A dovish Somalia offers militias training, food for arms

Eight years ago today, President Bush deployed 28,000 US troops to Somalia.

When he was just 9 in 1991, Gure Ahmed Mohamed watched as his country collapsed into civil war and his city was torn apart by anarchy. A year later, 28,000 US troops stormed Somalia's shores as part of the ill-fated Operation Restore Hope.

When he turned 16, Gure joined one of the ragtag but potentially deadly militias that swaggered along Mogadishu's bombed-out streets."There wasn't any other employment," he shrugs.

But Somalia now has a government - operating out of a hotel - for the first time in a decade racked with clan violence. Today, Mr. Mohamed is 18 and has just quit his job as a militiaman. He's one of some 5,000 men who have come to the half-dozen demobilization camps scattered around the capital in the past few weeks, since the government began offering food and training to militiamen in exchange for their weapons.

"I came to this camp so I can serve my country and my religion [Islam]," Gure says. Disarming militiamen like him is the new Somali government's top priority. Before it can truly say it governs Somalia, the administration must bring peace to Mogadishu, and that means silencing - whether through dealmaking or force - the guns of the warlords who control parts of the city.

Although Mogadishu is safer now than at any time since the US and United Nations peacekeeping missions failed in the early 1990s, it is far from peaceful. An estimated 20,000 militiamen remain armed. Banditry and murder continue, sometimes related to business or political rivalries.

"The biggest problem is demobilization of militia, how to transform these people into peaceful people," says defense minister Abdullahi Boqor Muse.

The government wants to demobilize 75,000 militiamen across the country over the next three years. While it plans to turn some of them into a national army, most will train for alternative jobs as auto mechanics, tailors, electricians, and so forth. The price tag is estimated at $45 million, a hefty sum for a government with an empty Treasury and no means of collecting taxes.

But what the government does have is momentum and public support. Thousands filled the national stadium here to welcome new President Abdiqassim Salad when he came to Mogadishu in October. Mr. Muse says another 2,000 militia are ready to hand over their weapons in coming days.

Muse says the government has already sequestered 170 "technicals" - pickup trucks mounted with heavy machine guns. Accurate estimates of the warlords' strength are hard to come by. One of them, Mohammed Qanyare, who controls territory in South Mogadishu, claims the support of 800 militiamen and 40 technicals, as well as artillery. The warlords have gradually seen their power and influence wane as business interests have lost patience and started funding their own militias.

"They don't have that ability to mobilize an entire clan militia like they could when they took out [former President Siad] Barre," says a UN official. "Being a warlord these days isn't a very secure profession."

Prime Minister Ali Khalif Galayd is even more dismissive: "They can pose problems in some parts of Mogadishu, but not in terms of a frontal assault or a real challenge to the government."

The government is undoubtedly trying to tempt the remaining warlords with plum diplomatic or administrative posts, but it appears they are holding out for a better deal. Says Mr. Galayd, "We are not happy with the progress we have made so far, but that doesn't mean we are not trying. We are trying very hard."

Not hard enough for Mr. Qanyare, who emerges from his headquarters wearing a crisply pressed charcoal safari suit. He carries a thin walking stick, which he admits is simply for show.

"We don't refuse peace, but (government members) are trying to take all of the cake," says Qanyare, who admits he wants some of the cake too. "Why not? I am here for power. I want some of the power."

The government can neither extend its authority nor bring peace to Mogadishu without reconciling with the warlords, he says. "They cannot ignore us." The government certainly cannot ignore the artillery and anti-aircraft guns the warlords possess, well within shelling distance of key installations. "If they try to open the port and airport, they'll face a fight," pledges Qanyare.

That's something the government is trying to avoid at all costs. As Mohamed and his fellow ex-militiamen perform a drill exercise around the dilapidated grounds of the demobilization camp, several of them march out of step and botch orders. Yet the camp commander says he has faith in the new recruits. "They are very good soldiers," says Mohamed Abshir Koje. "They will be able to defend Mogadishu from the warlords."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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.