UNOSOM I: The timing issue between January and December 1991

Understanding Somalia

Evaluating UN decision making: UNOSOM I, January 1991 – December 1992

A series of events domestically in Somalia and at the UN level, taken place from January 1991 throughout UNOSOM I, shows the extent to which the UN has been present in Somalia and highlights how timing, lack of coordination, lack of continuity and scarce dialogue with the locals have been the main factors hindering a successful UN presence in the African country.

January – December 1991: THE ISSUE WITH TIMING

The SCR 733 was the first resolution on Somalia adopted by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). It was signed on 23 January 1992, exactly one year after Somali President Siad Barre, who had ruled since 1969, was overthrown. Contrary to the expectations of a US State Department official who believed that the Somali power struggle was ‘a tribal affair without international implications’, the issue of Somalia eventually returned on the US agenda and saw the UN involved for several years afterwards.

Following the overthrow of Siad Barre on 26 January 1991, an unforgiving civil war reigned over Somalia. Former President Siad Barre’s Marehan clan was defending itself from the Hawiye clan’s United Somali Congress, which was also in conflict with the Isaaks who controlled the Northern Somalia and called for the independent republic of Somaliland. Ali Mahdi Mohamed, a wealthy Mogadishu hotelier, and the Chairman of the United Somali Congress, General Aidid, became the two Somali warlords responsible for Somalia’s devastation. They belonged to the same Hawiye clan, but to two different sub-clans, the Abgals and the Habar Gedir respectively. On 17 November 1991 General Aidid unsuccessfully tried to unseat Ali Mahdi Mohamed who proclaimed himself Interim President declaring a new government and continuous clashes caused Somalia to experience what the Under Secretary General of the UN James Jonah reported as 11,000 civilians wounded and more than 9,000 casualties in only one month of fighting. From November 1991 onwards, the situation in Somalia deteriorated to a point that has been considered by many as a point of no return.

However, the Somali civil war was not a surprise to the world and the intense fighting erupted in November 1991 had been preceded by a number of situations which could have got the UN involved at an earlier stage. In particular, there can be found three instances which the UN could have taken advantage of in order to avoid a worsening crisis. Former UN Special Representative to Somalia, Ambassador Mohamed Sahnoun, defined those three instances as the three “missed opportunities”.

The first one was in May 1988. At that time, Said Barre was involved in a bloody war with Somalia’s Northern citizens belonging to the Isaaks clan. The violence, which took place at the time, had been well documented by Amnesty International and could have been an opportunity for the international community to intervene and “rescue the victimised population”.

The second instance was in May 1990 when a famous Somali lawyer, Dr Ismaa’iil Jim’aale drafted a “Manifesto” which was signed by 144 notable Somali politicians, diplomats, academics, religious leaders and prominent businessmen, including the first Somali president, Adan Abdullah Osman, who was 80 years old at the time. The Manifesto group led by Dr Ismaa’iil Jim’aale “wished to ease Barre out of office peacefully”, but Barre’s response was to arrest the prominent leaders in the list, including Dr Ismaa’iil Jim’aale himself. Had the UN taken this instance as an opportunity to get involved, send observers and to start assessing the situation, history might have gone a different course and the loss of many innocent lives could have been prevented.

The third event, which could have brought the UN in Somalia at a much earlier date, was the Djibouti Accords, which took place between the 15 and 21 July 1991 and later on 6 August 1991. As Boutros-Ghali also reiterated in his March 1992 Report, the Djibouti Accords were an effort towards regional stability by Djibouti, the smallest country in the Horn of Africa, meant to favour Somali national reconciliation. Unfortunately, while Interim President Mohamed was one of the main figures of the Accords, during which he was also officially appointed President of the provisional Government of Somalia for a period of two years, the other two warring factions, the Isaaks from the North and General Aidid, did not attend, thus causing the Accords to lose their intended legitimacy and credibility. The point made here by Ambassador Sahnoun on the “missed opportunity” was that “even though the negotiations might have been long and arduous, international pressure would have ensured that all parties were committed to the results”, instead the Accords received no response from the international community and from the regional organisations like the UN, the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) and the Arab League.

Interestingly, also the media forgot about Somalia in the months of more need. Just as Walter Goodman asked on the New York Times the question of “why it took TV so long to focus on the Somalis”, research carried for the purpose of this thesis finds evidence that the media and newspapers did not cover Somalia enough between January 1991 and December 1991. By analysing the newspaper’s archives, there can be noted that while the ousted of Siad Barre in January 1991 was covered, very little was written between then and the deterioration of the situation in Somalia from November 1991 onwards. There seems to be a complete empty canvas from February till November with sporadic articles mentioning the “hundred of thousands of refugees who recently poured into Ethiopia” or the “economic collapse” bringing “widespread malnutrition” in Somalia. It seemed as if the readers of those newspapers woke up in late November to a Somalia devastated and hungry and had no real clue of how this happened and how it was let to happen.

While little was mentioned on the developments of the civil war, famine was expanding and presented itself as the main danger shadowing over Somalia. As reported by James Jonah, the distribution of food stopped completely on 17 December 1991 due to the inability of both non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and the UN agencies to operate on the ground. However, a series of events at a much earlier date could have been a signal for the UN to try operate earlier. As reported by long-time foreign correspondent Jane Perlez, on 3 January 1991 UN pilot James W. F. Wallace IV evacuated 14 UN officials out of Mogadishu due to the deteriorating situation. A senior official in Washington was reported saying that the plan to evacuate all Americans left in Mogadishu, 31 embassy officers and 40 others, was not being implemented yet “because of the dangerous situation” across the capital. The Red Cross workers were forced to flee Somalia at the beginning of January as well and all other nations were proceeding with similar steps as the US. Even though governments and the international community were well aware of what was going on in Somalia, in just a few days Somalia would be left to itself.


Extract from Roberta Cucchiaro’s Master thesis in International History at the London School of Economics and Political Science (September 2012) entitled “Evaluating UN Decision Making: UNOSOM I, January 1991 – December 1992”. Views expressed in this extract are of the author only and not associated to the academic institute of LSE. The piece has not been published and cannot be quoted. If interested in obtaining further information please contact the author at roberta.cucchiaro [at] All footnotes and referencing have been removed from this extract.

Do we really have faith? In the picture: Admiral Jonathan T. Howe (second from right), Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Somalia, visiting a UN-supported feeding centre run by CONCERN, a non-governmental organization. With him are Colonel Evren (far right) of Turkey, Military Liaison Officer with UNOSOM, and two Baidoa residents. [April 1993]

Do we really have faith?
In the picture: Admiral Jonathan T. Howe (second from right), Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Somalia, visiting a UN-supported feeding centre run by CONCERN, a non-governmental organization. With him are Colonel Evren (far right) of Turkey, Military Liaison Officer with UNOSOM, and two Baidoa residents. [April 1993]


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