The nomination on 30 May of the United States diplomat James Swan as the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative in Somalia has deepened divisions within the country’s political class, amid accusations that Washington forced through his selection to protect US influence over oil-rich ground.
Swan, a veteran US State Department career officer who served as ambassador in Djibouti, Somalia and Congo-Kinshasa during Barack Obama’s presidency, has been pushed forward by Donald Yamamoto, the current US ambassador in Mogadishu and a mentor of Swan’s, diplomats and UN insiders told Africa Confidential. Yamamoto also served under Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, including stints as ambassador to Djibouti and Ethiopia.
Yamamoto has developed political alliances on one side of the political fence in South West State, which may hold some of the richest oil deposits of all the acreage that the Mogadishu government showcased, albeit unsuccessfully, at a London licensing roadshow in February. The state also hosts Baledogle Airfield, an important and expanding base for US military operations against Al Shabaab (AC Vol 59 No 22, US strikes, Shabaab gains). British officials have appealed to Yamamoto to share the ex-Soviet military base of Baledogle, which has a 3.2 kilometre runway, but the request has been rebuffed, security sources say.
Late last year Baidoa, the capital of South West State, was the centre of a brutal political dispute after federal government forces violently suppressed protests following Ethiopian troops’ arrest of Mukhtar Robow Ali ‘Abu Mansur’ (Rahanweyn/Leysan clan), an Al Shabaab founder and long-time Baidoa area commander until his defection to the government in 2017 (AC Vol 60 No 2, Mogadishu lashes out). Robow was tipped to win the state’s presidential election until Federal President Mohamed Abdullah Mohamed’Farmajo’ ordered Ethiopian troops to detain him and ensure victory for Abdiaziz Hassan Mohamed ‘Lafta Gareen'(Rahanweyn/Xarin). Lafta Gareen’s mother belongs to the same clan as Farmajo (Darod/Marehan). Appalled at Farmajo’s high-handedness, the United Kingdom and Germany suspended their security sector assistance. The US government, meanwhile, bankrolled the state election and then deepened its relationship with Lafta Gareen.
One of the main casualties of the Robow affair was the UN’s top representative at the time, Nicholas Haysom. The South African was not alone in seeing Robow as a potential bridge to Al Shabaab, or at least as a politician who could counteract its appeal. Many believed UN Secretary-General António Guterres did not do enough to defend Haysom against Farmajo’s ire.
David Concar, the UK ambassador to Somalia, was believed to be close to Robow. Despite the presence of many Islamists, even Salafists, in mainstream politics and the current government, rapprochement with former Shabaab leaders remains anathema to Farmajo and controversial in general. The prominent British-Somali journalist Rageh Omaar, international affairs editor of Britain’s ITV News, condemned Concar’s meeting last year with Robow.
Haysom’s two predecessors, Nicholas Kay and Michael Keating, are both British. During their tenure between 2013 and 2018, London was the penholder on Somalia at the UN Security Council as the UK government invested heavily in its development.
Yamamoto has attempted to cultivate close contacts with Prime Minister Hassan Ali Khaire and with officials in the Ministry of Petroleum and Mineral Resources, notably the Minister, Abdirashid Mohamed Ahmed. The ministry has been partly responsible for developing Somalia’s controversial petroleum bill, which was passed into law and is described as unconstitutional by many Somalis occupying positions of power in federal member states. Khaire was once an executive at Soma Oil and Gas, the British company chaired by British Conservative party grandee Lord Michael Howard and which in 2013 gained licences to prospect 60,000 square kilometres of acreage.
At the same time, Yamamoto has exacerbated divisions on a number of other fronts. With his opposition to Robow, he has alienated the Leysan sub-clan in Baidoa. By being perceived to have allied US diplomatic interests to Bantus he has incurred the ire of the largest clan, the Hawiye, who perceive their important sub-clans in Lower Shabelle, the Abgal and Habr Gidir, to be under threat. In neighbouring Jubaland, where elections are due in August, the majority Ogaden and Marehan clans see Yamamoto forging an alliance with the minority Bantu and Bimal against them. Diplomatic sources say meanwhile that Farmajo is pushing his favoured candidate, Aviation Minister Mohamed Abdullahi Salad Omar, to take on Jubaland President Ahmed Mohamed Islaan’Madobe’ in the elections.
Yamamoto was one of the key backers of last month’s talks between the federal government and the states in the Puntland capital, Garowe. He pressured Farmajo and Khaire to attend the meeting just as tensions between Mogadishu and the states were reaching fever pitch, Somali and UN officials told Africa Confidential. Predictably, the talks collapsed, with Puntland and Galmudug formally cutting ties with the Mogadishu government by the end of the month. Jubaland issued a statement of blame but stopped short of closing the door on relations.
Amid the meltdown, the five-month delay to replace Haysom took a toll on political stability in Somalia, and on the standing of the UN. The collapse of the Garowe talks also left a bad taste in the mouth of Farmajo and Khaire, who see Yamamoto’s alliances in South West State and with individuals in the Petroleum Ministry as no guarantee that he will also protect Mogadishu’s interests. With the mood souring against him, overall Somali opposition to Swan’s nomination appeared to be gathering pace, just as within the UN system resentment was building against the Somali government, and with it an ill-judged call for punitive measures and a show of strength against Mogadishu.
In the initial stages of recruiting Haysom’s replacement, the field of candidates was crowded with ill-qualified national diplomats with no knowledge of Somalia or the UN. Central to the race were candidates from three countries: the US, Canada and, to a lesser extent, Turkey. By early last month, it looked as if an alternative candidate from Canada – Jarat Chopra, with decades of UN and Somalia experience – also had the backing of a number of member states, including Somalia.
The week after the Garowe meeting, however, the US intervened aggressively, pressuring Guterres in New York and the Somali President and Prime Minister in Mogadishu, we hear from diplomatic sources. Regional governments, including Kenya, appealed to the Secretary General, warning against the implications of appointing a US national to lead the UN in Somalia.
Nairobi is also nervous after the leak of a document from Somalia’s Petroleum Ministry showed that five oil blocks it aims to license to bidders may in fact be in Kenyan waters. We hear that US diplomats have also been promoting the idea of deploying the Ethiopian and Eritrean military to Jubaland to replace Kenyan forces who, despite being present since 2011, have failed to adequately take on Al Shabaab (AC Vol 60 No 4, Shabaab fight in high gear & Vol 60 No 10, Farmajo’s big push).
As premature leaks of Swan’s appointment spread through Somali-speaking Voice of America journalists, interest groups began to react. Robow’s political party issued a press release warning that Swan would not be welcome in South West State. The Hawiye elders in Benadir published a statement warning against the appointment, evoking the last time the Hawiye confronted a US-led United Nations, in the Black Hawk Down era of the early 1990s.
By the third week of May and after the Garowe debacle, the Somali government attempted to delay Swan’s appointment process by calling for consultations, only to hear that he had already been chosen, against their wishes. In early June, the federal government issued a statement welcoming the Security Council’s renewal of the mandate for the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), but remaining silent about the new UN Special Representative.
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