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By Marc Lacey
THE RECENT sight of Black Hawk helicopters falling from the sky in Iraq prompts comparisons with Somalia, where the downing of a Black Hawk in 1993 spelt the end of an earlier experiment in stabilising a divided, violence-racked nation. A decade after the U.S. withdrawal from Mogadishu, Somalia remains an anarchic country without a central government, a reminder that the conditions that breed terrorism will still exist even if Iraq is eventually stabilised. A recent report prepared by the United Nations, for example, says that the terrorists who carried out last year's bombing of an Israeli tourist haven on the Kenyan coast used Somalia as a training ground, transit point and escape route.
In a series of recent peace conferences, African nations have been taking increasing responsibility for fixing their own problems. Somalia, too, is conducting peace negotiations, on a college campus outside Nairobi. But that is nothing unusual this is the 14th round of talks in the 13 years since Somalia's last Government collapsed. The talks, punctuated by the occasional fistfight, underscore just how hard it will be to rebuild economic, legal and social structures that were long ago destroyed. This fall, two delegates to the peace conference have died in mysterious circumstances, one by gunshot and the other by strangulation. While investigators have yet to tie the murders directly to the talks, they filed charges this week against a former member of the Kenyan Parliament in connection with the shooting.
Historically, Somalia has always been more a collection of widely scattered settlements and clans than a unified country. During the 19th century, the British took one chunk and the Italians another. Upon independence in 1960, Somalia became one, at least on the map. In 1969, after years of instability, an autocratic army general named Mohamed Siad Barre seized power and kept Somalia together from 1969 to 1991, until the Cold War ended.
Today, the clannishness is back in force with at least five different men claiming to be President of various portions of the country and scores of warlords who have divided up virtually every city block and remote village. U.S. attention is now focussed elsewhere, but the problems that beset Somalia a decade ago have festered.
One of the supposed Presidents is Abdinur Ahmed Darman, a businessman who staged a large rally in Mogadishu in July 2003, during which he declared himself Somalia's head of state. Mr. Darman's business activities are diverse, including the printing of fake Somali shillings, according to the U.N. report. Before Mr. Darman held his presidential rally, he took care of some key details: he hired a group of militiamen to protect him, a prerequisite for any leadership position in Somalia, and he opened an e-mail account with the address firstname.lastname@example.org.
Who can argue with that?
Well, Abdikassim Salad Hassan, for one. He was elected President of Somalia at an earlier peace conference in Djibouti in 2000 that drew thousands of delegates but was nonetheless boycotted by some key clan leaders. Mr. Salad has acted as President for the last three years. He has named Ministers, moved into a presidential mansion in the middle of Mogadishu and insisted that he be granted the same level of respect as other Presidents during his world travels. But Mr. Salad has had a difficult tenure. The warlords who really control Somalia ceded him no more than a portion of Mogadishu. Several months ago, Mr. Salad's transitional government, which was given authority for three years, reached the end of its term. But with no clear President to replace him, Mr. Salad has hung on to the job.
Dozens of other Somalis who do not currently claim the title would nevertheless like to lay claim to it by the close of the current peace negotiations. Delegates to the talks are going to first decide on the make-up of the 351-member Parliament. The lawmakers, carefully balanced to reflect Somalia's numerous clans, will then decide on the next leader. Selection Day is a moving target. It was supposed to happen in the summer. It might still occur this fall. If not then, next year is a distinct possibility. Nothing is a sure thing.
The candidates are a colourful lot. There is Hussein Aidid, a former U.S. Marine who is son of Gen. Mohammed Farah Aidid, whom U.S. troops were seeking during the ill-fated intervention in Mogadishu. He does not appreciate the term warlord that is typically attached to him. Abdurahman Barre Osman, the younger brother of Somalia's last leader, also has aspirations. It was the collapse of Siad Barre's rule that gave rise to Somalia's 13 years of chaos.
The lone woman in the race is Asha Ahmed Abdalla, who lived in the U.S. for 30 years and ran the Washington-based Somali Relief Agency. She faces an added challenge. It seems the men who have run Somalia into the ground do not think women are up to the job.
Of course, whoever emerges as the next leader will simply enter a crowded field of would-bes, has-beens, pretenders and outright frauds. Somalia will almost certainly remain divided, a haunting reminder that the `war on terrorism' will not be over even if calm someday replaces chaos in Iraq. New York Times News Service.
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