London. -- Whatever it is in Somalia, it is not ''ethnic cleansing.'' Somalia is the only black African country which is made up of a single ethnic group, almost entirely Muslim to boot. Apparently you don't need separate tribes to have the most murderous civil war on the African continent.
This is a rivalry of families and clans, fought not for religion nor ideology nor even drug turf, but merely for the prize of being able to tell the others what to do. It is a war that has gone far too far. On the Richter scale, if Yugoslavia and Cambodia are nine, Somalia is ten.
Even at the height of Somalia's economic and military success during the Cold War years, when its now-overthrown president, Mohamed Siad Barre, played America against the Soviet Union for arms and aid, Somalia was the archetypal banana republic. Now it can't even market its bananas. There is no government. No civil service. No commerce. No food. Rival militias running amok have left nothing standing, neither institutions nor buildings. Even Somalia's great heritage of epic poetry seems held in abeyance.
Moreover, it has degraded some of its would-be helpers. Some )) of the U.N. agencies and voluntary aid groups have resorted to the shameful practice of hiring local armed thugs to ride shotgun on the relief convoys. Not only is it wrong in principle, it is most unpragmatic. Before another couple of months are out, the relief agencies will be spending more time sorting out the fragmenting loyalties of these armed guards, who have spent most of their youthful lives switching sides, than they will in delivering food and medicine.
No wonder that the Egyptian secretary general of the United Nations, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, has sought to persuade the Security Council to take its eyes off Yugoslavia and Cambodia for a moment and spare a thought for Africa's distress. Until last week it had done nothing since it imposed an arms embargo in January.
It is pitifully ironic that the secretary general has had to remind Security Council members that they must be responsible for conflicts even where their individual big-power or back-yard interests are no longer involved. Somalia would not be in the mess it is in today if the superpowers had not stuffed it with arms over many years, courting its allegiance while ignoring Siad Barre's stifling of all countervailing Somali institutions of power -- legal, parliamentary and media. All they asked was his hostility to Ethiopia's big-power patron and access to the Indian Ocean deep-sea port of Berbera.
It was a sordid 10 years. First, America bankrolled the Ethiopians and the Soviets held Berbera. In 1977 the U.S. became estranged from the Marxist regime that had overthrown the American friend, Emperor Haile Selassie. When Cubans and Soviets moved into the vacuum, the Americans bid for the friendship of Siad Barre, offering high-quality arms.
Events started to spin out of control when Somalia invaded the Somali-inhabited Ogaden province of Ethiopia, seeking to unite all of ''Greater Somalia.'' Cuban troops, with Soviet back-up, counter-attacked, prompting President Carter's national-security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, to warn Moscow that if Ethiopian or Cuban troops crossed into Somalia an arms-control treaty would be a dead duck. The threat seemed to work; the U.S. reward was the right to take over the old Soviet naval base in Berbera.
During the Cold War the superpowers managed to find the will and the resources to toy with Somalia. Now they hide behind the legalism that the U.N. can intervene in the domestic affairs of a nation only if invited, or if there is a ''threat to the peace.'' Anyone who knows anything about the Horn of Africa knows that, with significant numbers of Somalis living in Ethiopia and Kenya, the conflict could spill over their borders any time. Similar reasoning led the Security Council 13 years ago to impose sanctions on South Africa.
Very belatedly, the Security Council has begun to act. Last week it unanimously voted for an urgent airlift of food with 500 armed U.N. guards to accompany it. It also threatened ''other measures'' if the local warlords don't cooperate with the relief operation.
The Security Council nations should start preparing their domestic public opinion now. Somalia is going to need a fully-fledged peacekeeping operation -- much larger than the present Yugoslavian one, and at least the same size and complexity as Cambodia's. This cannot happen unless the United States pays its U.N. peacekeeping debts and all the big and medium powers offer both more money and more troops. Nobody said peace was cheap.
Jonathan Power writes a syndicated column on the Third World.