Culture shock that could kill: Richard Dowden in Mogadishu says the US idea of a quick solution of the Somali problem ignores certain dangers

THE US plan to bring aid to Somalia appears to be this: from a task force off the coast one night this week helicopters will bring the US marines to Mogadishu airport and harbour. At the same time, they will secure five or six other centres in southern Somalia. Having consolidated their positions, they will open the port and protect food convoys going inland.

If anyone gets in their way, according to Dick Cheney, the US Defense Secretary: 'We are not going to wait for people to shoot at us.' By 20 January, when President George Bush hopes the troops can come home, the starving Somalis should have been fed, the power of the warlords broken and Somalia brought under some sort of United Nations trusteeship. 'Operation Restore Hope' completed, sir.

The reality may be somewhat different. It will not be different because there are hordes of Somalis waiting to defend the sovereignty of Somalia from US invasion - in fact all the main military leaders have welcomed the US plan, and most Somalis say they will welcome the Americans. It will not be different because the young bandits with guns will be foolish enough to take on the marines. It may be different because of the way Somalis think and US marines think.

What will happen when that first Humvee armoured car rounds a corner and meets a 'Technical', a Land Cruiser or Land Rover cut down to its chassis with a heavy machine-gun or cannon mounted on the back? The crews comprise young men, armed to the teeth, who live for fighting and chew khat - a mild amphetamine leaf - after lunch. Most important of all, they are Somalis.

'A fierce and turbulent race,' Sir Richard Burton called them 100 years ago, and they have not changed. Traditionally they were nomadic, and nomads never need to settle disputes with neighbours because they only meet those neighbours once a year when they compete for grazing grounds or a well. They are individualistic and quick to take offence. Somali poetry, a rich vein of Somali culture, is full of references to blood feuds and revenge. 'Somalia is a country where a poem can start a war,' one Somali scholar said. Somalia's recent civil wars have been fought with anarchic, if courageous, ferocity.

Although the Somalis are one race, follow one religion and speak one language, they have never known a centralised form of government. Plans have always been made and disputes settled by interminable discussions between the elders of the clans. There are six main clans and scores of cross- related sub-clans and this complex system lies at the heart of Somali society. It is the key to the loyalties of the political parties and of the warlords. Somalis may spend much of their energy fighting each other but in their eyes, Somalis are superior beings and their self- confidence borders on arrogance and leads them into xenophobia.

It is normal for most Somalis to carry guns in the street these days. In a restaurant in Mogadishu yesterday a rocket-propelled grenade launcher, a heavy machine-gun, three AK-47s and a heap of ammunition lay on the table next to a huge mound of spaghetti being pulled to pieces by the crew from a Technical. Gunshots echo across the city every few minutes but no one looks up; perhaps it is an argument or perhaps someone is just making sure there are still bullets in his weapon.

No one working in Mogadishu has been contacted by Washington for advice or guidance, neither Somalis nor US aid workers. Significantly, none of the aid agencies have altered their programmes or drawn up new schemes in preparation for the take-over. Many experienced aid workers and educated Somalis are worried that the marines will take a simplistic 'shoot to feed' approach to the problems of food distribution and that they will be unprepared for a culture shock when they arrive.

To the newcomer, Somalia is alarming and layered with illusion and contradiction. Have the marines been briefed and what orders have they been given when they come face to face with heavily-armed Somalis? The soldiers could try to disarm them but that would require lengthy negotiation under a tree with lots of sweet tea, a piece of theatre which Somalis have made into an art form. It is difficult to envisage the trained-to-kill marines performing well at it. And, anyway, Mr Cheney has said the time for negotiation is over.

If the Americans shoot even the worst of the gunmen, they could very swiftly turn some Somalis against them. The whole culture of nationalistic xenophobia, clan solidarity and blood revenge would slowly come to bear on the uncomprehending Americans, but once started it would be almost impossible to crush. In the 1920s, British troops in northern Somalia took years to quell the followers of 'The Mad Mullah', a Dervish leader - and most of the clans were on Britain's side.

There is a perfectly credible scenario six months' hence, with the marines patrolling the streets trying to root out the 'terrorists' who are preventing the establishment of sufficient political stability to allow them to leave. Then Mr Cheney will be out of office but his successor may come to wish the Defense Secretary had not issued the order to fire first.

(Photograph omitted)

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Web Developer

£26000 - £33000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Web Developer is required to ...

Ashdown Group: PeopleSoft Developer - London - £45k

£45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: PeopleSoft Application Support & Development ...

Ashdown Group: PHP Developer - Buckinghamshire - £29,000

£25000 - £29000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Junior PHP Developer - Milton Keynes...

Recruitment Genius: Online Sales & Marketing Assistant

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This UK based B2C and B2B multi...

Day In a Page

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003