UNDER the protective guns of United Nations troops, political power in this formerly famine-devastated town has shifted. While local leaders increasingly gain control, the strength of Gen. Mohamed Farah Aideed, the Somali militia leader who has become Public Enemy No. 1 for the UN, is waning.
The shift of power has come through the establishment of a district council, which was set up with the help of the UN. Now the UN is helping to establish similar Somali towns, a process the UN hopes will allow local leaders to free themselves of domination from outside militia leaders, including General Aideed.
[Two US Army Rangers were slightly wounded Sept. 7 in a pre-dawn airborne assault on a suspected command and control center of Aideed. The UN asked Italy to delay withdrawing its troops from Mogadishu following a weekend ambush in which seven Nigerian peacekeepers died, the Defense Ministry said on Sept. 6. The Italians were due to leave for areas north of Mogadishu that afternoon after they were accused in June and July of taking orders from Rome rather than the UN command.]
Whether the experiment in creating district councils lasts beyond the time when UN troops eventually pull out of Somalia is uncertain, according to Somali political leaders here. But for the first time in years, the local people of the Rahanweyn ethnic group, or clan, have their own government.
``This is the first truly Rahanweyn government since independence,'' says Hussein M. Idriss, a local political activist speaking of the district council formed in Baidoa last month.
Baidoa shopkeeper Osman Ahma says: ``We don't believe in Aideed or [Mohamed] Ali Mahdi,'' another factional leader and Aideed's rival in Mogadishu who has tried to influence politics here.
A year ago Baidoa was in the center of Somalia's famine, caused mostly by the civil war between rival militias. Up to 200 people a day were dying here, including many who came from surrounding villages. A militia loyal to Aideed controlled the town with heavy caliber weapons mounted on vehicles, and they stole relief food.
Thanks to a massive airlift of relief food by the US government and private agencies backed by foreign troops since December, Baidoa and practically all other Somali towns have moved from a state of emergency to the beginnings of economic rehabilitation.
But the political rehabilitation of Somalia may prove to be even a tougher task, says Robert Gosende, US special envoy to Somalia.
``The reestablishment of political life in your country may be the most complex thing the UN has attempted anywhere,'' he told an audience here last week. ``It will take time, your patience, our patience.''
Mr. Gosende was speaking at a gathering of political leaders. It was, he said after the session, one of the liveliest political meetings he has attended in Somalia. And it provided visible proof of the shift in political power taking place here, as well as a preview of some of the tough issues facing local leaders.
The chairman of the newly elected council did much of the talking, while a representative of Aideed, who last year dominated the political scene and similar meetings here, sat politely and quietly.
At one point, a representative of Mr. Ali Mahdi's faction, trying to establish himself as a neutral force, told the Aideed representative, when he stood up to talk, to sit down.
But the man who may have the most influence sat quietly through the session.
Instead of jumping to his feet to claim the floor, Malag Moktar simply raised a finger and spoke while remaining seated. He is known as the ``chief of chiefs,'' a traditional elder.
As UN troops have neutralized the force of militias in various Somali towns outside of Mogadishu, such elders have reemerged as a political force.
Chief Moktar raised a key point regarding the political recovery of Somalia and the success of the district councils: disarmament.
``Are they [UN troops] going to do it, or do they have no ability,'' he asked. ``This is the most difficult part of the problems facing Somalia,'' he said.
He acknowledged that UN forces had seized thousands of armaments in the region, but said ``there is still a great deal hidden.''
The Rahanweyn feel vulnerable to the still well-armed militias in the regions adjacent to their own. The leaders of the two militias are at least nominally aligned with Ali Mahdi. The Rahanweyn have never had the big weapons these and other Somali factions have obtained. Instead, as a clan of nomads and farmers, they have been dominated by outside militias.
``If the [UN] troops go at this stage, it's going to fall back into the old days'' of outside domination, one Rahanweyn relief worker laments.
Further evidence of the political shifts in this region took place at the congress of the Rahanweyn political party, the Somali Democratic Movement, held last March under guard of UN troops. The Aideed and Ali Mahdi representatives were ousted in favor of a fresh slate of party leaders not aligned to either faction.
But uncaptured, Aideed still represents a threat to the stability of this region, local Somali leaders say.
The recent pre-dawn raid by US rangers on a compound said to belong to Aideed supporters resulted in the arrest of several members of Aideed's Habar Gedir clan, but not Aideed.