Uneasy landfall for US Marines

President Bush has ordered more than 28,000 US troops into Somalia in the world’s biggest humanitarian rescue mission. 1,800 men waiting offshore will be the vanguard of the huge UN mercy operation. Mark Huband in Mogadishu describes what awaits the soldiers – a country in the thrall of rival warlords, where 1,000 people die every day

The Guardian, 5 December 1992


VIOLENCE, hunger, desperation and humiliation in the eyes of the world are the basic instincts governing everyday life in Somalia. All of these will be heightened when up to 30,000 foreign troops begin their descent into the country’s tangled political web.

Explanations of its disintegration often result in the conclusion that the prevailing anarchy suddenly emerged as a sign of these instincts being allowed to take an entire country in their grip. But today’s tragedy and political mess were predicted years before they happened.

The clansmen who have transformed themselves into rival warlords were rarely united during the years of struggle against the dictatorship of Mohammed Siad Barre. Barre fled Mogadishu in January 1991. His flight marked the end of a 22-year rule during which he had exploited clan rivalries based on land and property rights as a way of dividing his enemies to ensure power for himself.

His absence resulted in the loose United Somali Congress (USC) coalition which had fought him falling apart. Ali Mahdi Mohamed, a founder of the USC, was appointed interim president in January 1991. This eventually led to him breaking with the USC’s military leader, General Mohamed Farah Aideed, who refused to recognise the former hotel owner as president. The internal row within the USC gave Barre and his supporters time to regroup as a military force now called the Somali National Front (SNF).

Fierce battles were fought between the USC and the SNF. Barre was granted exile in Nigeria and the SNF leadership was forced to seek refuge in neighbouring Kenya. From his exile, Barre has continued to direct the SNF leader, his son-in-law, General Sayeed Hersi Morgan.

By November 1991, the split between Aideed and Ali Mahdi erupted into carnage in Mogadishu, and up to 30,000 people died during four months of war. The SNF was able to establish itself along the Kenyan border and eventually launch a long-expected offensive in October, capturing Bardera, Gen Aideed’s headquarters since he split with All Mahdi.

Gen Morgan is now believed to be planning to take the port of Kismayo, before the American troops arrive to secure it for the distribution of relief supplies.

The clan structure upon which Somali society is based now in control of an economy lies at the heart of the political crisis which has prolonged the starvation from which at least 500,000 people have died. When Morgan captured Bardera, forcing aid agencies to evacuate, the daily death rate rose from 50 to 230 due to the halting of relief. The emptiness of Somalia’s proud boast that it is the only country in Africa with a single tribe has been exposed.

Gen Aideed is chairman of an increasingly shaky four-member coalition – the Somali National Alliance – which has divided southern and western Somalia into fiefdoms. In their areas the coalition leaders are all-powerful. Because the coalition groups are all clan-based, this geographical division amounts to a division of the country on clan lines.

It is because the clans are now in control of an economy based on the theft and distribution of relief food in the areas which are traditionally their clan homelands that the disintegration of the unitary state has solidified into fact.

Clan-based xenophobia and distrust have heightened the need for political alliances, whose later collapse serves to heathen the distrust. The famine which resulted from the as Barre’s troops fought and were pursued by Aideed last year displaced most of the population, leaving starving migrants at the mercy of the clans into whose regions they strayed in search of food.

Simultaneously, power exerted by modern weapons provided during the cold war, combined with the easily available narcotic drugs being imported for profit by senior SNA members undermined the authority of clan elders.

During the 19808, the anti-Barre opposition fronts developed political ideologies largely based on their desire for foreign backing. However, the true unity of the movements lay in clan loyalties rather than ideology. This became clear when clan-based civil war broke out in mid-1989.

Due to the absence of ideology, however, alliances between the clans remain fluid. Gen Aideed and Ali Mahdi are in contact and have both supported the sending of US troops. Ali Mahdi has, however, also sent envoys to Aideed’s other sworn enemy, the SNF military leader, Gen Morgan, in a bid to undermine Aideed by gaining the former’s support for a peace conference. But this fluidity is also playing a key role in preventing clan reconciliation.

A diplomatic source here believes that Aideed, whose forces are now gathering in Baidoa to prepare to recapture his base at Bardera, has accepted that he has no chance of occupying the entire capital.

“It is certainly the case that Aideed is looking for a secure base which he can call his own. He is under severe pressure from the elders within his Habagadir sub-clan, who are wondering what it is he is fighting for,” he said.

Most worrying to the elders within the Habagadir, as with the other clans which have been most at liberty to steal food and terrorise the starving population, is how to attempt to reconstruct a civil society based on their traditional authority at a time when they are themselves nervous about the bad discipline of drugged gunmen:

“The gangs have realised their political power,” said one clan elder. “They occupy a most important place in the overall terrorising of the people, and the foreigners.”

It has been swiftly realised that foreign troops will have the authority to disarm the gunmen. This would leave the clan warriors powerless when the troops eventually leave. A month ago one in 10 men in Mogadishu carried a gun. Now guns can no longer be seen.

Aid agencies in the city realised quickly that guns are being hidden as the gunmen foresaw the difficulty of resisting disarmament by US Marines. So, while a false calm now prevails, it may only last until the foreigners depart and the guns are brought out again.

While some relief agencies welcome the troops, others are extremely worried that the side-lining of the clans in the areas where they control relief supplies, will disturb the delicate long-term relationship between clans and aid organisations. Brigitte Doppler of Médecins Sans Frontères, said: “The troops are going to completely shatter the equilibrium that has been established. The figure of 95 per cent malnutrition and 80 per cent of food being looted are months out of date, and are being used to justify the arrival of the troops.”

Attempting to step into the void are said to be armed Islamic fundamentalists backed by Sudan which is in turn backed by Iran.

Sources within the SNA confirmed this week that opposition to Islamic fundamentalists is the common ground between Aideed, All Mahdi, the US and the UN.

© Guardian Newspapers Limited