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AFRICA : Somalia Finds Its Own Order in a Leaderless Land of Chaos

October 06, 1995|JOHN BALZAR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NAIROBI, Kenya — When the United States and the rest of the world turned away from an ungrateful Somalia seven months ago, some predicted that clan leaders might be able to stabilize their homeland, free of outside meddling. Others foresaw an inevitable resumption of the desert country's nasty warring, and so what?

Actually, Somalia has dabbled with both scenarios.

The result has been a ripe, still-painful, always-scary experiment in deconstruction. Who can tell, maybe this place on the African map is an emerging archetype of the post-state society--that hazy dream of anarchists and the American far-right fringe--a commonwealth of independent citizens carrying on their lives without the imposition, or order, of some distant central authority.

Today, it is possible to borrow money and change currency in Somalia, though there are no banks. It is possible to telephone across town or anywhere in the world from Mogadishu, though there is hardly any electrical power. Airline service has resumed to suburban airports, though the main airport remains mined and closed.

Somalia has three presidents, two forms of currency--and no government.

But exports of livestock and bananas have resumed. Mogadishu's Bakara marketplace is stocked with essential goods and imports, including guns and butter. Here, a Somali needing a passport can buy one at a market stall, since there is no government to issue one.

And for what it's worth, a shopper also can buy a license to pilot a 747 jet or to command a ship at sea.

Of course, it also remains easy to die in today's Somalia. The boomerang-shaped country on the Horn of Africa is divided by region, by valley, by riverbed, by neighborhood and according to the designs of centuries-old tribal clans, of which there are an abundance.

But the boundaries are not neat or settled. The clans are ambitious, restless, prone to treachery, driven by grudges and ever-shifting alliances. Famine always stalks the landscape.

This is a way of life rooted in Somalia's nomadic traditions.

Fifty generations ago, Clan A fought Clan B with spears for control of a water hole, which the loser later recaptured in alliance with Clan C.

Today, great-grandchildren carry on these skirmishes with machine guns mounted on the backs of pickup trucks--vehicles known as "technicals." The principle is the same.

"They are a people of most susceptible character and withal uncommonly hard to please . . . affectionate souls, they pass without any apparent transition into a state of fury . . . and when the passions of rival tribes, between whom there has been a blood feud for ages, are violently excited, they will use with asperity [harshness] the dagger and spear." These observations were written in 1856 by British explorer Sir Richard Burton after journeying into Somalia.

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Surely he would recognize the situation today: Gen. Mohammed Farah Aidid is the best-known and most widely disliked of the Somali clan leaders. His fighters are blamed for the deaths of U.S. servicemen who came to Somalia in December, 1992, on a mission of mercy to aid famine victims.

Since the Americans pulled out in March, 1994, followed by U.N. peacekeepers a year later, Aidid has proclaimed himself president, formed a Cabinet and last month moved some of his troops into the lightly defended town of Baidoa.

Aidid's old nemesis, clan leader Ali Mahdi Mohamed, remains entrenched in northern Mogadishu and also claims to be president. And one of Aidid's closest allies, Mogadishu businessman Osman Atto, has broken ranks and formed his own militia.

For all these clan divisions, day-to-day life in Somalia is vastly more complex and, yes, successful. Clans trade among each other; entrepreneurs flourish. The Somali schilling remains stable, although it is backed by nothing.

"Maybe the lesson of all this is that Somalis don't need a central government," one veteran Western diplomat said.

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