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Analysis-Hope for Somalia after a Decade of Chaos

After a decade as the world's only country without a government, and its people terrorized by bloodthirsty warlords, Somalia at last has a parliament, a president and some hope.

Weary of the fighting, looting and chaos, clan leaders from across Somalia gathered in neighboring Djibouti in May to work out a plan to restore some sort of order to the fractured Horn of Africa nation.

Leaving the warlords behind, the elders gathered in a huge tent in the quiet town of Arta on the Red Sea coast and, with the help of the mild, chewable narcotic "qat," got on with Somalia's favorite pastime -- talking. Progress was slow, but three months later, the results were impressive.

A 245-member parliament was created with representatives from all of Somalia's clans and sub-clans.

Elections were promised after a three-year transition period. Last Saturday, the assembly-in-exile elected 58-year-old Abdiquassim Salad Hassan as the first president of Somalia since dictator Mohamed Siad Barre was overthrown in 1991 and the country descended into anarchy.

"The process in Arta has been a tremendous success, probably beyond the expectations of anyone," said Babafemi Badejo, the United Nations' senior political adviser on Somalia. "We are seeing a rebirth of a new Somalia under new leadership and a new sense of optimism."

RAPTUROUS WELCOME

Any doubts that the Somali people would not accept their new leader were assuaged Wednesday when Salad flew into the capital, Mogadishu.

More than 100,000 cheering residents -- the largest crowd the city has seen since the government collapsed -- turned out to welcome home Salad, who served as deputy prime minister in Siad Barre's time.

He promised an end to violence and said his priority was to tackle issues such as health, education and the economy. Somalia is one of the world's poorest nations -- a quarter of its children die before reaching their fifth birthdays.

Education systems have collapsed and the country's roads and bridges have been left to crumble. More than 1 million of Somalia's 9 million residents fled overseas, while hundreds of thousands went to neighboring Kenya.

There are hopes that many of Somalia's large, educated diaspora will return to help to fill government positions and rebuild the shattered nation. Kenyan Foreign Minister Bonaya Godana said Friday he hoped that those refugees -- many stuck in barren refugee camps in Kenya's arid north -- could now return home. "We are very optimistic about the future of Somalia," he told reporters.

"The Somali population had a yearning for peace and they have chosen to call bygones bygones." The new government also has the support of Mogadishu's Islamic courts, which with funding from Mogadishu's business community, have their own militia that already serves as an unofficial police force.

WARLORDS COULD STILL SPOIL THE PARTY

But Somalia's warlords, who humiliated a U.S.-led peacekeeping force deployed in the early 1990s to ensure relief organizations could reach starving Somalis, could still undermine the fledging government, observers say. "This is Somalia we're talking about. Anything could happen.

A few people with a few guns could spoil everything." said one Western aid worker with years of experience in Somalia.

Powerful warlord Hussein Aideed and others have refused to recognize the new president, dismissing him as a relic of the brutal Siad Barre government, and said they would prevent his return to Mogadishu.

But since Salad's rapturous welcome, observers say the warlords' stance has softened and some may even be hoping for positions in the new administration.

Aideed said Thursday he was committed to working for "reconciliation and peace" in Somalia and called for a government of national unity.

 


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