Leave Somalia Alone
Copyright 1994 The New York Times Company
The New York Times
July 6, 1994
Leave Somalia Alone
By Michael Maren
Michael Maren, who has worked for international aid organizations in Africa, is writing a book about the origin of the conflicts in Somalia.
Once again, United Nations peacekeepers are crouched behind sandbags watching Somalia's factions fight it out. This round of fighting, the heaviest since before the United States-led intervention in December 1992, was started by Ali Mahdi Mohammed, who means to drive his rival, Gen. Mohammed Farah Aidid, out of Mogadishu once and for all.
To its credit, the U.N. hasn't gotten involved in the clashes. Yet its inaction raises a question: if the peacekeepers aren't keeping the peace, what are they doing? Why did the Security Council extend the mandate for the operation in Somalia until the end of September? The cost will be more than $300 million, beyond the $1.5 billion already spent.
More importantly, the extension perpetuates policies that have been directly responsible for suspending Somalia in a state of war. The U.N.'s strategy has been in place since November, when it removed General Aidid from its most-wanted list and escorted him to the conference table. In March, as American troops were completing their withdrawal, the U.N. announced that the factions' leaders had signed a peace accord and had agreed on a date for a reconciliation conference. Skeptics pointed out that the leaders, popularly known as warlords, had nothing to negotiate: neither General Aidid nor Mr. Ali Mahdi was prepared to settle for anything less than the presidency.
Those suspicions were reconfirmed in May when the planned conference was postponed for the fourth time after no one showed up. Desperate to put its seal on some kind of agreement, the U.N. has pinned its hopes on the warlords, failing to understand that their interests are served by prolonging the conflict. Worse, the U.N. is providing incentive for them to keep fighting.
In the most violently contested areas, the U.N.'s presence means jobs, contracts and money. The U.N. rents houses, hires trucks and issues millions of dollars in contracts and subcontracts to businessmen with close ties to the warlords. In addition, for two months some of the fiercest battles in Mogadishu have been around the airport as clan militias jockey to control the corridors through which U.N.-imported food and equipment pass. Without the U.N. and those goods, the road wouldn't be worth fighting over.
In contrast, areas without a U.N. presence have been relatively peaceful. Take Galcaio, a central Somalian town situated between major feuding clans, the Majerteen and the Haber Gedir. During the civil war, it was the site of some of the heaviest fighting in the country. Then in May 1993, meetings among community leaders, religious figures, businessmen, students and representatives of the factions produced a peace accord that has held for more than a year. Significantly, the U.N. played no role in the meetings.
On a stroll through the quiet streets of the town two months ago, I asked the regional governor where the once ubiquitous "technicals" had gone. "The boys are doing business," he said. The former fighters had removed the weapons from their trucks and had begun transporting livestock to Bosasso, a port in the north. They returned with imported beans, rice and other goods. The cease-fire has endured because members of both clans need the 465-mile road from Galcaio to Bosasso. And since there is almost no foreign assistance in the region, people depend on the peace, not on U.N. contracts.
The next day, I drove to Bosasso, without weapons and part of the way at night. There I also found peace, commerce and people from different clans doing business. (I ran into a close relative of General Aidid's who was concluding a deal to set up a satellite telephone system in partnership with a political rival.)
The fear now is that the fighting in Mogadishu will spread -- that the clan members will have to shoo the goats off the trucks and remount the guns. The best thing the U.N. can do is leave and acknowledge that the only enduring peace will be the one the Somalis carve out for themselves.
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