In a Stateless Society, Somalis Work Together to Survive

Local authorities around flooded Juba River help people cope

Young Somali farmers stand knee-deep in a slippery soup of mud, frantically shoveling soil to stem the rising waters of the Juba River. Here in Somalia's breadbasket, the angry Juba has surged over its banks, ruining the harvest and at least for now, sweeping away the nation's hopes for food security.

Somalia hasn't had a central government since rebels toppled dictator Mohammed Siad Barre in 1991. The militias then turned their guns on one another. Skirmishes continue today. Because of the instability, Somalis still have no government to aid them in calamity. But communities have chipped in to fight this flood. Relief agencies predicted several weeks ago that the natural disaster could spark a famine and a major refugee exodus. So far, that has not happened.

In the southern Somali town of Sakoweyne, Isha Shir Mohamed says her family's maize crop is under water. But she's not going anywhere. "Early each morning, my children and I have to go out in the bush to pick the only thing we can find, a wild bitter fruit," she says, bouncing her youngest child on her hip. "But I don't want to go Kenya. I have to stay here and try to plant my crops again."

Outsiders' inability to predict when and how Somalis might flee across these borders is just one example of how difficult it is to get an accurate picture of the country and understand how Somalis have adapted to life in a "stateless" society.

"There may be survival mechanisms, well-practiced by Somalis, certain survival foods they can turn to, as well as kinship-based exchange," says John Prendergast, a United States-based Horn of Africa specialist on a tour through Somalia. "We, the international community, don't have that much of an early-warning system [to alert us to when full-scale crisis might strike] Somalia," Mr. Predergast says.

In recent years, many of the world community's policies toward Somalia have been anything but well-informed. In the early 1990s, United States and United Nations authorities devised an elaborate scheme to create a centralized, democratic government in Somalia. The multibillion-dollar "nation-building" experiment collapsed after US soldiers became entangled in a war with militia leader Mohamed Farah Aideed. Mr. Aideed's fighters killed 18 US soldiers in October 1994. UN troops withdrew the following March. Many UN aid officials and private relief agencies followed suit.

The "nation-building" plan failed to recognize that Somalis themselves were not bent on constructing a centralized administration, at least not in the midterm. Aideed and his north Mogadishu-based rival, Ali Mahdi Mohamed, both continue to declare themselves president. But only their fighters recognize their authority.

Somalia has splintered into separate fiefdoms, each under the control of a separate militia. Power is wielded through local authorities and shifting clan and sub-clan alliances.

"No political organization with an open-door, non-clan-based membership has yet appeared," says Somali political analyst Abdi A. Mohamed. "The notion of politics outside clan affiliations has no roots in our minds."

Aideed has recently been expanding his territory. While some Somalis say he has overstretched his capacity, other observers disagree. "Aideed has always been in trouble," Prendergast says. "But [he] knows how to rally his troops."

In the absence of a central government, not all of Somalia is mired in anarchy. Relief officials working in the country's northeast and northwest, for instance, say Somalis have made strides in establishing local and regional administrations.

In the southern town of Bu'aale, residents have created local councils of elders and traditional religious authorities. "We hope for Somalia to be one, to have one president. But these days circumstances force us to divide into regions," says Darow Hassan Dogor, a regional governor based in Bu'aale. "Actually, a central government would be worthwhile, compared to the current one. But a traditional government is better than not having any at all."

UN World Food Program officials say the international aid community is learning to work through these local authorities and avoid large-scale interventions. When WFP delivered food to Bu'aale and Sakoweyne in late June, marking the first time in four years the UN has brought food over the border from Kenya, the distribution was low-key.

"We're not trying to bring in loads of relief food. It can be a magnet, it can cause insecurity," says WFP spokeswoman Brenda Barton. "But when targeted food aid is required, we have to intervene."

The few international relief workers who remain here say that, despite several recent crop failures, the country isn't on the brink of the kind of starvation that took some 300,000 lives in the early 1990s. They say that is partly due to the evolution of local authority structures and survival mechanisms outsiders can only begin to understand.

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