UN and Somalia Still Have Much to Learn

In a nation where clan loyalty still dominates, citizens know they must resolve their own crisis

THIS week sees the departure of the last major Western military presence in Somalia. Troops are pulling out having largely accomplished what they were dispatched to do: get food to starving people. But of the wider United Nations mandate - to disarm the fractious elements in Somalia - they will leave with mixed results.

Sixteen months after what began as a 90-day UN mandate, the scene in Somalia is as confused as ever. In December 1992, the task of disarming the ``technicals'' appeared simple. In reality it has proved nearly impossible in an urban war environment where weapons are abundant and there is more than enough will to use them. Though death from famine is now virtually nonexistent, as of late January, 1 million Somalis were still relying on external food assistance.

The Somali civil war has provided lessons to both the UN and Somalis. In the short term, the UN undoubtedly saved tens of thousands of lives. But it has been at best only a first-class Band-Aid.

The arrival of UN forces was much anticipated by Somalis, who thought that here at last was the force that could end the civil war, which had then been going on for nearly two years.

But the UN made mistakes almost immediately. As with the earlier war and subsequent famine in Ethiopia, the UN seemed reluctant to define its mission beyond delivering supplies to the starving and ensuring that security was safe enough to do this. The political problem at the root of the famine was tacitly acknowledged but put on the back shelf to be dealt with at a later date.

A second error was how the famine problem was addressed. While claiming not to recognize the rule of the gun, the UN on arrival in Mogadishu went straight to the two most powerful warlords, Gen. Mohamed Farah Aideed and Mohamed Ali Mahdi, and asked them to restore peace and stability. But by this stage many Somalis were already tired of these two men and their designs on power. Dealing with the warlords gave them instant credibility and recognition. And in bypassing respected clan elders and the country's intellectuals, the UN lost the trust of those Somalis to whom questions of national well-being actually mattered.

Somalia's crisis was created by its citizens. They now recognize it is also theirs to solve. In the end the UN can only help by facilitating the process. Yet the experience in Somalia, and for that matter in Bosnia, leaves the UN with food for thought. In both situations, it proved difficult to establish more than a tenuous security in a messy war environment.

In Somalia a ``UN centric'' set of values and vocabulary was used in dealing with warlords for whom peace, human rights, and solving famine are of little concern. If the UN chooses to negotiate with armed aggressors, as it apparently does, then perhaps it should descend to the language of its opponent. Instead of ``UN-brokered cease-fires,'' maybe the UN should become a broker full-time, dealing in real-world incentives. Make urgent conflict resolution the job of real estate brokers, stockbrokers, commodities brokers, power brokers.

The UN spent $977 million on UNOSOM operations in one year. Until January 1994, the United States State Department had spent $377 million just on the civilian part of the Somali relief effort (when some sources estimate that $10 is spent on the military side for every $1 on the aid side). An alternative might be a 10-person UN peacekeeping force that comes in and starts making deals - buyouts in which the bottom line is fewer lives lost on all sides.

The terms of a UN buyout might be phrased like this: ``Stop killing right now and we will cut you a deal. We will give you an area of the country or a position in a coalition government; investments abroad; commercial deals; foreign aid for infrastructure (schools, roads, public works). Trade in weapons for `UN dollar' certificates that will allow you to buy anything from any other UN country in good standing. In return you must stop the bloodshed and establish relations with all your neighbors.''

Parcels of land would be attractive to warlords who want power and land to control. They would appreciate getting it without having to expend their own resources. The lives of weak or defenseless citizens would be saved, as would those of UN peacekeepers. Talk of democracy and conciliation could come later. Traded-in weapons in good condition could be held in a UN depository for future UN peacekeeping operations, precisely such a resource called for by UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali in his 1992 document ``Agenda for Peace.''

While this may appear a cynical solution to some, the truth of the present situation is that in the time the UN has spent alternately chasing and conversing with warlords, militant factions have been allowed time to regroup and rearm. When the UN forces eventually withdraw, the political situation and material condition of the average Somali will worsen. Eventually the strongest faction will be left standing. Alongside it will have risen a pile of corpses.

Until a loyalty to something other than one's clan takes over in Somali culture, a cycle of brutal dictators and civil wars will afflict the country. But clan allegiances run deep. Even the women, while abhorring the violence clan loyalty has produced, cannot conceive of dismantling that structure that guides their lives. It is incorporated as a positive aspect of national life that is crucial to Somalia's future.

The hopeful solution is that Somalis themselves can find a way out of the mess. To most, it appears the UN has thrown up its hands in disgust at these ungrateful third-world citizens. But Somalis have always been most united when threatened or chastised by pompous outsiders. Perhaps the fed-up glares of the UN will spur Somalia to prove the UN and the outside world wrong. Perhaps their desire for love and a peaceful nation may prove stronger than their hatred for a neighbor of a rival family. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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