Besieged in a tiny corner of one of the world’s most dangerous capital cities, peppered with sniper and rocket fire, a few thousand Burundian and Ugandan troops are protecting a rickety transitional government against Islamist insurgents in the name of African unity.
What, you might wonder, would be at the top of the African Union Mission to Somalia’s (AMISOM) peacekeeping wish list? Helmets, check. Armoured personnel carriers. Roger. A peace process? Hmm. It’s complicated.
Meanwhile, how about half a million dollars-worth of services every month from a top-flight British PR agency? Thanks to the taxpayers of the UN member states, it’s theirs.
Since November 2009, heavy hitters Bell Pottinger have led a consortium on a year-long $7.3m (€5.3m) strategic communications contract to, among other things, open a radio station and supervise a major public information “hearts and minds” campaign to make the mission (AMISOM) more welcome in Somalia.
Simon Davies, overseer of the project on behalf of the UN’s support office for Somalia, envisions the radio station, above all else, as the foundation of “a public broadcast system [for Somalia] not dissimilar to [America’s] NPR”.
The UN’s idea of investing in this is that it will hugely improve communications around the country – a benefit to ordinary Somalis but also a major asset to AMISOM in improving its own security and operational effectiveness.
There are legitimate reasons to use a contractor for public diplomacy. In the four months since the contract was signed, a full complement of staff has been recruited from Kenya and inside Somalia and work is already under way in both places, says Bell Pottinger’s chief of staff in Nairobi, Stephen Harley. Shootings and kidnappings have made security rules so tight that UN staff can’t travel freely in most of Somalia, but contractors can make their own arrangements. The Bell Pottinger consortium’s international team has actually spent time in the country. The vast majority of UN international staff working on Somalia spend most, if not all, of their time sitting safely in Nairobi.
But given the dire humanitarian and security threats (Somalia’s Islamist insurgents have been linked to al-Qaeda) and the shortage of funding for the aid operation (nearly half the population needs emergency aid and thousands are fleeing to neighbouring countries every month) is a PR plan really the best thing for the African Union’s peacekeeping force to invest in right now?
Wouldn’t it be more worthwhile spending money on training and equipment for the 5,000 Ugandan and Burundian force currently holding the front line in Mogadishu?
The UN member states paying for this contract are certainly beginning to wonder about their investment in AMISOM, supporting a government that is considered the last, best hope for Somalia. A review by the UN’s budgetary watchdog in late October 2009 – even before the consortium began its work – expressed concern about the “proliferation of structures for the support of AMISOM”.
Also disquieting is the apparent failure by AMISOM to really take advantage of the PR experts at its disposal; only one press conference has been held since November, the mission does not have a proper website and there has been no systematic output of credible information. So far, there is no sign of warming public opinion in Mogadishu towards the peacekeeping force.
Bell Pottinger’s best-known foray on African soil was in representing oil trader Trafigura, which paid out more than $150m (€110m) in compensation to Côte d’Ivoire last year following the dumping of a shipment of its waste in the West African country.
Defending AMISOM peacekeepers against charges of indiscriminately shelling civilians in Mogadishu may be their next task.