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Somalia prepares for 75 days of forgiveness

Long-running talks are planned to let leaders try to heal the wounds from 16 years of war.

July 09, 2007|Edmund Sanders | Times Staff Writer

MOGADISHU, SOMALIA — Construction workers are struggling against the clock to convert a dilapidated police garage into a football field-sized convention hall.

But an even bigger rebuilding challenge awaits the hundreds of Somalian political and tribal leaders who will soon gather at the former auto warehouse in an effort to heal wounds from 16 years of civil war.

Billed as a national reconciliation congress, the much-anticipated meeting already has been postponed three times amid concerns about funding, security and threatened boycotts. It is now scheduled to start July 15.

Experts say the conference will probably be a combination of political deal-making, cease-fire talks and a massive group therapy session.

Formal repentance and forgiveness are sometimes more important to resolving disputes in Somalian culture than dividing up power and money, experts say. Many say an official reconciliation among Somalia's warring clans is the missing ingredient that has prevented the Horn of Africa nation from restoring peace and security since the 1991 collapse of the Mohamed Siad Barre dictatorship.

"Forgiveness in our culture is very important," said Hussein Sheik Ahmed, an influential clan elder in Mogadishu, the capital. "If there is no reconciliation and public forgiveness, people will not trust each other. Without it, Somalia can't put the years of wrongdoing behind it."

It has been a time-tested ritual in Somalia and other African nations: When tribes clash, whether over stolen cattle or slain clansmen, elders from each side gather under the largest acacia tree, sometimes for months at a time, airing grievances and venting frustrations. Perhaps out of sheer exhaustion, parties usually come to terms.

"This is just how Somalis sort their differences," said Prime Minister Ali Mohammed Gedi. "We can kill each other one day. Then immediately after, we can agree by simply sitting under a tree. This is what Somalia needs now. We need to forgive each other."

The proposed national reconciliation conference will attempt to do the same work on a far larger scale. There will be 1,325 attendees, mostly clan leaders from across the country. Original plans to invite 3,000 proved too unwieldy and expensive, particularly when considering the need to provide housing, food and security.

Organizers are bracing for 75 days of talks to ensure that all parties get a chance to be heard.

No one's quite sure what to expect once the conference starts. Complaints could date back a decade or longer, to a time when Somalia's clans began fighting over land, resources and control of roads and ports. Millions of people have been displaced, losing homes, cattle, land and businesses.

More recently, disputes have arisen over the legitimacy of the transitional government and whether all clans are fairly represented. The government's heavy reliance on Ethiopian troops is another issue. Some are expected to push for a formal power-sharing agreement with the Islamic Courts Union, a religious alliance that lost control of Mogadishu in December but remains popular with some clans.

Shouting matches and passionate debates are likely, organizers say, but if all goes well, the event should end with handshakes and hugs.

"We want this conference to settle all grievances and grudges that each and every Somalian tribe harbors against one another," said conference Chairman Ali Mahdi Mohamed.

Similar conferences have helped bring stability to Somaliland and Puntland, two semiautonomous regions in northern Somalia. Several attempts at a national conference have broken down. Ali Mahdi, who was briefly president of Somalia in 1991, said they failed because they focused on satisfying warlords and politicians, rather than clan leaders who wield the real power.

The question now is whether the conference will even convene and if so, whether all sides will attend. Several prominent clans are vowing to boycott.

Security is another worry. Insurgents have detonated roadside bombs near the heavily protected venue and are launching near-daily attacks in Mogadishu.

Organizers have refused to release a formal agenda or lay down the ground rules for debates and voting, leading to confusion about what will occur.

Some want to use the conference to reshuffle the government, electing new members of parliament or even a new prime minister. Others want to focus strictly on clan grievances.

Some clans are deeply skeptical about whether the transitional government is serious about reconciliation.

"They just want to gather their supporters at the conference and then say to the world that Somalia's problems are fixed," said Ugas Abdi Dahir, elder of the Ayr clan. His clan will not attend the conference unless government restructuring is discussed, he said.

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