For months, Somalians have labored to bring their country back from the dead. They've taken the first step, agreeing on a national constitution and forming a parliament - given the tangle of impossibilities in their way, it's the beginning of the beginning.
For 10 years Somalia has been no more than a name on the map, a space where rival gangs and clans under murderous warlords fought for what loot and food there was. It gripped the conscience of mankind in 1992 with television scenes of mass starvation. The UN and a large US military force went in to bring food and supplies to the wretched population. But both found themselves caught in a madhouse of violence and corruption and had to pull out.
Somalia, almost the size of Texas and shaped like a boomerang, lies in the Horn of Africa. At independence in 1960, it combined the colonies of British Somaliland in the north and Italian Somaliland in the south. It was a feeble democracy in its first years but then, under dictator Siad Barre, was embroiled in war with Ethiopia and in internal clan conflict. Even before he was driven out, after 20 years, the north began building its own state, but the south stumbled into chaos. The people lived from hand to mouth with the help of foreign aid through drought and flood and the terror of rampaging clans. There was plenitude only in arms and munitions for the warlords, piled up when the Soviet Union and the US wrestled for influence there.
Over the years the UN and combinations of African states tried to bring Somalia some kind of normality. Thirteen conferences failed, because the Somalis at the negotiating table were the warlords and profiteers who battened on the anarchy and because outside powers interfered with their own agendas. This time the tiny state of Djibouti, uncomfortably sandwiched between Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Somalia, called a new kind of peace conference. Stretching its modest national budget to the limit, it invited a very different cast of characters: Women for the first time, intellectuals, elders, religious leaders, exiles, and, of course, clan leaders. The clan system is, realistically, the only foundation of a new society: The challenge is to make it peaceful.
At the beginning of June, 640 delegates came, with advisers and observers adding nearly another 2,000. The atmosphere was that of a revival meeting - hope, fear, and reconciliation swept along in a torrent of talk. The process was helped by their living together in a cleared, cooler suburb of the steamy capital city. Apart from threatening to eat Djibouti out of house and home, they had by mid-July agreed on the elements of a national charter for a new federal Somalia. It provided for a transitional parliament of 225 members: 44 each for the four largest clans, 24 for minorities, and 25 women to be chosen by the conference. The parliament will elect a transitional government ultimately to be installed in the old capital, Mogadishou. It is to prepare democratic elections within two or three years. For the time being, the parliament will meet in Djibouti.
There is no assurance that this epic attempt to pull Somalia up by its bootstraps will succeed. But it is further along than anyone would have imagined a year ago, pushed by the feeling that present conditions are intolerable. Helping progress is an apparent decline of the warlords, having trouble paying their fighters amid the general poverty. And neighboring states have kept hands off.
One serious obstacle is the former British Somaliland's refusal to join the new arrangement, but that might change. Ultimately, the example could have much wider validity. A new Somalia may show how to deal with other cases of that latter-day phenomenon, the failed state.
*Richard C. Hottelet, a longtime foreign correspondent for CBS, writes on world affairs.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society