Passport to a free market in Somalia

MOGADISHU - Somalia is the only country in the world with a flourishing bureaucracy, but no government.

Any Somali knows that if you want to leave the country, there is no point lining up for a passport at the bullet-scarred former immigration office. The new bureaucrats are across town, working out of stalls at the Bakahara Market. And, just like in the old days, it takes five of them to approve a passport, complete with stamps, seals and signatures. They will back-date it to 1990, before the fall of the dictator Mohamed Siad Barre plunged Somalia into civil strife.

It would all be illegal if there were any laws to be broken or any lawmakers to write them. As it is, inventive private citizens have swarmed enthusiastically into the void left by the implosion of the Somali state.

While 35,000 soldiers and diplomats from 29 countries struggle to rebuild the structures of society, the Somalis themselves have found ways to put their own culture in order again.

Life is still unnervingly violent: as many as 350,000 people are thought to have died from hunger, illness and war in 1992. But controlled chaos has replaced absolute anarchy in a grassroots recovery.

'There are many Somalis who want to travel abroad. If we didn't open a passport office, how could they do it?' explained Mohamed, 24, a former Finance Ministry secretary. 'We're just doing what the government was doing before.'

Mohamed deals in blank passports plundered from the immigration office and works in cahoots with four young opportunists who each stole one of the four required passport stamps. Their price is 70,000 shillings ( pounds 13) for holiday travellers, and 105,000 shillings for those seeking diplomatic immunity.

'We've been living in a disaster area for three years and everything has collapsed around us,' Mohamed said. 'People knew that if they didn't get out and start working, they wouldn't survive.'

Signs of Somali adaptability are everywhere, from superbly functioning camel markets to informal neighbourhood courts to bus drivers who run regular routes in vehicles stolen from the state. The evidence so far is that markets bloom in the absence of government regulation, while corruption thrives just as much in the absence of government officials.

One of the most obvious targets for looters in 1991 was the Somali central bank, which provided the country's money supply under Mr Siad Barre.

In a normal country, that would have been the death- knell for the local currency, since money is only as valuable as the government that backs it. Yet in Somalia there seems to be an unwritten agreement that shillings of one sort or another will continue to be accepted despite the fact that no agency exists to print new notes and no banks exist to distribute them.

In southern Mogadishu, the turf of the clan leader Mohamed Farah Aideed, the exchange rate for old shilling notes is set by a few big dealers in the Bakahara Market. In northern Mogadishu, the stronghold of General Aideed's main rival, Ali Mahdi Mohamed, people use new shillings that had been ordered by the Siad Barre government but were looted before they could be distributed.

The constant danger presented by marauding gunmen has left deep scars on the way Somalis pull their lives together. Many Mogadishu neighbourhood groups have formed security patrols or hired their own mercenaries to fend off looters.