Jason Mayordomo has a tough assignment. A technology manager with the united nations peacekeeping force in Sierra Leone, he has to make sure information flows seamlessly between the U.N.s local headquarters in freetown and its far-flung outposts on the remote edges of this war-ravaged country. In addition to dealing with the technical vagaries of remote outposts, equipment-disabling lightning strikes and the limited availability of replacement parts, he must also work with the knowledge that peace in this west african nation may very well depend on how well he does his job.
Oct. 29, 2003, United Nations heliport, Freetown, Sierra Leone
Half the seats on the 8:30 a.m. U.N. helicopter flight are taken by Pakistani soldiers returning to their base in Koidu, the Eastern Sector headquarters for the peacekeeping force in Sierra Leone. Crowded among them, along with the journalists and humanitarian workers, are Jason Mayordomo, the U.N. missions communications and information-technology chief, and two members of his team.
The Koidu base is complaining of congested data-network links, a balky router and malfunctioning wireless-network nodes. Mayordomo and his team take the reports seriously. While such problems can cause headaches in the commercial world, here they can be fatal.
Koidu is a strategically important outpost at the heart of Sierra Leones coveted diamond-mining territory, which lies less than 30 miles from the porous border with Liberia, a nearly lawless country decimated by two blood-soaked changes in regime in the past 20 years. Sierra Leones own civil war ended in 2002, after a brutal 11-year struggle between successive government forces and a rebel group known as the Revolutionary United Front (RUF)—made up of the countrys rural poor and backed by Liberian militia. The RUF was notorious for using children as soldiers and hacking off the hands of opponents with machetes and axes. Exact numbers are hard to come by, but the U.S. government estimates that more than 2 million of the countrys 5.7 million people have been displaced by the conflict and that “tens of thousands” have been killed. Three years ago rebel forces temporarily took some 500 U.N. staff as hostages.
The United Nations Assistance Mission to Sierra Leone, or UNAMSIL, though, persists. After initially suffering from some of the same bureaucratic ineptitude and military failures that have marred other U.N. missions, UNAMSIL prevailed with a disarmament campaign that allowed Sierra Leone to reestablish a civilian government.
Now the people of this beleaguered African country are counting on the U.N. to maintain the peace.
But to maintain order, U.N military observers in Sierra Leone need to know whats going on. While the peacekeepers are scheduled to pull out of Sierra Leone in 2004, UNAMSILs military observers in the field need to remain alert for signs of trouble—whether its infiltration from Liberia or rock-throwing battles between tribes with rival claims to a diamond mine. The quality of the missions communications and information services determines how quickly the observers can file the full reports that military commanders need to assess threats and allocate resources.
Next Page: Many nations have brought in incompatible computing gear which could have disastrous consequences.
Incompatible Gear Spells Trouble
In order to keep information flowing, Mayordomo and his team of civilians must keep open the communications channels that connect 11,000 peacekeeping troops from more than 30 countries—a task compounded by the fact that many nations have brought in their own, incompatible computing gear. Any equipment failure could have disastrous consequences.
“Think of it,” Mayordomo says. “Koidu is overrun by rebels, and were saying, Wait just a minute, someone is changing the network switch.” If the rebels take to combat or hostage-taking, they wont allow a timeout for reconfiguring a piece of equipment.
While most corporate project managers might not have to worry about battling armed insurgents, many of the difficulties faced by the U.N. mission are similar to the hurdles faced by project managers looking to set up mobile computing environments in remote locations—unreliable power and communications lines that are vulnerable to harsh weather, limited availability of replacement parts and on-site support personnel, and remote users who dont comply with standards and procedures.
But Mayordomo also must deal with the rugged terrain of Sierra Leone—a tropical country slightly smaller than South Carolina thats dotted with forests, swamps and mountains almost 2,000 feet tall. There are few paved roads and only one airport with a paved runway. If computer equipment breaks down in Koidu, theres no running to CompUSA—a replacement has to be flown in.
Mayordomo, a Filipino who originally trained as a mining engineer, was recruited by a U.N. economic-development program in the late 1980s to consult on the use of software he had written to analyze the potential of a mine versus its operational cost. He switched to the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) in 1996, after funding for the mining project dried up, and served as a technologies manager to peacekeeping missions in the Republic of Georgia, the Central African Republic and Congo.
In 2000, he was named DPKOs chief of information technology—a title he still holds—and is responsible for computer-vendor and technology choices across all missions. But in June he gave up his New York office for a chance to get back into the field. “When Im in New York, I put things into effect but never get to see how its working,” he says.
So now he splits his attention between setting DPKO technology plans and overseeing the practical details of keeping the systems in Sierra Leone functioning. While the scale of the mission is smaller, he has the freedom to blur some boundaries, particularly the one between information and communications technology—hard distinctions within the U.N.s bureaucracy.
Next Page: Figuring out the best technologies for peacekeeping communications.
Mayordomo is focused on technical issues that he feels can make a difference as to whether the peace is kept in Sierra Leone. He currently is figuring out the best ways to use:
- Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) communications. While DPKO hasnt embraced VoIP on a broad scale, Mayordomo can experiment with it within his own mission. In fact, he thinks it might help solve some of the network congestion complaints from Koidu. By installing a Cisco router capable of transmitting phone calls like data, as Internet packets, rather than using a separate voice communications channel, he hopes to reduce overall bandwidth consumption.
- Wireless communications networks. Mayordomo thinks wireless can be a key to U.N. rapid deployment since setup is so much faster than for a wired network. He first used the technology after arriving in the Central African Republic in 1998 to find the network in shambles. Cables between buildings were hanging from tree branches—a typical case of technicians improvising a quick setup and never going back to clean up their work. Instead of rewiring, Mayordomo brought in Aironet wireless-networking equipment, back before Aironet was acquired by Cisco.
- Power protection. Tropical Africa is one of the most lightning-prone areas in the world, subject to more than 200 days of lightning per year. Whether from lightning or an erratic power grid, electrical surges frequently overwhelm the grounding and protective devices the U.N. employs, damaging computer and networking equipment. Mayordomo is looking for solutions. One possibility: dissipation-array technology, which its developers claim can create an electromagnetic shield against lightning.
Power protection, wireless communications, and VoIP are critical to the day-to-day operations at Koidu. Today, in fact, Mayordomo wants to see first-hand how DPKOs existing technology is holding up in the field.
For peacekeeping, the ultimate test of any technology is how well it works on the ground. Mayordomo has made some use of VoIP at UNAMSILs Freetown headquarters, but putting it in Koidu and requiring it to work over satellite connections is a much more stringent test. And for all his enthusiasm about wireless networking, making it work through Africas tropical downpours and lightning storms is a challenge.
Mayordomo is traveling to Koidu with two colleagues, Sivabalan Karuppiah and Ambrose Majongwe. Karuppiah, a contractor to the U.N. from Telecommunications Consultants India Ltd., is going to Koidu specifically to address wireless-networking problems. He boards the U.N. helicopter carrying a Panasonic Toughbook ruggedized laptop and a backpack containing a couple of spare Cisco Aironet units to use as a replacement for the malfunctioning wireless communications equipment at the base.
Majongwe, a communications technician from Zimbabwe, boards the helicopter carrying a Cisco 3725 router like a suitcase. In addition to replacing a misbehaving router in Koidu, he hopes to put the VoIP capabilities of this one to the test. First, he has to defend it against the workers who want to pack it aboard as luggage. “No, I need to keep this with me,” he says, settling into the last available seat, a fold-down contraption just inside the exit hatch.
When the helicopter rotors work up to speed, conversation becomes impossible. Passengers don earmuffs. Mayordomo uses a set of earplugs, saved from a transatlantic flight. Majongwe takes a nap, putting his head down on the router balanced on his lap.
. 29, Koidu, Sierra Leone”>
Oct. 29, Eastern Sector Command, Koidu, Sierra Leone
Arriving at the Koidu base, Majongwe takes the Cisco 3725 and goes to work in the cramped server room, promising the base administrator the network connection to the outside world will be down a half-hour at most, while he changes the router.
Mayordomo is ushered into the office of Lt. Col. Sohail Hamid, commanding officer for the Pakistani signal battalion assigned to provide communications support for this U.N. base. Before starting on his list of complaints, Hamid emphasizes that he and his staff are trying to be self-sufficient. “We will try to bother you less. And we are bothering you less,” he says.
Still, this sector headquarters is responsible for about 4,000 troops at bases throughout the eastern part of the country and three military-observer teams with 15 to 20 members each. Hamid tells Mayordomo he needs more-reliable network services. In addition to the bad router and malfunctioning wireless-network node, Hamid complains about a backlog of e-mail account requests, lost e-mails and overall network congestion. Hamid cant provide his superiors with the quality of communications they expect if he cant rely on the U.N. network.
Mayordomo has his own agenda for this visit, which includes getting unauthorized computers, users and traffic off the network. Some of the congestion the Pakistanis are complaining about is of their own making, he says.
The Pakistanis have been connecting a lot of their own computers to the U.N. network, which is supposed to be against the rules. As a practical matter, U.N. policy on this point is somewhat conflicted, given that Pakistans government is paid to provide the equipment its troops require, from guns to computers, rather than relying on the U.N. to equip them. Still, the lack of control concerns Mayordomo. “If, for example, your computer has a virus, you only need one to take down a network or propagate to other devices,” he says. “I need a list of devices connected to the network, and Im going to have to insist that they conform to our networking standards.” He doesnt really want to ban all non-U.N. equipment, he admits, because that would put more pressure on him to replace it.
To reduce network congestion, there is some phone traffic Mayordomo would like to get off his network entirely—namely, the “welfare calls” that U.N. soldiers make to their families back home. He is encouraging Sierratel, the national phone company, and other carriers to reestablish service to this region, which would let him tell the soldiers to use the public phone system. The Pakistanis ought to be able to get better rates than the U.N. itself is charging. Hamid is interested, as long as access to U.N. phone lines will remain as a backup.
The Pakistanis also complain about a backlog in requests for IBM Lotus Notes e-mail accounts. But Mayordomo explains those accounts arent free. He pays $35 for each Notes account and the DPKO is already paying IBM $1.2 million per year. Accounts have been multiplying unnecessarily as military personnel rotate in and out of the mission, without the old accounts being deleted. He needs the Pakistanis to provide a list of inactive accounts as soon as possible, and he wants to move to a system where Notes IDs for the military will be assigned by function and location rather than by the name of an individual. If military personnel want individual accounts for personal e-mail, let them use Yahoo Mail, he says.
But one of Hamids biggest problems is communicating with a base in Kenema, another diamond-rich town about 50 miles to the south that has seen its share of war and violence. Like the other outposts in the region, Kenema is supposed to coordinate military and military-observer activities with the sector headquarters in Koidu, but electronic communications between the two has been poor. Personnel there can send e-mail, but whenever someone from Koidu tries to write them, the message is delayed or bounces back with an error message.
Mayordomo says he has heard this complaint before. “Remember I told you how to monitor transmission of e-mail, with a receipt for each stop?” he asks one of the junior officers in the room. “That would help us see where the bottleneck is.” Maybe messages are being improperly routed to a mail server at headquarters, he says, but thats guesswork—forwarding the error messages would let his staff see the address of each server that handled a piece of mail, which would help them diagnose the problem properly.
Wireless Networking Problems
The wireless network has also been unreliable, Hamid says, with five of the 14 Aironet boxes used to create the bases wireless local-area network currently out of commission. Some of the locations that have been without network access, such as the officers quarters, arent critical, but he wants service restored to an engineering compound and other facilities more critical to the bases operations.
UNAMSIL has experienced other wireless-networking problems. At headquarters in Freetown, palm fronds weighted down by rain blocked an Aironet connection to the heliport. In fact, most of the wireless-networking equipment at headquarters has been demoted to backup status, except for an access point that serves an “Internet café” in the stairwell.
And Mayordomos own staff has complained about the Proxim wireless bridges he ordered to provide 100-million-bit-a-second wireless connections between the headquarters buildings. One failed to work during storms, even at short range and with the power cranked up. Another proved unable to reach a signal battalion across the bay that should have been well within range.
Mayordomo and Proxim both say the issue must be training, since the same equipment has been used successfully in other missions. Proxim will get a chance to repair its reputation on-site when technical staff come to test a billion-bit-a-second version of its bridges.(See Dossier) Because he has never been able to secure a large training budget, Mayordomo encourages vendors with long-term contracts to bundle training with their products.
But Mayordomos most immediate problem is the Aironet boxes, wireless bridges used to connect one location with other wireless nodes. He hitches a ride to a nearby engineering compound, where he gets his hands on one of the dead Aironet units. After asking a few questions, he has a good idea of what killed this one.
The Aironet 350 is designed to run off inline power—electric power delivered over an Ethernet connection—much like a telephone that can function on the small amount of current coming over a phone wire. So when a lightning storm whipped up, the Pakistanis apparently thought the device was safe because it wasnt plugged into an electrical outlet. But it was probably jolted by an electrical surge that came over the network connection.
Hamid says his people have been following a directive to unplug equipment during storms. “Still, the lightning phenomenon is so great that sometimes we cannot catch it before the damage is done,” he says.
Karuppiah uses one of the spare Aironet units he brought to replace the one that took a lightning jolt. And he is able to get another working again by using his laptop to reprogram it. But he cant fix everything. He will stay over in Koidu so that he can visit some of the other team sites in the region that have reported Aironet problems.
Having equipment burn out is a constant problem. “Bridges, switches and power supplies are consumables for us,” Mayordomo says. “When I was in New York, I wondered, What, are you eating these for lunch?” This sector office is the worst because of the intensity of the lightning in the mountains, he says.
He manages this problem by paying Cisco an extra 20% in return for whats essentially a no-questions-asked replacement policy for equipment that burns out within three years of purchase. The replacements he gets arent necessarily new units, Mayordomo says, “but thats all right—refurbished is good enough.”
Mayordomo says he is looking to see what else he can do about lightning strikes. Recently, he read about dissipation-array systems from Lightning Eliminators and Consultants. By discharging charged particles into the air, this technology is supposed to create an electromagnetic umbrella around an area, diverting lightning rather than attracting it like a lightning rod. Lightning Eliminators says Federal Express is using the technology to protect the computer systems powering its shipping hub in Memphis.
Many electrical engineers, however, dispute the science behind dissipation arrays, saying there is no proven way to deflect lightning. They believe Lightning Eliminators customers are protected by the other measures, such as improved grounding, that the vendor installs at the same time. Lightning Eliminators argues its critics are simply narrow-minded. Mayordomo figures the technology is at least worth exploring.
Returning to the base, Mayordomo finds Ambrose Majongwe looking dejected. “My day has been a total waste of time,” he laments.
His sole task had been to replace a Cisco 3800 series router with a 3725 that would handle both data and phone calls. But he hasnt been able to get the 3725 to work. “On the bench, back at the office, it was working perfectly well. But it wasnt handling 200, 300 calls an hour then,” he says. He keeps getting an error code indicating “IOS Error,” meaning a problem with the Cisco Internet Operating System. He is able to reestablish an Internet connection and download another version of IOS from Ciscos Web site. But that one also crashes, as soon as he reconnects the router to the bases internal network. He downloads yet another IOS version. That crashes, too. “Im going to have to take it back to the workshop and revive it,” he says.
Back at mission headquarters in Freetown, one of Majongwes colleagues is busy relaying an account of Majongwes difficulties to Cisco tech support.
Nevertheless, at the end of their stay in Koidu, Majongwe takes two routers on the helicopter flight back—the one he came with and another malfunctioning unit that had been sitting on the shelf. And this time they get stowed like luggage.
. 28, DPKO Headquarters”>
Oct. 28, DPKO Headquarters, Freetown, Sierra Leone
The day before Mayordomo is to go to Koidu, hes at the Mammy Yoko Hotel. The place was a luxury hotel back when Sierra Leone was a British colony and a seaside resort. But the pool has been drained of water, and weeds are growing up through cracks in the tennis courts. Vehicles coming in the gates are checked for bombs, and white U.N. vehicles, mostly Toyota 4Runners, are parked helter-skelter around a dirt lot.
When the headquarters staff took over the building, the U.N. restored several floors that had suffered bomb damage, but the interior still looks ragged. Mayordomo points out the exposed network wires hanging from the ceiling, then opens up a plumbing and ventilation closet to show how theyre strung between floors. On the way out, he shows a conduit containing strands of fiber-optic cables snaking up the pillars on the hotels back porch, paralleling some older wiring. “Its really quite messy,” he admits.
Peacekeeping missions pose unique challenges. Typically, the peacekeepers come in after years of war and destruction of the local infrastructure. Telecommunications and power systems are unreliable, if theyre operating at all, so the U.N. must be capable of providing its own power, phone and Internet services.
Downhill from the hotel is a cluster of prefab buildings, constructed from shipping containers stacked two high, with open drainage ditches running between them. Mayordomo has his office in one of these containers. In the adjacent lot, several satellite dishes study the sky from within a fenced area bracketed by another cluster of these containerized offices. One dish mounted on a trailer sits next to a Ford van meant to function as a miniature, movable computer-and-communications center.
Known as the Mobile Data Telecommunications System, the van was custom-built by Frontline Communications, a company that mostly specializes in television-news vans. It carries about $100,000 worth of servers and satellite-communications equipment. A fold-down panel on the outside provides access to power, phone and Ethernet sockets instead of video jacks. On a full tank of gas, the built-in generator provide 24 hours of power.
This van will help UNAMSIL in the event the mission has to evacuate, taking with it a subset of essential information systems. Over the summer, when the U.N. was gearing up for its peacekeeping effort in Liberia, two similar vans were prepared in this courtyard. Once packed with servers and radio-communications equipment, they were flown to Liberia on Aug. 23 and driven with their satellite-dish trailers in tow to Monrovia, the Liberian capital.
This initiative was part of the reason Mayordomo came to Sierra Leone. In addition to promising to straighten out UNAMSILs technology problems, he told his boss he would prepare a “virtual mission” containing all the technology that would be needed at the beginning of a new mission in Liberia. Even earlier, on Aug. 4, communications specialists from Sierra Leone had gone to Liberia to prepare.
On the wall in Mayordomos office is a satellite image of the abandoned U.N. facility, a relic of a previous peacekeeping mission, that they targeted as an initial base of operations. Details of the compound are outlined in red, including the satellite dish inside the walls.
Communications manager John McKenzie joins Mayordomo in front of the map to tell that part of the story. “There are a lot of Liberians in Freetown, and we were able to make contact with a woman who lived right here,” he says, pointing to the rooftop of a house just down the street. “We had her walk by every day to see if the dish was still intact. Then we went in light, just a couple of guys. We were lucky—all they had to do was pour gas in the generator and find the satellite.”
Strictly speaking, there was no mission to support in August. A regional peacekeeping force, organized by the Economic Community of West African States, was active in Liberia, but the U.N. Security Council didnt provide the mandate or funding for DPKO to intervene until September.
Mayordomos approach to rapid deployment was to have everything ready before the official word came. He had Internet access, Lotus Notes and other basic systems operational in Liberia two weeks before the assessment team arrived. There was even a finance system so the bureaucrats who would be following close behind the soldiers could account for where the missions money went. All this helped the assessment team complete its work quickly and get the go-ahead for an Oct. 1 mission startup.
“Im very proud of what we did there,” says Erzen Ilijazi, a network-management supervisor who was part of the team that prepared the technology, then flew into Liberia to set it up. UNAMSIL technical staff spent three days setting up 11 servers and configuring about $100,000 worth of equipment on the server racks in the back of each van.
After flying to Liberia, the UNAMSIL technicians took the van by convoy to their destination in Monrovia. “I think we got there about 4 p.m., and we had everything ready by 9 p.m.—thats anti-virus, network, Internet, satellite dish so they can be online, VHF, UHF, mobile communications, all in five or six hours,” Ilijazi says.
Despite the professional rewards, Ilijazi didnt enjoy his time in Monrovia. “I saw a lot of people in civilian clothes, guys on the street, walking around with automatic weapons,” he says. “I dont like to see that.” He had enough of that in Kosovo, where he lived before using a job with the U.N. as his ticket out of the Balkans.
. 31, Freetown, Sierra Leone”>
Oct. 31, DPKO Headquarters, Freetown, Sierra Leone
Mayordomo and McKenzie have a Friday-morning meeting with a group of military officers, a review of how well their communications and information-system needs are being met.
As Mayordomo is hustling up the steps leading to the Mammy Yoko, someone asks how his day is going. “Not so good—were fired up already,” he says, meaning the complaints are rolling in. A network segment is down on the fourth floor of the Mammy Yoko, and whenever that happens at least 25 people are affected. Hes thinking it has something to do with last nights lightning storm. Its not until much later that he finds out about a recall of the Cisco 3524 switches the mission uses.
The military officers include Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, a Nigerian and a Brit. The group works its way down the agenda, noting which problems have been solved or partly solved. One of the Pakistanis is from Koidu, and he repeats complaints about the backlog in Lotus Notes IDs and networking failures. Mayordomo recaps his concern about needing to control the proliferation of e-mail accounts. The Aironet issues have been fixed, he says, and the problem router should be replaced today.
McKenzie takes the rap for some recent problems, such as an outbreak of the MSBlaster computer worm. Hes here as the communications representative, but filled in as I.T. director while Mayordomo was on a recent vacation. “And I cant spell I.T.,” he says, repeating a favorite catchphrase. “When we got a virus, I ran for the med kit.”
Putting on his comms hat, however, McKenzie argues the network is congested partly because some of the regional sites, including Koidu, are overloading it. Just as Mayordomo had noted unauthorized computers on the Koidu network, McKenzie has noticed a proliferation of phones. The Pakistanis must prioritize which phones really need trunk lines with dedicated connections, he says.
As the meeting is breaking up, the British officer, Lt. Col. Ian McKend, pulls Mayordomo aside to talk about the unreliability of document sharing over the network. When the commanders come in at 6:30 a.m., all the military and military-observer reports from the field that they need to condense into situation reports for the daily briefing are supposed to be at their fingertips. But when something goes wrong—for example, when the shared network drive where those reports are stored is slow or unresponsive—theres no one around from I.T. to help.
Although the help-desk staff doesnt get in until 7:30, Mayordomo tells him theres always someone designated to be on call. This is news to McKend, who scribbles down the pager number saying, “This may be a big part of the solution right here.”
“And let me know if theres any reluctance to come in,” Mayordomo tells him. “If its, Cant it wait? or Ill be there in a couple of hours—no, not good enough. Theyre supposed to come right in.”
Mayordomo spends much of the rest of his day trying to finalize plans to visit Liberia and see how the rapid deployment of technology he arranged for the new mission there has panned out.
At dusk, when his staff assembles for barbecue and beer on a wooden deck out by the satellite farm, Mayordomo spots Ambrose Majongwe, just back from a return engagement in Koidu.
“Ambrose!” he shouts. “Is VoIP working in Koidu?”
Majongwe isnt ready to celebrate just yet, though it was working when he left. “Lets just wait until Monday, OK?”
It turns out that when Majongwe tried installing several alternate versions of IOS, he was attempting to solve the wrong problem. The router operating system crashed because it didnt have memory allocated properly for the hardware that had been installed, not because it was the wrong operating system.
At last report, the new router was still working in Koidu, handling both data and phone calls as Internet packets. Yet Mayordomo says network congestion on the link to Koidu remains a problem—perhaps other traffic has rushed in to grab whatever bandwidth was freed up.
Ciscos global account manager to the U.N., David Andemicael, says he believes the technicians in Sierra Leone and throughout DPKO need better training to be more successful with Cisco technology. “Were now providing them with a lot of courses we usually charge for,” he says. Majongwes misadventures with the 3725 router in Koidu prove the point, since he skipped the crucial memory-configuration step, Andemicael says. “Its not trial and error, the way they tend to want to operate.”
En Route to Liberia
Nov. 1, En route to Liberia
Its taken Mayordomo all week to secure his Movement of Personnel sheet, an official form that says hes entitled to a seat on the 10 a.m. flight to Liberia. But when he gets to the heliport Saturday morning, the travel staff immediately informs him the flight has been changed to 11. So after the chopper flight to the airport across the harbor, he spends most of the time in the waiting room on his cell phone trying to secure passage back on a 4 p.m. cargo flight rather than the passenger flight at 2. Otherwise, there wont be time to do or see much of anything in Monrovia, which is typically a 45-minute drive from the airport.
Monrovia still lacks electric power and running water, and if he doesnt come back tonight, the next flight isnt until Monday.
Systems supervisor Aleksandar Ljamic, who is also traveling to Liberia today, doesnt have the luxury of making this a day trip. Ljamic, another international staffer recruited out of Kosovo, wears a pea-green shirt that reads “United Colors of Benetton.” He will be staying at least a few days to troubleshoot the financial software the UNAMSIL computing team installed as part of its rapid-deployment effort.
On arrival at Robertsfield airport in Liberia, Mayordomo learns that there will be no 4 p.m. cargo flight today. Worse, immigration is taking forever processing his passport. He finally pins down the man responsible for procuring transportation. Will there be time for even a brief visit to Monrovia? “My drivers are very fast,” hes assured.
Moments later hes in a white U.N. minivan roaring down a long, reasonably straight two-lane road. The speedometer reads 110 kilometers per hour, sometimes sneaking up to 120 (about 75 m.p.h.). The roads here are much better than in Sierra Leone. Still, the driver zigzags around deep potholes, honks his horn to scare pedestrians off the roadway, and passes cars, veering back into the right lane just in time to miss oncoming vehicles.
Despite the speed, its 1 p.m. by the time Mayordomo arrives at the German Embassy building DPKO has taken over. He should be returning to the airport already. Still, he finds the person responsible for arranging transportation on this end and bargains to be allowed 15 minutes.
He had hoped to see the mobile data van at work here, but its gone. It had been moved to this location a few weeks into the mission, but apparently its been moved again. The van is only meant to act as a data and communications hub for the first 30 to 90 days of a mission, at most, and the U.N. is starting to settle into more permanent quarters. The trailer-mounted satellite dish that the van brought is still here, now connected by cables leading into the building.
Inside, Mayordomo darts upstairs and finds the equipment room. But theres no one here to talk to. Servers and communications equipment are piled on the floor. Hes turning to leave when a burly U.N. official pokes his nose in. “Gentlemen, hows our comms and I.T. setup?” he asks, puffing on a big cigar.
Mayordomo explains hes a visitor from UNAMSIL who worked on the rapid deployment. “Now, we need to get some racks in here,” he adds. “Its not good to have this stuff lying on the floor.” “All I know is when you punch 9 you get a New York dial tone,” the man says, referring to the way the U.N.s satellite network can patch calls into the phone system at the headquarters building in New York City. “I think thats pretty good.”
Two days later, the cigar smoker turns up on a video documentary produced by DPKO public relations thats playing in the lobby of the Mammy Yoko: Jacques Klein, U.S. Air Force Major General (retired) and former Defense Department and State Department official, now serving as the Secretary Generals Special Representative to Liberia. Hes best known for playing a similar role in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
But at the time, Mayordomo doesnt recognize him—which is good, because if he had stopped to talk he would have missed his plane.
Hopping aboard the pickup that will take him to the airport, Mayordomo asks the driver, “Can you fly?” So the ride back reaches speeds of 130 k.p.h., which is more than 80 m.p.h. and way too fast for this rural road. The driver is Liberian, and Mayordomo asks him a little bit about exiled president Charles Taylor. “Do you want him back?” Mayordomo asks. “No!” shouts the driver.
Mayordomo reaches the airport just in time to race across the runway and board the plane by running up the cargo ramp, climbing over suitcases and squeezing around a veil of netting to get to the passenger compartment.
Struggling with the Basics
Nov. 3, The restaurant at the Hotel Bintumani, Sierra Leone
All week long, colleagues and public affairs personnel have been warning Mayordomo about things he shouldnt talk about with a reporter. But for the most part, he has been content to show his operation warts and all.
“I havent tried to filter,” Mayordomo says. “Youve seen the firefighting, the tap dancing.” One measure of success is the volume of complaints pouring into his office. “If its escalating, then Im losing control,” he says.
In the big picture, he thinks he is making progress. Where U.N. procurement rules used to prohibit direct contact with vendors, as DPKO I.T. chief he has been able to establish long-term contracts with key vendors like Cisco and Hewlett-Packard that allow for more open communication. “How can they understand the way we operate, the way we do business, if we dont sit down with them face-to-face?” he asks.
But as UNAMSILs technology leader, he is still struggling with the basics, like getting better performance from his help desk. The issue is personal for him because many mission officials have gotten in the habit of calling him directly instead. Just this morning, he was on the phone with someone who called to complain about a network slowdown.
“Do you have the 24-hour pager number for the duty technician? Youre laughing, but this has been published since I got here,” he told the caller. “Do you want the number or not? When you call me, I in turn call the help desk, so youre just prolonging the circle.”
Ultimately, the communications and information-technology organization needs to learn to function more like a business, he says. “If someone is not performing, get rid of them. If the equipment is not working, pull it out.” There ought to be service-level agreements so the “customers”—the military and civilian constituencies within DPKO—have some guarantees about the reliability of the network and of the technical support behind it.
DPKO needs to move away from improvising so much and to start planning better, particularly in terms of providing the technical manpower to support the rapid deployment of a mission, not just the equipment. He sees the pattern playing out again in Liberia, where the absence of a self-sufficient technical staff meant that he had to send in one of his people to fix a relatively simple configuration issue with the missions financial software.
But, as difficult as it may be to set up shop in regions of the world torn apart by war, coups or other violence, it is even harder to settle into such a locale and reliably deliver and maintain network services throughout the life of a peacekeeping mission.
“Were able to start up quickly, but were not able to sustain it,” he says. “New deployments of missions are always chaotic, but that doesnt mean we should just accept it. Its not the first time were doing this. Weve been doing this for years.”