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Sunday, 19 March, 2000, 08:17 GMT
Somali reunification talks postponed
Conflict in Somalia has driven thousands of refugees to Ethiopia
Conflict in Somalia has driven thousands to Ethiopia
By Virginia Gidley-Kitchin

A meeting intended to mark a fresh approach to reunifying Somalia has been postponed until Tuesday.

Sixty Somalis chosen to represent a cross-section of society were due to have begun a United Nations-backed consultative meeting in neighbouring Djibouti on Saturday.

Unlike the previous 12 failed peace plans, it was the first initiative not to focus on the warlords and faction leaders who have dominated and destroyed much of Somalia in recent years.

The consultative symposium, as it is called, launches a unique political experiment - an attempt to rebuild from scratch the institutions of a state that collapsed almost 10 years ago amid civil war.

The Somalis to attend it are mainly professional people and representatives of civil society - the charities and women's groups which have sprung up in the vacuum to assume some of the functions of government, providing elements of an education and health service, disaster relief and even assistance in conflict resolution.

As the symposium was due to begin, there were reports of fighting between rival clans in a central region of the country, Muldug, which left 12 dead.

Allies of the two sides in the capital, Mogadishu, sent trucks with mounted machine guns to join the fighting.

Future constitution

The UN representative to Somalia, David Stephen, admits the idea behind the symposium is ambitious but says the UN believes it offers the best chance of reunifying Somalia at the moment.

Map
"Somalia has been without a government for nearly a decade," he told the BBC. "It is the only country in the world which for a sustained period of time has lacked any national institutions.

"This is a process in which an attempt is being made to reconstruct from the bottom up a national structure which can then move on to the question of leadership, elections and so on."

The symposium will advise Djibouti on who should attend next month's UN-backed Somalia reconciliation conference and what kind of transitional authority it should elect.

It will also make proposals about the principles of a future Somali constitution.

A parallel meeting of Somali elders is designed to give the proceedings legitimacy.

Risky strategy

Unlike the previous 12 failed peace plans, the Djibouti initiative aims to sideline the warlords and faction leaders who have dominated and destroyed much of Somalia in recent years.

This has upset the warlords. Particular opposition has come from the two northern regions of Somalia - Puntland and the self-declared Republic of Somaliland - which have established autonomous administrations and relative peace, and do not want to jeopardise this.

Mr Stephen said some reservations were understandable.

"What is happening is causing a lot of apprehension. People know that something is moving. They want to be part of it. They are afraid of being left out," he said.

"That is human, that is normal for any ambitious leader in any society but it doesn't mean we have to give up or write things off."

Nonetheless, it is a risky strategy. When the Djibouti peace plan was launched last September, tens of thousands of ordinary Somalis poured into the streets to demonstrate their support.

They have since deluged Djibouti with letters of advice, which the symposium will sift before making its recommendations.

The UN must be calculating that the warlords will see how Somali public opinion has turned against them and agree to surrender power.

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See also:

17 Nov 99 | Africa
The boring life of a warlord
17 Sep 99 | Africa
Somalia aid workers in peril
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