Welcome Change in Somalia

January 31, 1991

The downfall of President Mohammed Siad Barre is an overdue respite for the people of Somalia from the atrocities he visited on them in 21 years of misrule.

The first moves of the rebel-backed interim president, Ali Mahdi Mohamed, are correct. He promised a coalition regime of all factions, armed and unarmed. He retained the prime minister who had recently been plucked out of opposition ranks by President Siad Barre in vain hopes of quelling revolt. He promised justice, democracy and equality, plus brevity for his own rule.

But national unity may be easier to espouse than to deliver. Mr. Mahdi Mohamed comes from the main clan in the vicinity of the capital, Mogadishu, which harbored the victorious rebel faction. The carry-over prime minister comes from the clan in the north that launched the rebellion on returning from exile in Ethiopia five years ago.

Somalia has ethnic homogeneity denied most African countries. Most of its people are Somalis. But they adhere to different, though culturally similar, clans. One of the great disservices of the Siad Barre dictatorship was to heighten distrust and hostility among the clans.

The rebellion turned into a war of all factions against the civilian population of the capital, which is now in ruins, its people shattered, without adequate public services or medical care. The interim regime needs to show goodwill, and it requires humanitarian aid from a world distracted by atrocities on a greater scale not far away in the Persian Gulf.

Long an object of East-West rivalry for its strategic place on the Horn of Africa, Somalia has lost its allure. Suddenly it is of little value to larger powers, which are no longer in rivalry with each other. So the stage is set for big-power cooperation to help Somalis get their act together and make enough of their arid country to support eight million people.

If that could be achieved, what a wonderful precedent it would set for neighboring, rebellion-torn tyrannies in Ethiopia and Sudan.

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