Challenges galore as new UN envoy arrives in Somalia

James Swan, the new Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Somalia. AMISOM Photo / Ilyas Ahmed

Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General for Somalia, Mr James Swan, is this week expected to arrive in Somalia. Weighty issues await the special representative, and his arrival coincides with a sensitive period of political transition in Somalia.

Mr Swan’s predecessor was declared Persona Non Grata because of the poor relations between top Somali executive leaders and the UN. The issue still stands because nothing has changed.

During his short-lived tenure as prime minister, President Farmajo is remembered for worsening relations between the UN and the government he was leading. The root cause of the problem is the way Farmajo views the role of the UN.

Farmajo thinks that the job of the UN is to only do what the Somali government asks it to do, while the reality is that the UN office in Somalia, UNSOM, operates in accordance with a United Nations Security Council resolution, which directs UNSOM to support Somalia on key issues, top among them governance, security sector reforms and rule of law (including the disengagement of combatants), development of a federal system, constitutional review, democratisation (including preparations for the 2020/21 political transition) and coordination of international donor support.

I met with James Swan 11 years ago in Djibouti when I was the chief negotiator of the Alliance for the Re-liberation of Somalia. At the time, he was the US Ambassador to Djibouti.

Swan is a veteran diplomat who understands Somalia and the Horn of African region. He had also previously served as his home country’s representative to Somalia. As such, and with the mandate of the current federal government close to ending, the expectation is that Mr Swan will be able to manoeuvre the complex political transitions in the country to their successful conclusions.

Mr Swan lands in the midst of a stand-off between the Federal Government of Somalia on one side and Federal Member States (regional states), political parties, civil society organisations and the powerful Mogadishu constituents on the other. He also arrives at a time when the voice of the international community is fragmented; making any leverage it had in Somalia affairs irrelevant.

Swan has to balance his relations with political stakeholders in Somalia and juggle the different perspectives of the political forces with visible influence in the country, such as the Federal Government, Federal Member States, political parties and civil society groups. It is also important to listen to the concerns of the influential Mogadishu constituents.

There are strong suspicions that President Farmajo is opposed to the federalism system in the country, preferring a centralised power and exhibiting dictatorial tendencies. It reminds one of the authoritarian rule of Siyad Barre and the damages it inflicted on the country.

There are also suspicions that the United States, from whence Mr Swan hails, is supporting President Farmajo on his authoritarian policies that undermine the peace and state-building process in Somalia, doing so for its own geopolitics and because of the unusual freedom it has been given in its air campaign against the militant group, Al-Shabaab.

Mr Swan also has to unite the voice of the international community to restore the leverage they had in Somalia, now lost because of divisions among members.

The difficult tasks ahead of him and the sensitive time he is arriving notwithstanding, Mr Swan’s diplomatic experience, his knowledge of Somalia and his connections among Somalis as well in the international community could give him the sway he needs to do his job and do it well.