A Second Look at UN's Action in Somalia

FOR those of us who remained in Somalia during the recent hostilities between the United Nations forces and the militia of Gen. Mohamed Farah Aideed, international media analysis of the violence in Mogadishu has been disappointingly superficial and inaccurate.

Coverage has portrayed the UN as militaristic and vengeful, the Somali people as mindlessly violent, xenophobic, and ungrateful, and, in the most disturbing twist of all, General Aideed as a maligned martyr and budding national hero. All of these images are inaccurate.

The most egregious factual error by the media was its widespread reporting that the armed conflict in Mogadishu represented a rising tide of anti-UN and anti-American feelings across Somali society. This is simply not true. Though the hostilities in Mogadishu have been serious and tragic, the conflict itself has been highly localized, involving one half of one city, and pitting one subclan of one Somali clan against the UN. It is not the UN versus the Somali people.

On the contrary, the rest of Somalia throughout this conflict has been calm. To claim that Somalia is in turmoil would be the equivalent of reporting that America was up in flames during the Los Angeles riots.

What's more, Somalis throughout the hinterland were with very few exceptions urging the UN Operation in Somalia (UNOSOM) to act with force against Aideed's ambush.

Many hope the UN will crush Aideed for venal reasons; they are members of rival clans or factions that would love to weaken Aideed's faction.

Other thoughtful voices from community leaders, elders, religious figures and women's groups, however, plead for a strong UN response in order to send a clear message that Somalia's warlords cannot dominate the political landscape by force and intimidation. The press has overlooked this "silent majority" of Somalis, who are grateful to the international community for intervening and who wish only for a return to normal civilian rule.

Analyses of the motives of Aideed and the UN also have flown wide of the mark, reflecting a fundamental ignorance about the dynamic political situation in Somalia. In staging an unprovoked attack on the Pakistani soldiers, Aideed was acting in desperation to undermine the process of grass-roots political reconciliation that UNOSOM has helped to facilitate.

There is nothing to prevent warlords like Aideed from participating in this process, of course, except fear that their power base rests only on military might and physical intimidation, not on an ability to represent a bona fide political constituency.

As UNOSOM fosters a safer and more level political playing field, Somalia is at a pivotal point in its transition from warlordism to the re-emergence of civic society. Militia leaders like Aideed, who see the peace process eroding their power, are likely to disrupt reconciliation, threatening both community leaders and the UN. We must come to expect more of these dangerous provocations until the transitional period is complete. Aideed and other militia leaders are from this perspective desperados and ana chronisms, not budding nationalist heroes.

Pundits who have accused the UN of acting out of vengeance also have misread the situation. After Aideed's attack, the UN was very unhappy with the choices it faced and with the prospect of a direct military clash with a Somali faction. To retaliate meant endangering lives, putting at risk many of its diplomatic gains, alienating relations with an important Somali faction, and upsetting the delicate process of simultaneous disarmament of Somalia's numerous militias.

In the end, a strong military response was made, reluctantly, because the UN understood that not to respond would have allowed Aideed to derail the important process of political reconciliation. In this instance, the cost of inaction would have been far higher than the heavy price exacted by recourse to arms.

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