Charting recovery from war's destruction ... and an indestructible?
Thursday, September 29, 2011
REPORTERS VIE sometimes to pick the person with the hardest job in the world. One contender has got to be Augustine Mahiga (pictured left) who’s tasked with the “restoration of peace and stability” to Somalia.
Once a top civil servant and diplomat for his native Tanzania, Mahiga is now the international community’s chief officer in the war-torn, famine-ravished and terrorist-haboring country that has been without a functioning government for 20 years. (And it's been the subject of many a week’s THE MEDIA BEAT in recent times.)
In official language, Mahiga is United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s Special Representative there, struggling against huge odds to get the place turned into something resembling a regular nation-state.
When we met last week, as he prepared here in New York for what was described as a “mini-summit” of concerned nations, convened alongside the newly-opened UN General Assembly session, Mahiga described himself as “optimistic – not over-optimistic, but realistic”. I guess it’s his job to be optimistic, and his nature suits his job.
He spoke to a gathering at the International Peace Institute, looking out over the messy, but maybe aptly promising sight of the UN's own headquarters currently undergoing reconstuction, and explained his grounds for optimism.
With grim irony, the Horn of Africa’s drought, which in Somalia has sharpened to produce some of the region’s worst-ever starvation conditions, can be seen as one of those positive signs. Famine has been visited in an especially concentrated fashion upon areas of Somalia controlled by the jihadist Al-Shabaab movement – and has been appallingly worsened by the actions of some Shabaab leaders. (While some of its chiefs tried to help the local populace in collaboration with outside aid agencies, most refused that help, or commandeered it for themselves … all evidence of increased fracturing within the organization’s ranks).
In Mahiga’s blunt assessment, “popular support for Shabaab is dead, dying, or has walked away” … something the few international media workers now in Somalia have shown us clearly, in those almost biblical images of families walking hundreds of miles to aid centers, many succumbing to disease and death on the way.
Add to this ... Shabaab’s withdrawal of forces to the hinterland from the capital Mogadishu … the so-called Kampala Accord (signed in Uganda’s capital and brokered in large part by Mahiga) that loosened a log-jam between the country’s many factional leaders and war-lords … plus the active engagement of outside nations (following two decades of neglect since America’s hasty exit after the “Black Hawk Down” killings) … and the Special Representative consequently feels confident that a new and effective form of governance can be built up.
Those outside countries, Mahiga says, will monitor the agreed “roadmap” for progress, which embraces elements of Somali civil society - in addition to the usual suspects who’ve gained their position through force of arms - and there will be enforceable goals and benchmarks in the timetable. At its crudest, if goals are not met – overseas aid and cooperation will get cut.
All this assumes, as many peace processes do, that self-interest and common sense will dictate the actions of the divided factions. And as we know that that doesn’t always follow.
IN OUR DISCUSSION, I was concerned about what reactions (apart from self-interest and common sense) could be prompted by frustration and failure among Shabaab’s militants as they bunker down - and not only within Somalia.
Under pressure, cornered and divided men can lash out desperately, we know, and Shabaab’s bombers have long had the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam, with their combined death-toll of almost 250 as bloody trophies (the 1998 attacks’ mastermind Fazul Harun was a member of both Al Qaeda and Al Shabaab) – and last year of course came scores of deaths in Shabaab's external venture into Uganda, and the bombing of a popular Kampala restaurant.
While the global Somali diaspora is largely characterized by entrepreneurial and successful individuals, there are many pockets of resentment and reckless violence as well. Mahiga pointed to the numbers of American, Canadian, and Scandinavian citizens of Somali origin who have been fighting, and dying (which is mainly how we know their identities and origins) among the ranks of Shabaab. The FBI and British intelligence services especially are concerned about terrorist attacks being planned by Shabaab against, for the first time, Western European and domestic US targets. One so far isolated example has been 29-year old Shabaab member Mohamed Geele, jailed for the attempted murder of Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard, who was singled out for his infamous newspaper caricature of the prophet Mohammed.
Mahagi acknowledged that danger to the rest of the world could be heightened by Shabaab’s internal splits and weakness, and that their agenda (while obviously focused on Somalia itself till now) is, among their deepest fanatics at least, a global one. He cited over-arching links that Shabaab is making with Al Qaeda allies in Mauritania to the west, in addition to their long-established relationship with the Qaeda franchise to the north-east in Yemen.“It is a real threat”, said the realistic optimist, “I agree with you”.
[Our exchange is available on video -- courtesy of the International Peace Institute’s streaming video site curated by its External Relations Vice President Warren Hoge, known formerly to many as a preeminent New York Times international correspondent.]
TERRORISM AND JOURNALISM have something of a symbiotic relationship, inevitably. One example of their cheek-by-jowl proximity (sometimes much too close for comfort) has been celebrated - if that’s the right word - in Northern Ireland this week.
Belfast’s landmark hotel, The Europa, home-from-home for legions of journalists who covered Ireland’s euphemistically named “Troubles” from the late 1960’s through to the dawn of our new century, has just reached forty years of age. On Monday night it was the subject of a TV documentary profile by the BBC’s regional news team, which carried the hard-to-avoid title: "Bombs, Bullets and Business as Usual"
Not least because it housed such a concentration of the British and international media, the Irish Republican Army often bombed or tried to bomb the Europa. It rapidly gained the reputation of being “the most bombed hotel in the world”. No-one seemed to have found any challengers for that dubious distinction.
IRA bombs were usually preceded by a warning, and the admirable staff, most of whom I remember warmly, got down to fine art the evacuating of all their guests. Their record score was clearing the 12-story building in just twenty minutes. Thirty-three bombs exploded at the hotel, and it seems no-one in the civilian information world has kept a record of the others successfully defused by the British Army.
One of my craziest memories from an often insane time, was watching - for a couple of hours - the defusing of a car-bomb, not actually at the Europa itelf, but parked about a hundred yards away in Great Victoria Street – watching in fact through the plate-glass window (yes, plate-glass) of the hotel’s less-than-totally-swanky "Whip-and-Saddle" bar. All I can say in my defense, or at least mitigation, is that I wasn’t alone in my delusional curiosity – my opposite numbers from The Times of London and the Daily Mirror kept me company the whole time, along with Irish coffee and pints of Guinness.
For a few years I retained some queasy souvenirs from Northern Ireland, like casings from rubber bullets, as used in “riot control”, and they’ve all been happily let go over time. But one keepsake that I positively miss, gone astray in one of my various house-moves, is a special Europa necktie. By tradition it was awarded by the legendary hotel manager Harper Brown (now dead, sad to say) to guests who survived a certain quota of bombs.
I have no idea now what that qualifying number was, or how many I had chalked up in order to “win” my own tie. You’d think I’d know … wouldn’t you?
Put it down, if not to the much-quoted “fog of war”, then certainly to the fog of living in wartime.
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