19 May 2007 04:27


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  • Title: [SW News] (New York Times) A Peace-Starved City Weighs the Warlord Factor
  • Posted by/on:[AMJ][Saturday, August 19, 2000]

August 19, 2000



A Peace-Starved City Weighs the Warlord Factor


Tyler Hicks for The New York Times

Mogadishu residents, surrounded by ruins like this, are eager for a government. As one put it, "We are against anyone who is against peace."

Related Article
With Warlords at Home, Somalis Talk Peace (August 19, 2000)
U.N. Report Describes Somalia's Swift Descent Into Anarchy (August 19, 1999)

MOGADISHU, Somalia -- The warlords of Mogadishu are a courteous bunch. They smile. They reason in soft tones. They even serve visitors cardamom tea and something sweet and orange resembling Tang. But it is not their good manners that you notice first.

"There is," Osman Atto, one warlord, said with some understatement, "an assortment of armaments in this country."

Outside his house here, Mr. Atto's militia was decked out with countless automatic weapons, including a spiffy submachine gun that would fit nicely under a jacket. Many militiamen drive around town in pickups mounted with antiaircraft guns. That might seem excessive, but apparently it was useful when gunmen allied with Mr. Atto blasted down a steel gate recently to kidnap two foreign aid workers for ransom money.

The warlords -- who prefer the title "faction leader" -- look as scary as ever. But there is a question in the hopeful air these days: How much power do they really wield? Not as much as they once did, many Somalis say, but enough to make trouble.

The question will be put to the test if, as expected, the first Somali government since 1991 is formed and actually tries to govern. For the last several months, thousands of Somalis have gathered in neighboring Djibouti to plan. They have already set up an assembly aimed at establishing a permanent government.

But four of the five major warlords in Mogadishu have refused to attend the conference, so any government's success is uncertain. No one has forgotten that it was the warlords who frustrated the United Nations operation here in the early 1990's. And in interviews, three of them hinted at violence if a new government comes.

"Without the consent of the population and the leaders of the factional organizations, this would lead to civil war," said Hussein Aidid, 38, who took over a major faction after his father, Gen. Muhammad Farah Aidid, was killed in 1996. "Nobody can impose on us a government."

Another warlord, Muse Sudi Yalahow, said, "We are going to defend our town from these people."

Mr. Atto, who speaks with a rough idiomatic American accent, said: "I would ignore it. And if anybody tries to tell me, 'I am your government,' I would tell them, 'You go to hell.'"

But despite the harsh words, there is a growing sense that the warlords -- who divided power into clan fiefs after Mr. Siad Barre fell in 1991 -- may not be the deciding factor anymore. Courts and police units set up by Islamic groups have siphoned off some authority. So have business people, who not only hire their own militias but also provide jobs and money to people other than thugs.

Perhaps most of all, Somalis seem plain weary of the warlords, who have caused much of the factional fighting, and who have failed in 12 peace conferences over a decade to settle their differences. "Nobody listens to them," said one Mogadishu resident, Ali Muhammad Osman, 38.

Another, Farhan Muhammad Hersi, 18, suggested that the warlords were out of step with most Somalis, who seem to support the work in Djibouti overwhelmingly. "We are against anyone who is against peace," he said.

Perhaps the warlords would oppose any government, no matter what, seeing it as impinging on their power. But it is clear why they hate what is happening in Djibouti: the conference was organized explicitly to exclude them as leaders. They were invited, but only as citizens or members of their clans.

"Djibouti is a reconciliation conference," Mr. Yalahow said. "But with whom are we reconciling in Djibouti? All the faction leaders are here."

All except one, Muhammad Ali Madhi, who served as president after Mr. Siad Barre fell and who is active in Djibouti. He seems to be betting his future on a new government.

"It is not the faction leaders who will decide what will happen," he said in a recent interview in Djibouti. "It's the people who have the right to decide for themselves."

"The people who are not here," he added, "they don't care about their country."

Still, there are prominent Somalis other than the warlords who object to the Djibouti conference. Among them are a number of officials from the Siad Barre regime, including the former ministers of interior, finance and communications.

Also among them are two politicians who command more respect and influence than the warlords. One is Abdullahi Yussef Ahmed, a former faction leader who set up a stable government in a northeastern Somali region called Puntland. The other is Muhammad Ibrahim Egal, who leads another pocket of stability, Somaliland, in the northwest.

Mr. Aidid said the Djibouti conference was rushing ahead without Mr. Ahmed and Mr. Egal -- and could turn them further away from the rest of Somalia, perhaps violently.

"It is a fear," he said. "There is no quick solution to the problems of Somalia."

Most experts say that although Somaliland and Puntland present political problems, they are more long-term. The warlords, on the other hand, present the real threat of violence as soon as any government tries to assert its authority. To lessen that worry, the delegates in Djibouti are seeking to seat the new government in the inland city of Baidoa, at least temporarily, rather than the still-fractious capital, Mogadishu. But that issue is still not settled.

As with so many problems in poor regions, the deciding issue may be money. Many Somalis say a government's surest road to success would be paved with money from rich countries. It would make the government popular and provide jobs for the warlords' gunmen -- maybe even for the warlords themselves.

"I don't know what they are going to do: kill them, put them behind bars or give them contracts," said one businessman in Mogadishu, whose name is being omitted just to be on the safe side.

That last option is not so far-fetched. All three men are in business, and Mr. Atto was once a successful construction contractor. He made a point of showing off to a visitor his huge garage, filled with millions of dollars in bulldozers, backhoes and other heavy machinery.

Couldn't he make more money, he was asked, rebuilding the nation in peace?

"That is not a problem -- being rich," he insisted. "The problem is achieving what you would call stability."

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