NAIROBI, Kenya — The "Somali Intellectuals Forum," the group of wise men and women that the United Nations has said holds a key to Somalia's future, convened its first public meeting here Monday on the crisis tearing apart what is left of their homeland next door.
Fewer than 30 intellectuals showed up, dwarfed by a cavernous Nairobi hotel ballroom. They listened patiently through the morning to hollow speeches largely rehashing how their once-proud nation self-destructed in clan wars, famine and desolation that ultimately drove out this educated backbone of their society.
Then the afternoon session exploded in fiery debate. At noon, Nairobi-based intellectuals loyal to warlord and U.N. nemesis Mohammed Farah Aidid learned, through a Somali grapevine in this nation that hosts 300,000 Somali exiles and refugees, that they had been excluded from the forum.
Their instant conclusion: The United Nations deliberately conspired to keep them out.
"We are intellectuals. We want to participate if there is some good attempt under way to solve the Somali problem. But nobody invited us here," declared Ahmed Mukhtar Aden, a spokesman for Aidid's Somali National Alliance.
He and a dozen other supporters gate-crashed the conference, which was endorsed by the United Nations and which the Aidid loyalists said represented only opposing clans and tribes.
"Now, after Clinton encouraged the political process, it is something good for the Somali people," he said. "But it is clear to us the United Nations is still trying to divide and rule us."
The forum's acting president, exiled Somali cardiologist Dr. Abdi Aidid Hirey, said in an interview during a break that he too had a grievance with the United Nations.
Hirey denied that his group was designed with a U.N.-endorsed, anti-Aidid bias and complained that the international body apparently was simply too busy with its war against the renegade warlord to lend the forum anything more than "moral support."
"We asked UNOSOM to give us financial assistance, but we haven't gotten any," Hirey said, using the acronym for a U.N. mission that is operating under a $1.5-billion budget largely earmarked for military operations.
As a result, the forum that Hirey and other founding members had hoped would last a week barely scraped together enough donations from the exile community to hire the ballroom for the day. They even charged their members for the coffee and tea.
The United Nations has made a grave mistake, said Hasan Ali Mirreh, a U.S.-educated Somali scholar, by locating its sprawling headquarters in south Mogadishu, which is Aidid's stronghold.
"Mogadishu . . . is a ruined city," he said. "Whose capital is it now? It's the U.N.'s capital. OK, so it has a seaport. We have four major seaports in Somalia. If things don't improve, why not move the capital?"
There were a few other creative suggestions, including the spreading of the United Nations' physical presence in Mogadishu equally among Somalia's 18 provinces, ending all U.N. offensive military operations that have left hundreds of Somalis dead in the capital, and ceasing all attacks by Aidid's forces against U.N. peacekeepers.
The shared theme among all of the speakers was a call for the one thing that everyone agrees continues to stand in the way of peace: national unity.
The forum's founding intellectuals insisted that the U.N. troops are needed to "enforce the unity"--a function that Aidid's brutal guerrilla war worked to discredit during the three months that U.N. commanders used U.S. troops to hunt futilely for the faction leader.
SNA spokesman Aden also called for national unity a unity behind Aidid, not the United Nations. "The U.N. is still trying to divide us," he said, "and we are still trying to bring everyone together."