End nears for Somalia's decade-long civil war

As a new peace pact takes hold, Somalis ready to choose new leaders.

Fadumo Abdukadir can barely remember life in Somalia before civil war began 10 years ago. She struggles to recall the faces of family members she lost. She's forgotten what it means to live peacefully, with a functioning state that practices the rule of law.

But Ms. Abdukadir remembers all too clearly what she calls "this stupid war." The war that killed hundreds of thousands, drove millions from their homes, and left Somalia suffering, without government and forgotten by the outside world.

"Take a look around you," she says, pointing to the refugee camp that she and her eight children call home. "We have no food, no medicine, no help, and no hope. What we need is a government."

But now, hope is indeed growing that the chaos might soon come to an end. For the past three months, more than 2,000 Somalis have been meeting in the suffocating desert heat of neighboring Djibouti, trying to thrash out a deal that will put an end to the most miserable decade of Somalia's long history.

In a rare spirit of unity and compromise, delegates agreed on a draft charter last month that allows for the establishment of a new 225-member Transitional National Assembly. Once members of the TNA have been elected, a prime minister and president will be elected, and the long struggle toward normality will begin.

As soon as the new charter was read aloud, the conference crowd erupted into jubilant cheers, belting out excited strains of the national anthem. But joyful optimism alone can't make an agreement stick.

All 12 previous attempts at putting back together the pieces of Somalia have failed, and it will take more than the optimism of the Somali people to make No. 13 a success.

Ask anyone in the capital of Mogadishu if they support the process, and the answer will be a resounding "yes," but a host of opposing power groups have grown out of Somalia's decade-old political void. And although they say they want government, they have very divergent ideas of what sort of government it should be.

Businessmen want a laissez-faire government that will stimulate the economy. Religious leaders seek an Islamic government and the imposition of Islamic law (sharia). Refugees just want water, food, and basic services.

When Marxist dictator Mohamed Siad Barre fled the country in 1991, Somalia fell into the hands of warring clan-based militias - particularly by Mohamed Farah Aidid, who had previously been in Ethiopia.

The United Nations, backed by the military might of the United States, tried to restore order and oust Mr. Aidid, but they failed and withdrew in 1995.

Sheikh Mokhtar Haji Hamud, the secretary of the Council of Islamic Courts is - in contrast to the popular imagery of Islamic fundamentalism - a timid, soft- spoken man.

Last year he and other religious leaders, with the backing of the business community, formed their own militias and took on the warlords. They closed down checkpoints across the city, arresting and imprisoning militiamen as they passed.

"We had to do something," he says. "People need order and discipline in their lives."

The sheikh says he supports the Djibouti process and would even acknowledge a secular government, but remains certain that the Islamic courts that he set up will have power under a new government.

He wants to see the new government adopt traditional sharia, which demands cutting off the hands of thieves and the heads of murderers. Adulterers would be publicly stoned.

"All Somalis are Muslims," he says, "and in accordance with Islam there is no choice but to adopt sharia."

But according to Hussein Aidid, son of the mid-'90s warlord, this is the last thing Somalia needs. "Of course I support a government, but it must exclude the Islamic courts. They are financed by the Taliban [Islamic fundamentalist leaders of Afghanistan] and Osama bin Laden [the wealthy Saudi accused of masterminding the 1998 bombing of two US embassies in Africa]."

He fancies a government with himself at the helm, as do the other warlords whose warring militias have destroyed this once-beautiful city and reduced its unique blend of African, Portuguese, and Italian architecture to ruins.

Col. Ahmed Omar Jess, one of Somalia's warlords, abandoned the talks after his clan refused to guarantee part of his clan's quota of seats to his own militia. Mr. Aidid, the warlord's son, has outright boycotted the talks, warning that they could lead to more conflict.

"Djibouti is not producing a political solution; it's creating a political problem," he says.

But nobody is paying much attention to the warlords these days. Reluctant to accept that the tide of Somali politics has turned decisively against him and the other warlords, Aidid and his cohorts are clinging to the past.

The days when clan leaders could count on the support of their clan to bear arms and fight in support of their leaders' political ambitions are long gone.

"Business is the new power in Mogadishu," says Abdi Sabrie, who owns a new pasta factory in south Mogadishu. "The warlords are nearly dead."

Abdi has grown rich from the absence of government bureaucracy, but is tired of having to pay protection money for his security, tired of having to generate his own electricity, and source his own water.

"These are services that a government would provide. I know that government means taxes, but I would rather pay money to a government than to the militiamen. But it must be the right kind of government."

Aware that expectations are running high, the United Nations political officer for Somalia, Babafemi Badejo, acknowledges the process is far from perfect.

"There are and will continue to be problems," he says. "But the Djibouti process still represents Somalia's best chance. We accept the reality that we cannot have everybody on board."

"But the most important thing for all Somalis to remember is patience," says Dr. Badejo, who remains optimistic about the Djibouti process despite having watched every previous peace initiative fail.

"My message to them is simple," he says. "Peace is a process - not an event."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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