Despite Best-Laid Plans of Outsiders, Somalian Roil Remains

Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum. Somalia, a failed, imploded state, is a political vacuum. Therefore, one way or another, it will be restored.

Not so fast.

The syllogism begs too many questions. Somalia's chaos is not passive, but charged with powerful destructive forces. Who is to give it what kind of order? What is restoration? After nine years of civil war to overthrow the regime of President Mohamed Siad Barre and six years of turmoil since then, Somalia has no government and no present prospect of having one. The only certainty is that, if it comes at all, it will not come from outside.

In 1992, the tragedy of gang war, destruction, and death galvanized the world community into humanitarian action. The imperative seemed quite clear: to stop the killing, feed the hungry and provide security within a national framework. Rival clans and sub-clans, armed to the teeth, were shooting it out to expand their turf and looting what stocks of food there were as farming populations scattered and famine spread.

United Nations agencies and the great private aid organizations were already on the scene. UN officials had repeatedly brokered cease-fire agreements which lasted only momentarily. The Security Council finally sent in troops to protect relief supplies, disarm clan factions and bandits, and encourage reconciliation with through reestablishment of civil institutions. A large United Task Force, led by 28,000 US marines and infantry managed to stabilize things. But the odds were against both peace and nation-building. Disarmament was never seriously undertaken. The embargo intended to stop the flow of weapons into Somalia remains a sorry joke. As for reconciliation, the clan leaders' repeated, solemn avowals to make peace and join in rebuilding their country have been empty words.

The turning point in forceful intervention came on Oct. 3, 1993 with the butchering of 18 American soldiers in the streets of Mogadishu, on a mission to arrest Mohamed Farah Aideed, the most violent clan leader. US and European troops were soon withdrawn altogether, followed by the other UN continents.

Humanitarian help for Somalia has continued, but on a diminishing scale as countries have cut their contributions.

There is, at present, no crisis. Fighting has sunk to skirmishes and food is available at a subsistence level. The calamity that saw between 300,000 and 500,000 of Somalia's 8 million people fall prey to famine and war in the early 1990's is not being repeated - but it is not impossible. A UN report says, "Somalia remains susceptible to three types of emergency requiring immediate international response: natural disasters such as floods, droughts and pestilence; epidemics, particularly cholera and also those affecting livestock; and man-made disasters; typically war-related casualties, population displacements and famine."

But, this time, would the world do more than watch, as it has done in Rwanda, Burundi, and Congo?

CHANCES for an internal solution are not bright. The clan leaders are unremittingly hostile. Somalia is ethnically homogeneous and has the same religion, Sunni Islam. The struggle is for power and wealth between two loose coalitions of clans. Their leaders are familiar adversaries. Ali Mahdi has long been boss of the northern part of Mogadishu, the devastated capital. It is separated by a "green line," from the forces of the late Mohamed, Farah Aideed. Aideed was killed in a firefight last year and was succeeded by his son, Hussein. He now appears to face some sort of showdown.

Ali Mahdi's group has called a Nov. 1 conference to reform a transitional national authority that would allow Somalis to choose their leaders. But Hussein Aideed contemptuously rejects the invitation, calling the meeting a device to legitimize military intervention by Ethiopia on behalf of Mahdi. Somalia, he says, already has a transitional government with himself as interim president and he invites Ali Mahdi to "come on board with us." Both parties are heavily armed and foreign friends are working to remove a possible flashpoint by postponing the conference.

Somalia remains unpredictable.

There is one fundamental obstacle to the reestablishment of a unity that was actually never real. The dozens of clans which are dress extras in this drama are not necessarily interested in unification under the hegemony of Mahdi or Aideed - or any central power. They find the status quo - minus the bloodshed - more appealing. They have, over centuries, made out together in their own way.

Perhaps a figurehead as leader would give them an international presence. How that could all come about is not clear. And it would take time. Meanwhile, in this strange new world, better to have Somalia as a mosaic than as a blast furnace.

* Richard C. Hottelet, a longtime foreign correspondent for CBS, writes on world affairs.

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