UN Plans Somalia Exit; Warlords Still Battle

West missed war over farmland, analysts say

DESPITE a two-year effort, neither the United Nations nor the US has been able to bring rival Somali warlords together in peace and have now planned for a full withdrawal.

On Saturday, UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali called for the UN forces to be out of Somalia by March 31. And United States officials want the UN to be out even sooner - by the end of the year.

One reason for the lack of resolution in Somalia is that the US and UN paid little attention to one of the underlying causes of conflict: the struggle to control the nation's best farmland, according to Somalis and Western analysts.

Most US and UN peacemaking efforts continue to focus on the two militia leaders vying for control of the capital, Mogadishu: Gen. Mohamed Farah Aideed and Mohamed Ali Mahdi.

Yet, since early 1994, ``most of the fighting is outside Mogadishu,'' primarily in the farm belt of central Somalia, says Ken Menkhaus, a former UN official in Somalia.

``Everybody's competing for the same land,'' says a Somali businessman who asked not to be identified. ``The warlords' aim is to take [control] of the fertile areas.''

But while the farmland offers a tempting prize to rival militias, the struggle over the land does not allow any group much opportunity to use the land well.

Most of the contested farming region lies between the Shabelle and Juba rivers, which flow from Ethiopia down across Somalia to the Indian Ocean. ``In some ways this whole area ... is the shatter zone,'' Mr. Menkhaus, an assistant professor of political science at Davidson College in Davidson, N.C., who visited Somalia last month, said in a recent interview here.

The conflict is the continuation of a 100-year-old movement of major Somali clans southward from nomadic grazing areas that have been getting more and more overpopulated, Menkhaus says. ``They need new grazing lands and have to push in some direction for them,'' he explains.

Since the fall of longtime Somali dictator Maj. Gen. Mohamed Siad Barre in early 1991, the militia have speeded up their attempted conquests, no longer traveling by foot or horse and camel, but by four-wheel-drive vehicles, often mounted with heavy artillery. ``What we're seeing is clans using modern technology to push hundreds of kilometers into new territory where they never were before,'' Menkhaus says.

One result: resident minority tribes in the area, such as the Gosha, have been dispossessed of their land, according to John Prendergast, research associate at the Center of Concern, a private group in Washington that focuses on Africa.

``Gosha population's lack of collective-security mechanisms or defenses left them maximally vulnerable to militia sweeps throughout 1991-92,'' according to the center's study on Somalia, published in July.

According to Menkhaus, most of the minority groups who originally farmed the land have been abused. Some are forced to work as sharecroppers on land they once owned; others have to pay protection money to local militias. Others have their property stolen, and sometimes their wives are raped, he says.

More peacekeeping efforts are needed in this contested farming region, Mr. Prendergast says. The focus should be on regional and local political and traditional leaders, not just militia leaders, he says.

Prendergast's report suggests UN and relief groups could help make it possible for militia leaders now in control of part of the region to demobilize fighters to do farming or other work. But international aid should be linked to a respect for the human rights of the native farmers, he says.

To the north of this farming region, in Gelkayo, a peace pact negotiated in 1993 without US or UN help, has made possible some demobilization, according to the Center of Concern report. Some militia fighters there have now switched to work as truck drivers transporting livestock to the northern port of Bossaso.

``You cannot trade when there is war,'' says the Somali businessman.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.