Nearly 16 years have passed since Somalia's Maj. Gen. Siyad Barre and his socialist-inspired military regime came to power. Sixteen years are an eternity in African politics and the regime is showing it. When General Barre first assumed control in October, 1969, the country was plagued with corruption and political turmoil.
``[Barre] somewhat cleaned things up and implemented new reforms,'' said one senior Western diplomat in Mogadishu. ``But then, when the Russians came in and the government started its policies of scientific socialism, things went downhill. Corruption is worse now than before.''
Conversations with diplomats, international development officials, and Somali citizens during a recent four-week visit to Somalia revealed that this Horn of Africa nation is in desperate need of political change.
Somalians are growing frustrated with what many regard as a ``washed out'' revolution.
``What we need are new faces and new ideas,'' stressed a Somali businessman from the capital.
``This whole lousy country is corrupt,'' added another, a respected and successful trader. ``I tell them that. I know all these people in the government.''
To his credit, President Barre has introduced several significant economic policy changes in recent years. The changes, in effect, dismantle the more calamitous aspects of ``scientific socialism.'' They include a reduction of state control over the economy and a return to a more liberal, free enterprise system that seems to be more compatable with the Somali character than Marxist rhetoric does.
Such moves have pleased the international development community, including the United States. But observers here say that Somalia's vast and complex problems are not exclusively economic. Internal discontent, much of it tribal, is spreading. And more than anything else, Somalia must come to terms with its aspirations in Ethiopia's Ogaden Province, a disputed territory over which Ethiopia and Somalia have been at loggerheads for almost a decade.
The Soviets, who were ousted from Somalia in 1977 because of their support for the Ethiopians during the Ogaden war, have left the country with a bitter aftertaste. Mogadishu's military leaders remember the Soviet period with some nostalgia. Moscow, Somali officials like to remind one, was more than gene- rous in its military backing. Until the war, the Somalis commanded one of the best-equipped and trained armies in Africa.
Somalia, because of its strategic importance on the Horn and a continuous threat from Ethiopia, tries to maintain an armed force totalling 60,000 men, the fourth-largest force in Africa after Ethiopia, Nigeria, and South Africa. The threat from Ethiopia is real enough; while this reporter was in Hargeisa in late July, he saw Somali aircraft scrambling to intercept Ethiopian MIGs overflying the Somali border town of Borama.
The Mogadishu regime also needs a strong security force to repress dissident groups, two of which periodically launch armed attacks against the government from their bases in Ethiopia.
But the Somali Army seems to be demoralized by poor conditions and low pay. Dishevelled Somali soldiers regularly cross over into Kenya to seek refuge, according to the Kenyan police at Mandera, located at the point where Kenya meets with Somalia and Ethiopia.
But with as much as half of Somalia's paltry national budget allocated to defense, the soldiers' position is unlikely to improve, diplomats maintain. The country can ill-afford to drain more of its resources on defense.
Unlike the Soviet Union, the US is unwilling to furnish the Somalis with more than what is necessary to enhance the country's basic defense and training capabilities. Much to the frustration of the regime, which considers it a top priority to get the US to commit itself totally, US military assistance in FY 1985 stands at $33 million. This is in addition to $30 million worth of economic support. Overall, this represents one of Washington's highest per capita aid programs in sub-Saharan Africa.
US officials claim that current military aid is limited to visiting teams of advisors, to navy medical assistance to civilian health care projects, and to the purchase of equipment such as 155-mm howitzers, reconditioned M-47 tanks, and other vehicles.
Recently, the Americans completed an expansion of the northern Somali port of Berbera. They also finished improvements on facilities at the nearby Soviet-built airport. Of obvious strategic importance in the Middle East and Indian Ocean, the port, which is used primarily for commercial traffic including refugee relief, is available to the US for military maneuvers such as this summer's Bright Star operations, or, in the event of a crisis, by its Rapid Deployment Force.
The reason for Washington's reluctance to go overboard with Somalia is two-fold.
First, long-term considerations suggest that Washington, like Moscow, considers Ethiopia far more important than Somalia. As one US official put it in an interview, ``. . . the US does not want to jeopardize the possibility of improving relations with Addis Ababa.''
Second, US and other Western officials know that the Mogadishu regime is far from politically secure. ``No one wants to be too closely identified with the government itself,'' commented one West European diplomat. The US is also trying to lower its profile here by persuading the Europeans to assume a greater share of the development burden.
Meanwhile, the Barre government considers it necessary to keep the Ogaden issue alive. Historically, the Somalis seem to have a legitimate claim on Ethiopia's Ogaden region. A broad highland of grasslands and bush, it has been used traditionally as grazing land by Somali nomads on both sides of the border, which was established by the colonial powers and the Ethiopian empire.
Since independence in 1960, Mogadishu's efforts to unite all areas inhabited by ethnic Somalis -- former Italian Somaliland, British Somaliland, Djibouti, northern Kenya and Ogaden -- under one flag have been tempered by Africa's Realpolitik.
Over the past two years, Barre has more or less dropped his claims on northeastern Kenya's Somali regions in return for better relations with Nairobi. He also accepts Djibouti's right to exist as an independent nation. And since 1980, he has been stating his readiness to negotiate an Ogaden settlement with Ethiopia. Officials in Addis have said the same thing. Yet there are no talks in sight.
Many observers do not foresee any real rapprochement between Mogadishu and Addis Ababa as long as Barre and Ethiopia's Mengistu Haile Mariam remain in power. Their intransigence, observers say, is based on too much bitterness and political vanity. If there is to be any flexibility, it will have to come from other quarters.