AS United States troops fan out to protect food convoys into remote villages in the hardest-hit famine areas, relief officials are quietly urging a closer look at how to reconstruct authority in Somalia when foreign troops leave.
For the past two years Somalia has been laid waste by the open warfare that has raged between members of one of the country's most important clans. But if clan rivalry has nearly destroyed Somalia, some private relief officials now suggest, buttressing the authority of local clan elders could help end the chaos that has left 2 million Somalis at risk of famine.
"If we're talking about a new doctrine for humanitarian interventions, we're talking about the empowerment of local leaders," says Tom Getman, chairman of the disaster-response committee of InterAction, a coalition of private voluntary organizations (PVOs) now providing relief services in Somalia. "The key to a long-term, peaceful resolution of the conflict in Somalia is to strengthen the hand of the clan and village leaders."
The message has been reinforced by Andrew Natsios, the State Department official who directs US humanitarian assistance to Somalia. He recently told US soldiers that unless they strengthen the local authorities, they will undermine the humanitarian effort.
"It's like a congressman getting a project for his district," Mr. Getman says. "When a clan elder can take care of his people, there's no question his authority increases. We're enhancing that authority by affirming that leadership."
"When all the village elders across the country have their legitimacy they can hold the kids in the community in check," Getman adds, referring to the roving bands of gun-toting youths who have stolen much of the food supplies that have made it to Somalia.
The inability to restrain the youths has even reduced the authority of Somalia's two main warlords, Mohamed Ali Mahdi and Mohamed Farah Aideed, leaders of the main sub-clans of Hawiye clan, who joined forces to help overthrow longtime dictator Maj. Gen. Mohamed Siad Barre in January 1991 and subsequently have fought over the spoils. That was one factor that prompted them to sit down last week for the first time to discuss a peaceful settlement of the dispute that has led to the starvation of 300,000 Soma lis.
Using food to shore up the authority of village leaders is one of the steps needed to produce a long-term solution to the Somali food crisis, private relief officials say. Others include providing seeds and utensils to enable farmers to resume subsistence farming; restocking herds of cattle and camels - many head have died or been sold off to Saudi Arabia and Yemen; and reestablishing the rudiments of a stable government.
One expert on Somalia notes that since statehood the country has been divided along two axes. One axis of conflict runs along North-South lines, pitting the Isaaq clan that dominates the north against clans that dominate Mogadishu and the south.
"In the face of the sense of exclusion that northerners felt from the modern government the other tensions became insignificant," says Berekat Habte Selassie, a scholar at the United States Institute of Peace and professor of African studies at Howard University in Washington.
The other axis of conflict has been tension between the modern state and civil society as a whole, Professor Selassie says. Before the Somali state was created, clans competed for scarce natural resources: water and grazing land.
After the state was created in 1960, competition suddenly focused on control of state power and on the political spoils in the bureaucracy, Army, and state-run industries that for 20 years were controlled by Barre's clan.
The grim paradox, adds the former attorney general of Ethiopia, is that with the collapse of the government, the bloodletting is over something that no longer exists. "It's like vultures fighting over carrion," Selassie says.
US military sources say the US alone could end up sending 30,000 troops to Somalia because of the complicated logistics of the rescue operation. Military units from other countries could raise the total for the multinational force to 40,000 or more.