Building Somalia's government from scratch

After a decade, the process begins with the prime minister ruling from a hotel.

Being a member of the new Somali Parliament is currently high on the list of the world's most dangerous jobs.

The 245 MPs were selected at a conference in neighboring Djibouti last August. Government members have been arriving in the capital gradually and in recent weeks, one MP was assassinated while two others survived separate attacks in which 12 members of their convoys died.

Security is just one of the myriad obstacles faced by the government - Somalia's first after nearly a decade. There are no functioning ministries, no tax system; the international airport and seaport have been closed for years. The national currency is being printed at will by a consortium of businessmen. Virtually all government buildings lie in ruins, and secessionist administrations rule in the north of the country.

If the new government fails to meet the challenges, Somalia could once again crumble into the kind of anarchy it saw in the early 1990s after the overthrow of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre. Rival militias shot it out for control of the capital, and even the US military could not bring peace.

For now, the government has its headquarters at the Ramadan Hotel, in the small sector of Mogadishu it controls. During an interview in the hotel garden, Prime Minister Ali Khalif Galayd acknowledges the challenges but puts on a brave face.

"What is really making us very self-confident is we have the support of the majority of the Somali people," says Mr. Galayd, a former academic who's spent considerable time in the US.

Asked to name his top priority, the prime minister says: "Everything is a priority. It's a question of priorities of priorities. The first one for us is the security issue. The second is the rehabilitation of the infrastructure."

The government needs money for both. It wants to make Mogadishu's streets safe by paying militiamen to hand over their weapons and training them for new jobs. Reconstruction will cost a fortune, as the capital - once a pleasant seaside city - is a shambles. Destruction is found everywhere one looks, with scraps of blown-up vehicles lining medians and piles of rubble where buildings once stood.

But at the moment, there's nothing in the treasury. While Western nations have welcomed the formation of the government, they're not rushing to dig into their pockets. Galayd and President Abdiqassim Salad - both of whom served as cabinet ministers in the Barre regime - spent much of November traveling to capitals near and far looking for financial support.

Galayd says Somalia has received pledges from a few Arab nations, but for now, key Mogadishu business leaders are footing the government's hotel bills and feeding some 5,000 militiamen who've already accepted the demobilization offer.

Business leaders say it's in their interest to support the government. Although they've operated unfettered by taxes or regulations since the former government collapsed, they now cry out for an administration.

"If the government establishes peace in this country, that will do a great deal of good for the business community," says Abdi Sabriye, manufacturing director for NationLink, a Mogadishu conglomerate that includes a pasta factory, a phone company, an airline, and a TV station. "With the heavy amounts of money we are paying for our own security, the costs of generating our own electricity and water, we think we would be a lot better off with than without a government."

Despite the support of the business community, the government has yet to quell the significant opposition it faces from the warlords. Although one former armed faction leader, Ali Mahdi, has joined the government and is now an MP, others, like Hussein Aideed and Osman Ali Ato, still issue threats.

"We hope [the government] will succeed, but it would be extremely arrogant to make any predictions about the success of the process," says a senior international aid official.

One strong element in the government's favor is support from the local Islamic courts, whose militia are widely credited with reducing banditry in Mogadishu and surrounding areas over the past two years. But this support has led to concern that the government is too strongly tied to Islamic fundamentalist elements within the courts.

Despite setbacks like the recent assassinations, Defense Minister Abdullahi Boqor Muse, says it's all par for the course: "Without accepting some sacrifices, we can't have the government stand on its own feet."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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