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The world's most dangerous job

Abdi Affey's dreadful days as Kenya's envoy to war-torn Somalia



Sunday, March 30, 2008

Former Keny's Envoy to Somalia Ambassador Mohamed Abdi Affey
Since the end of the Cold War, diplomatic postings have become more of prolonged fully-paid-for overseas holidays. One only gets to hear of envoys representing African countries abroad when they are appointed or recalled.

But for Mohammed Abdi Affey, a posting as Kenya's ambassador to Somalia at the height of anarchy in the failed state, was not only the biggest challenge of his time, but the riskiest. Four years down the line, it also turned out to be a most thankless undertaking as he was quietly relieved of his duties in May 2007.

Interestingly, not even the appointing


authority seemed aware of J,he unfolding events. In fact, some time after that, President Mwai Kibaki met Affey at a public gathering in Wajir and wondered how the latter was doing in his job. To the surprise of both, the diplomat told the President he was no longer in public service.

Affey, a newly nominated ODM-K Member of Parliament, was without prior consultation, appointed ambassador to the chaotic horn of Africa state on July 1, 2003. He heard the news from a friend as he left a mosque after lunchtime prayers. "At first I dismissed the appointment as a joke as there was no government in Somalia  for me to be accredited to, but then I got confirmation that same evening," he says.

He comforted himself that with his previous experience as an Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs and the knowledge he had gathered on the problem in Somalia, he just might be the man to take the challenge.

However, his family and friends were apprehensive about his new job and warned him of the dangers that it entailed, but Affey was passionate on the question of Somalia and deeply believed in the attainment of peace in that country.

"Being Kenyan, a country with 42 ethnic groups living harmoniously, I could not see why Somalia whose only dividing line are clan differences, could not attain peace," Affey told Kenya Weekly at his Nairobi residence recently.

It so happened that sometime in 2006, some leaders of the Somali Islamic Courts came to Kenya under the invitation of the Government through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, an event that visibly disappointed the leaders of the transitional government in Somalia.

Ambassador Affey with Somali President Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed
As the Kenyan ambassador to that country, I was charged with taking care of the details of that trip, but the Ministry was fully in charge of the visit and it sent a plane to pick the leaders up and the Minister actually consulted with them," Affey recalls.

"The transitional government however felt that Kenya was their key ally and so should not have met the Islamic Courts leaders and blamed me for the visit. When the Islamic Courts were later defeated in Mogadishu, the transitional Somali government complained to the Government of Kenya about my involvement in that visit by the Courts' leaders," says Affey

Instead of protecting their envoy, senior officials in Foreign Affairs, tried to frustrate Affey by keeping him at his NSSF office without duties from December 2006 to May 2007. Then they finally terminated his contract without benefits.

Although a disappointed man, having lost his bread and butter prematurely, the 40-year-old is proud of things he helped create and the exciting moments that led to the inauguration of the Transitional Somali Government. "We had a roadmap for the peace process [starting with] bringing the players together to make a commitment, which we were able to accomplish. Then, and despite many tense moments, we led negotiations that established the transitional charter from scratch."

Affey says credit goes to Kalonzo Musyoka, the then Foreign Affairs Minister, whom he says played a key role in making sure the charter was realised. "There were two crucial figures without whom the charter could never have been arrived at; the leader of the transitional government that had been established in Djibouti in 2000 and the current President of Somalia. Unfortunately these two could not see eye to eye, but if anything was to be achieved, they had to come to the negotiating table."

Somali Islamic Court fighters in Mogadishu before they were conquered by Ethiopian forces

Affey organised with Minister Kalonzo to have the two to dinner at the minister's Karen residence to break the ice. The results were encouraging. "Only the four of us were at the dinner and immediately we finished, the Minister and I went to an adjacent room where we could hear the two and to our surprise they were regretting their contribution to the collapse of their country and seeking each other's forgiveness. That made us very happy," explains Affey.

He says that this enabled those behind the peace talks to establish a political process that was acceptable, paving the way for the approval of the charter.

For the ambassador, the other great moment was the inauguration of the Somali Parliament in the presence of Kenya's Vice-President in October 2004, while the climax was the swearing in of the President of Somalia. "Finally there was a Somali President I could present my papers to and get accreditation and we had achieved what we set out to do; assist the people of Somalia come up with institutions and now they had a government," says Affey.

President Kibaki honoured Affey with the Moran of the Burning Spear award for his exemplary diplomatic achievement.

At the time of his appointment, the Somali National Reconciliation Conference was underway in Nairobi and the ambassador believes his recruitment was meant to boost the Kenyan team that was helping midwife the process. "I believe the President through the advice of his Minister was looking for someone who knew the issues, had commitment to the job and could speak the language."

And in the most inclusive political move taken by Somalia since the collapse of the state after the ouster of President Siad Barre, the conference appointed 275 MPs from the 3,000 delegates.

For Affey and others, the major challenge was to establish a Somali Parliament for the Somali people outside the Somali territory. "Making sure the political leaders, clan leaders and warlords got their fair share involved walking the tight rope of persuasion and at times quarrelling with them, the inherent danger to ourselves notwithstanding," narrates Affey.

He recalls August 2003 when the peace process stalled after some members of the conference abandoned it. "We had to get them back and four officers from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and myself were asked to deliver a letter to Somalia. The four declined citing inadequate insurance and so I travelled by myself," says Affey.

Affey and his pilot were lucky to miss a bloody battle at the Mogadishu airport where militiamen had been fighting over miraa. They landed just as bodies of the casualties were being collected.

Not without reason, the diplomat believes his was the riskiest Kenyan ambassadorial assignment, as he had to often contend with threats on his life from people who thought they had lost out in the process.

However, he marched on. "In Nairobi I shuffled from hotel to hotel trying to get the delegates to agree, and I travelled many times to lawless Somalia without adequate security. My life was solely at the mercy of friendly militiamen," he says.

The biggest challenge of the mission was transferring the parliament and government to Somalia with inadequate and at times non-existent security arrangement on the ground. The ambassador recalls an incident in August 2005 where an international delegation that he was part of accompanied the Somali Prime Minister to Mogadishu to assess the security situation. "At the airport we were met by about 1,000 ill-trained, ill-equipped militiamen, some who roughly pushed me aside, taking me for just another of their country's busybodies. My white colleagues were allowed to accompany the PM to his residence while I was left stranded at the airport.

Affey was however thankful that he was not identified for who he was, for those who did not like the position that had been taken by Kenya in the process might have harmed him. Later a Good Samaritan gave him a ride to the PM's residence.

However, the worst was to come. As Affey flew out of Mogadishu, a bomb exploded at a rally the Prime Minister was addressing. "I had asked a Kenyan media crew that had accompanied us to come back with me but they had insisted that they wanted to take photographs during the rally. I was deeply worried about them on the way back, but was relieved when we later found that they were safe at their hotel and we sent a plane to pick them up."

The most disheartening moments for the peace negotiator came from May to June of 2006 with the rise of the Islamic Courts. "They took over Mogadishu further complicating a difficult political equation. The dilemma was, though they [Islamic Courts] did not have legitimacy, they were a political force that we [Kenya] as the chair of IGAD could not ignore, if stability was to be established, and yet on the other hand there was a government in place which we had helped to put in place," Affey explains.

While the Islamic Courts leaders were not interested in dialogue, Affey was tasked by IGAD to coordinate an international mission that would assess the security and political situation in Somalia, and brief IGAD and the UN Security Council.

The assessment was to be undertaken in Baidoa, Mogadishu, Kismayu and Galkayo. Affey led a delegation of 22 diplomats including all ambassadors from the IGAD member states, for the visit that started at Baidoa. "Having consulted with members of the transitional government, I spent the most stressful night of my life, trying to prepare for our visit with the leaders of the Islamic Courts the next morning in Mogadishu. This group considered us allies of the transitional government and conversely their enemies."

But there was no way Mogadishu, the country's capital, could be left out of their itinerary if a comprehensive report was to be made. "I had a long telephone chat with the leader of the Islamic Courts, and after lengthy persuasion, he agreed to meet us on condition that we offload the Ethiopian delegation, a country they accused of assisting the transitional government. They said if they [Ethiopians] accompanied us, our security would not be guaranteed."

'At the airport we were met by about 1000 ill-trained, ill-equipped militiamen some who roughly pushed me aside, taking me for just another of their country's busybodies. My white colleagues were allowed to accompany the PM to his residence while I was left stranded at the airport'

Affey was in a bind. He could not offload the Ethiopian delegation particularly as it was an IGAD member and yet he could not afford to compromise the security of the 22 diplomats. After much agonising, he summoned the head of the Ethiopian team and without referring to the discussion with the leader of the Islamic Courts, asked him what he felt about the trip to Mogadishu. To his great relief, the Ethiopian told him that he did not think the team would be safe if his delegation accompanied it, and asked to be left behind. A major diplomatic dilemma had been solved.

The former ambassador believes the people of Somalia are ready for peace, but accuses leaders who are neither nationalistic nor patriotic of compromising the process. "The other problem is too much foreign interference, but the way forward for this classic example of a failed state is an enhanced United Nations engagement."

He says IGAD and the African Union, with their limited resources, have done what they could. "What we need now is concerted international efforts in terms of resources and troops," he says.

Ambassador Affey, nominated to Parliament by Kalonzo Musyoka's ODM-Kenya party, admits that his was a most dangerous assignment but it was worthwhile •"


Source: Kenya Weekly, Mar 30, 2008