A way out of the apocalypse: A country with no government gives the UN the chance to intervene in an imaginative new way, says James Roberts

Over the course of a week in Somalia, I had a single encounter with nationalist Somali sentiment. It occurred in the operating theatre of Digfer hospital in Mogadishu. A Somali surgeon was attempting to save the leg of Kamilo Mohamed, which had been partly blasted away by a gunshot. The patient sang his praises and dismissed the US-based International Medical Corps, also working in the hospital, as 'tourists' interested only in amputating damaged limbs.

The thin bullet casings favoured locally result in gaping wounds and the IMC policy is to amputate rather than attempt operations which even in the West would have modest chances of success. But Somalis like Kamilo resist amputation until the last possible moment, when death from gangrene is imminent.

The anecdote illustrates the dilemmas facing those who wish to intervene constructively in another country's disaster. At the level of perceptions and values, the best-laid plans can come adrift.

In Somalia the tepid sense of nationhood may be warmed up a few degrees by outside benefactors: they may become the means by which hostile local factions can form a temporary alliance against the intruder; or they may become the focus of hostilities through a real or imagined connection with an internal enemy. Either way, the outsider is co-opted into the local drama.

Most of the world's natural or humanitarian catastrophes occur in countries with governments. Somalia has no government. But this very political vacuum may give cause for hope.

In some countries the biggest obstacle to humanitarian relief can be the government itself. The UN and other relief agencies have always hesitated at the gate of national sovereignty. When populations suffer at the hands of their own rulers, the outside world may withhold aid, but will rarely go

further.

Somalia, by contrast, appears to offer an opportunity for the external imposition of decency. This is the view of Professor Ioan Lewis of the London School of Economics, a leading authority on Somalia. But before this can happen, there has to be a proper understanding of Somali society as it functions now.

The country has reverted to its 19th-century condition. Big-game hunters used to find their way through it by allowing themselves to be conducted by clan guards, who passed them on to the charge of a neighbouring clan. A few months ago a caravan of 60 vehicles and hundreds of Isaaq people trekked from Mogadishu to their homeland in the north-west. A journey that would normally have taken two days actually took a month, with the caravan attended by a sequence of clan guards.

Professor Lewis believes that the authority of clan elders should be restored, and the already patchy authority of warlords further undermined. If the main factor in Somali politics is clan loyalty, then instead of pretending that it does not exist, the sensible approach is to work with it - as Somalis have done for centuries, making peace as well as war between groups.

It is much more likely that food will be widely distributed through clan elders rather than gunmen or warlords. The degree of influence exerted by the elders is variable - in Mogadishu especially, many young men are outside anyone's control. But in the countryside, elders often have their own militias and have retained more of their traditional authority.

The role of the UN in such circumstances is to set up an administration that works through the elders. A substantial administrative structure is needed for the food aid programme. Eventually it will have to take account of the absence of schools, the severe lack of health care, and the need for the rehabilitation of agriculture. From the interaction of various clan groups, a federal structure could emerge. Professor Lewis argues that the state of Somalia can never be reimposed from above by warlords; it can only be remade from the bottom up.

Much responsibility and many hopes rest on the shoulders of Mohamed Sahnoun, the UN special representative for Somalia. He is unusual in that he tends to read books and original works on his areas of responsibility rather than the briefing papers more frequently favoured by diplomats. He has tried, with much success, to understand Somalia.

Mr Sahnoun's idea for four food corridors takes account of the de facto divisions of the country. He has attempted to understand the complexities of clan divisions, prior to the formulation of food distribution policy. He is aware of the UN's past abdication of responsibility and appears determined to make up for its shortcomings.

One might ask why Somalia should be regarded as a special case. The first reason for intervening is that the country is experiencing a human catastrophe of almost apocalyptic proportions. The task of intervention becomes more difficult every day it is postponed, as the number of factions with whom negotiation is necessary multiplies. Somalis can no longer solve their problems alone. There are no would-be colonial powers in the wings, so the responsibility for saving and protecting the weak of Somalia falls squarely on the UN.

The crisis offers the UN an opportunity to develop - tentatively, by trial and error, but also imaginatively and creatively - new ways of bringing decency and security to parts of the world where the value of a human life is treated as negligible.

It is an opportunity for intervention without cries of foul over infringements of national sovereignty; an opportunity to establish, with the consent of ordinary Somalis, an administrative structure that would protect the poor against the depredations of the powerful.

If it operates along the lines suggested by Professor Lewis - gradually pushing warlords to the margin, intimidating the bullies in the armed gangs, reinforcing the structures that work to the benefit of the largest number of people - then it could reap a rich harvest of experience and start to heal a badly damaged reputation.

Despite glimmers and flickers of democracy in some parts of Africa, much of the continent remains in thrall to corrupt governments whose main function is to distribute the fruits of fragile economies among tiny elites, leaving the majority of the people bereft of material wealth and political power. Somalia is an extreme example, but none of these governments can boast complete administrative control over their territories.

With insight and will, it may be possible to develop a new pattern of intervention in the humanitarian nightmares of the world, with the aim of bringing relief to people who are victims of their own governments' neglect or oppression.

Such intervention - based on careful analysis of local circumstances; backed by the values enshrined in the UN charter on human rights; funded by countries where these rights are respected - could gradually become the rule rather than the exception for an organisation which, despite the words of its secretary-general, needs to rescue its own credibility.

(Photograph omitted)

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