Former Italian prime minister and European Commission president Romano Prodi, was on Tuesday appointed U.N. special envoy for North Africa's Sahel, placing him at the center of the international effort to reverse a Tuareg separatist rebellion in northern Mali and drive out Islamic extremists imposing a harsh brand of sharia law in the area.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, speaking at a press conference with French President Francois Hollande, said that he had selected Prodi to help implement a plan to contain the spread of terrorism and weapons in the region, and to assist hundreds of thousands of refugees and displaced people others who are suffering from conflict and drought.
"So many people, again, have been displaced and there have been 200,000 refugees. The continuing drought and the security instability have put so many people in a very difficult situation," Ban said. "It is sort of a multiple crisis -- a humanitarian crisis, and security crisis, and also in the northern part of Mali, there are terrorist groups like Ansar Dine and MUJAO [the movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa]. And there is an unacceptable violation of human rights, imposing Islamist laws like sharia. Those are all unacceptable situations."
In selecting Prodi, Ban settled on a
well-known European political leader who can raise the international profile of
the region's crisis and who is an established figure within the European Union,
which will play a leading role in underwriting and shaping the world's political
and financial response. "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," said one U.N. official.
But Prodi has limited experience as a diplomatic troubleshooter, having served a single stint on a U.N. commission overseeing the effectiveness of U.N. peacekeeping operations. An economist by training, Prodi earned a reputation in Italy as the anti-Berlusconi, a mild mannered technocrat whose various nicknames -- Mr. Nobody and Mr. Mortadella -- underscored his reputation as a bland, if trustworthy, politician.
Prodi -- who cut his teeth in the rough and tumble world of Italy's coalition politics -- served as Italy's prime minister twice, once from 1996 to 1998 and again from 2006 to 2008, and as president of the European Commission from 1999 to 2005. It was at the commission where he oversaw the introduction of the euro and a treaty establishing the European constitution.
But his career was not entirely lacking drama or controversy.
In the 1970s, Prodi, then a university professor, reportedly provided Italian police with a tip revealing the supposed whereabouts of another two-time Italian prime minister, Aldo Moro, who was at the time being held by Red Brigade terrorists, according to a 2005 account in the Independent.
Prodi informed the Italian authorities that the ghost of a dead politician, Giorgio La Pira, had disclosed by way of a Ouija board during a séance that Moro was being held at a place called Gradoli. The police launched a fruitless search for Moro in the village of Gradoli north of Rome. Emptyhanded, they dismissed Prodi's story as nonsense.
But in turned out that Moro -- who was later shot to death and dropped in the back of a car -- was actually being held at the time in at a safe house in a Rome suburb on a street called Via Gradoli. That revelation fueled charges that Prodi has made up the story of the séance to conceal the true source.
U.N. observers say he will face a major challenge fashioning consensus from a maddening array of international, regional and local players, which includes a cast of characters from American and European leaders to Tuareg rebels and Islamist militants.
Bruce Jones, the director of NYU's Center for International Cooperation, said he does not know Prodi well enough to say whether he's the best qualified for the job. But he said that his experience working in Italy's fractious political system might be useful. "Managing a complex political coalition is very similar to real mediation," he said.
But others have questioned whether the international community has the commitment to invest sufficient political capital in resolving the Mali crisis. Perhaps Prodi could return to the Ouija board for help.
Giorgio La Pira, whose ghost purportedly revealed Aldo Morro's whereabouts, had a sideline career as an international mediator, traveling the Cold War capitals of Moscow, Beijing, and Hanoi in search of peace openings with the West. Those skills could prove useful.
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Longtime Washington Post correspondent Colum Lynch reports on all things United Nations for Turtle Bay.