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Somalis Wait Anxiously for New Government - 2004-02-20

Late last month, a group of powerful Somali warlords and clan leaders reached a landmark agreement on forming a unified government in the Horn of Africa country. For many people in Somalia, the deal has raised hope that peace and order, which has eluded the country for more than a decade, could soon be restored. However, not everyone believes that creating a government run by warlords will end the suffering and bloodshed.

One of the best examples of how people in Somalia have learned to cope in a country without a government is the way Somalis obtain passports for travel. They go to the market and simply buy one.

In Mogadishu, anyone, including foreigners, can walk into one of several so-called immigration offices at the main Barakaat market and buy a passport. The passports, which were printed overseas and shipped here, can cost anywhere from $20 to $50, depending on demand.

But passport merchant Omar Ali Sheik said there is little demand for passports that only a handful of countries accept as valid travel documents, and which most Somalis, who earn less than a dollar a day, cannot afford to buy.

He said before Somalia's last government was overthrown in 1991, he was studying to be an immigration official. Mr. Sheik said he had a bright future in Mogadishu when there was a functioning government, and the Americans and Europeans had their embassies here. He said the war has destroyed society, driven out the foreigners and left the Somali people destitute.

Shaking his fist in the air in frustration, Mr. Sheik said, "We need a government, and we need the help of the international community, now."

Most, if not all, Somalis say they want a new government that can restore order and bring back much-needed international aid and investments. But there is little agreement on just who should lead that government.

Privately run Mogadishu University was founded five years ago by Somali intellectuals who were educated abroad, mostly in the United States and Canada.

They say they firmly oppose a plan, endorsed by the United States and other countries, that calls for a government formed along clan lines that would include the leadership of about 25 armed groups in Somalia. Details of that proposal are being hammered out among the warlords and clan leaders at a peace conference in Nairobi, Kenya.

One of the founders of Mogadishu University, Abdurahman Abdullahi, said he believes the plan would only legitimize the power of the warlords who have destroyed the country. "The warlords do not represent the Somali people. They were not elected by the Somalis," he said. "I think Somalis feel America should come forward on a different avenue other than the warlords because [Somalis] do not like the warlords and they do not like anybody who comes through the warlords."

Mr. Abdullahi's colleague, Hussein Iman, agreed. "Why are the Somalis in this weak situation and destruction?" he asked. "Because of the warlords! They have demolished everything."

The educators argue the international community should make an urgent effort to help Somalis find their next leader among the many successful Somali businessmen and intellectuals living in exile.

Mr. Abdullahi and his colleagues said they do not believe a stable government can be formed in Somalia without a well-educated leader with a clear vision for the country's future.

But other Somalis in Mogadishu, like Abdullah Haji Diab, reject the idea of searching for a new leader, saying this would take too long. Mr. Diab is leading a grassroots campaign in Mogadishu to pressure the warlords at the Nairobi talks to quickly finalize an overall agreement for governing Somalia.

Mr. Diab said, while a government of warlords may not be the best option for the country, their talks in Nairobi offer the best hope. "We are tired," he said. "And you can see, all these young people who do not have a future, they are only [waiting for] the outcome of Nairobi."

There are signs the talks in Nairobi may drag on longer than many people had hoped. Several powerful warlords have threatened to withdraw because of a dispute in the wording of an agreement to form a government signed just three weeks ago.

Somalis who support the peace process say, if the talks unravel, they fear the country may plunge again into violence from which it may never recover.