In Somalia, a doubtful peace

Conflict: Pessimism grows amid persistent clan warfare and bitter disagreements over a temporary capital and foreign peacekeepers.

April 01, 2005|By Robyn Dixon | Robyn Dixon,LOS ANGELES TIMES

NAIROBI, Kenya - The Somali government is not to be found in the chaotic, gun-infested streets of the capital city, Mogadishu, but in the marbled lobbies and plush carpeted hotel rooms of this foreign capital.

Somalia has survived the 14 years since it plunged into civil war without any central government. Successive efforts to create one have failed. Somalis now are trying again, and the effort is again being plagued by internal feuding.

Several deadlines to relocate the government from Kenya to Somalia have come and gone. On March 17, two years into the latest effort, Somali parliamentarians based in Kenya exchanged punches and struck one another with chairs and walking sticks during an argument over whether foreign peacekeepers should be deployed in their country.

The divisions deepened Monday when 10 government ministers walked out before a Cabinet vote that called for another city to become the capital temporarily, because Mogadishu is unsafe.

Somalia erupted into civil war in the early 1990s, and in 1993, 18 U.S. Army Rangers, part of a mission to enable the delivery of humanitarian aid, were killed in a battle with the militia of warlord Mohamed Farah Aideed. Aideed's son is one of the leading figures in the new government.

In the years of war and chaos, the country has been torn into small fiefdoms controlled by rival warlords, each with armed militias.

In October, a parliament meeting in Nairobi elected a president, who in turn appointed a prime minister. In January, the prime minister named a Cabinet consisting mainly of warlords. But despite international support for this latest peace process, there are increasing doubts about whether the government can hold together. Many fear that if it crashes, it would be a long time before the international community would be willing to invest in another peace effort.

Pessimism has grown because of the government's slowness to relocate to Somalia, the failure of the president, Abdullahi Yusuf, and prime minister, Ali Mohammad Gedi, to visit Mogadishu during a recent trip to the country, and bitter disagreements over whether to allow peacekeepers from neighboring countries.

There are four big clans in Somalia and various smaller clans and sub-clans. The fighting and rivalries run along clan lines, and loyalties run deep. A person's clan is the basis of his identity and defines his home territory.

Osman Harare, 30, of the Mareehan clan, was brought up to believe that his main duty was to defend it, even if it meant dying. In 1992, his family fled Mogadishu to the interior of the country to escape clan fighting. But gunmen found them and killed his two elder brothers.

"They said, `Which clan are you?' As soon as we said `Mareehan' they started shooting," recalled Harare, who along with thousands of Somalis now lives in Kenya. The family fled to the border town of Belet Hawo, where his father declared that they must stop and fight. But Harare refused and crossed the border. His father died fighting soon after.

Harare returned several months later to work for humanitarian agencies and set up his own business in 1998. But two years ago his town came under attack again, and to survive, Harare had to disown his clan. He eventually left again.

"I was really feeling marginalized and humiliated. When I thought how badly I had suffered and even took another clan's name, I decided to leave. I didn't want that ever to happen to me again," he said. "The clan is the only identity that everybody in Somalia has got."

Harare said he believes that strong clan identification has hurt the cause of peace.

"The only way you can destroy clan identity is to make the younger generation believe that clan identity was the reason their forefathers were killed and [that] they are going to die for it in the future," he said.

The new government includes members of all the main clans, which is widely regarded as a necessary evil. The former government, formed in 2000, was snubbed by the powerful Mogadishu warlords and never controlled more than a few blocks of the capital. The new government is more inclusive, but deeply divided.

Analyst Matt Bryden of the International Crisis Group said that while many people in Mogadishu were willing to give the president and new government a chance, Yusuf was a divisive figure.

"He represents for many the winning side in the civil war. People will tell you he's seeking revenge against their clan," Bryden said. Rifts over peacekeepers and an interim capital were growing wider, he said.

"If these issues are resolved without consensus and compromise, then you really do risk destroying the unity of the government and the Cabinet," Bryden said. "Then you'll have two armed camps and no peace process."

Yusuf initially demanded a force of 20,000 international peacekeepers, leading to speculation that he was so concerned about the government's credibility that he wanted a huge protection force, or that he wanted to use it to protect himself from rivals.

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