A solution to the Ogaden dispute, which has kept the frontier zone between Somalia and Ethiopia tense for more than 20 years, still appears frustratingly remote.
There are increasing signs of public dissatisfaction with the failure of President Siad Barre's socialist revolutionary regime to make peace and channel its efforts into rebuilding the country's bankrupt economy.
Hints of greater flexibility with the Ethiopians have in recent months fluttered down from the modern hilltop presidential palace in Mogadishu. Government sources have indicated President Barre might agree to a special status for the Ogaden under Ethiopian jurisdiction with unrestricted freedom of movement across the border for the restless Somali nomads who have roamed these lands for centuries regardless of pen-drawn international boundaries.
Yet neither side seems willing to take the first step toward actually sitting down at the conference table and sorting out their differences.
Critics maintain that President Barre has been exploiting the Ogaden issue to detract from his lack of success in coping with Somalia's many other problems. ''We are simply not dealing with the real issues at hand,'' ventured one middle-rank government functionary in the capital, who scarcely disguised his contempt for the present regime.
Such accusations are firmly denied on the official level, but the security risk of renewed military conflict with Ethiopia, high inflation, and corruption have done little to induce serious foreign or even local investment.
In August this year, the International Monetary Fund was forced to step in in an attempt to stimulate Somalia's stagnant economy. One of the government's first reluctant measures was to devalue the shilling by half, but it managed to retain a two-tier system that would force diplomats and relief agencies to continue converting at least part of their funds at the old rate.
''The present military regime is a washed-out revolution,'' commented one Western observer. ''It started off with a lot of energy, new ideals, and goals but has now settled into an uninspired state of inertia. For the moment, this country has got nothing going for it.''
Other observers are less brutal in their assessment of Somalia's future. ''Relatively speaking, there is a great deal of potential here,'' said one Western aid official. ''It's got some raw materials and has the promise of becoming self-sufficient in cereals such as sorghum and millet.''
Many Somalis put high hopes in their oil reserves. ''They talk about it as the miracle which will save the country, but it's still very much a pie in the sky,'' an American diplomat noted. Despite the certainty of undefined oil deposits in the northeast and even the Ogaden, foreign oil companies drilling test bores have reportedly come up with nothing substantial.
Last month, a sudden flurry of Western technicians flown in from the Gulf sparked rumors of a big strike by Texaco, but it appeared to be only a technical fault requiring emergency equipment.
Some 1.5 million hectares of cultivable land are not being used. A country whose main source of income derives from farming and livestock, Somalia needs a more effective agricultural policy and large infusions of development funds.
As major irrigation projects will have to depend on water from the Juba and Shibeli rivers, both of which originate inside Ethiopia, a political solution to the Ogaden could benefit both countries by undertaking a joint development program.
At present, there is no cohesive political opposition to the Barre regime. But diplomatic sources point out that resentment is growing, particularly in the north. Barre, who probably has little to fear for the moment, is nevertheless nervous of any challenge to his authority.
Ever since independence in 1960, the north (formerly the British protectorate of Somaliland) has lived in uneasy union with the (Italian) south. The majority northerners, who tend to be more enterprising than their southern compatriots, resent what they describe as the ''administrative and political'' neglect by Mogadishu of their region.
The northerners are angered by the high taxes they have to pay with little in return. Most of the government's redevelopment projects are in the south. Lack of opportunities has also forced the cream of the north's educated people to seek employment elsewhere, notably the Gulf. Children tend to be sent away for schooling to Egypt, Britain, and the United States because of the abominably poor educational facilities.
Furthermore, the northerners have begun to resent the perpetuation of the Ogaden conflict. ''We have lost too many young men in this war,'' said one resident in Hargeisa, who asked not to be identified. ''We should put our energies into reconstructing the country.'' There is a strong feeling that friendly relations with Ethiopia would greatly benefit trade.
At present, only the vehicles transporting fresh supplies of khat (a mild narcotic) race daily to and from Jigjiga in Ethiopia and northern Somalia. Every evening in Hargeisa, throngs of men gather around the khat-vendors, who sit on the ground in the glow of hissing lanterns, to purchase the drug.
According to Western diplomatic sources, there are between 2,000 and 5,000 political prisoners in Somalia. In late November, the National Security Service arrested 10 mainly Western-educated intellectuals for allegedly circulating an antigovernment tract. The prisoners, all in their late 20s and early 30s, were told they would be charged with subversion and could face life imprisonment or even the death sentence.
According to sources in Mogadishu, 30 northern teachers, doctors, and government officials, including the 10 arrested, had come under suspicion by the Barre regime. ''The government is nervous about these people because they have returned from abroad with new ideas,'' one source said.
Some of the suspects had formed a ''self-action'' committee in August to clean up a hospital, collect books for a public library, and begin constructing new schools with the help of private donations. They were warned to refrain from such activities because it made the government look bad.
In addition to the northerners, some of whom have been calling for regional autonomy if not independence, Barre is threatened by political groups such as the Libyan-backed Somali Salvation Front, whose aim is to overthrow the regime.
The President has sought to reinforce his position by putting members of his minority Marehan tribe into key government positions.