UN appoints 'big EU name' for Sahel job

11.10.12 @ 09:29

  1. By Andrew Rettman
  2. Andrew email

BRUSSELS - The UN has hired mild-mannered former European Commission and Italian leader Romano Prodi to help pacify west Africa.

  • Prodi is said to have been angling for a UN post for the past few years (Photo: prodi.it)

UN chief Ban Ki Moon and President Francois Hollande of France, a former colonial power in the region, unveiled Prodi's appointment as UN special envoy for the Sahel on Tuesday (9 October).

They said he will co-ordinate a mixed bag of international projects out of a UN office in Italy.

The Sahel covers Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Niger and parts of Sudan, Cameroon and Nigeria.

The region is gearing up for war after nations in the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) promised to help Mali storm Azawad, a breakaway territory conquered by Touareg tribes who used to fight for late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.

It is also home to laundry list of Islamist and organised crime groups.

Ban on Tuesday named Ansar Dine and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (Mujao). But Al Qadea in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM, blamed for kidnapping French tourists) and Ansar Al Sharia (blamed for killing the US ambassador to Libya) are also active in the area.

Prodi is an economist and a two-time former Italian prime minister. He also led the EU commission from 1999 to 2004.

He has no experience in conflict mediation.

But Ban and EU leaders say his background in EU coalition politics make him the right man for the job.

"Prodi has a long and distinguished career in government and international diplomacy as a consensus-builder, having served as prime minister of Italy and president of the European Commission for several years," Ban said in a letter, obtained by Reuters, to UN colleagues earlier this month.

"The leadership and extensive experience of Romano Prodi will greatly contribute to mobilise the international response," EU Council chief Herman Van Rompuy said on Tuesday.

A UN official told the Washington Post that Prodi's main value will be in PR terms.

"We wanted to appoint someone with a big enough name so that this issue would not get ignored and swept under the carpet in a few months," the UN contact said.

The EU is getting increasingly involved in the Sahel to stop it becoming an Afghanistan-type base for terrorist operations in Europe.

EU countries in August launched Eucap Sahel Niger.

The €9-million, two-year-long operation will see some 50 EU police and military advisors help train security staff in Niger, Mali and Mauritania.

EU foreign ministers will next week also discuss how to help Ecowas to get the Touaregs out of Mali.

France's Hollande said on Tuesday that the EU will play a small role in the conflict.

"I want to remind you, since it's important, that this is an African force, and that therefore the Africans - and primarily the Malians - are responsible for the planning and force generation," he said.

A French foreign ministry spokesman the same day spoke of "logistical support."

"We know what we don't want to do: 'No boots on the ground' ... This isn't an expeditionary force that we're sending to Mali," he said.