeps people employed and away from survival actions, which involve mostly violence and aggression on others.

Dr. Suleiman Walhad

Dr. Suleiman Walhad writes on the Horn of Africa economies and politics. He can be reached at [email protected].

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