Authority-free Somalia makes modern gains
By Alexandra Zavis The Associated Press
MOGADISHU, Somalia — In a crowded Internet cafe, women in flowing veils and men in jeans and T-shirts catch up on the news and chat with friends around the world. Across town, a nervous learner takes her turn at the wheel for a drive around an abandoned stadium.
Through 14 years of often-violent anarchy, life has carried on in gun-riddled Somalia. There may be no government, but for those who can afford it, there is electricity at the flick of a switch, wireless Internet access, a university education and even driving lessons.
Somalia has been without any effective central authority since clan-based warlords united to oust dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991, then destroyed a U.S.-led military mission trying to relieve rampant famine and pacify the nation of 7 million.
Somalia became a patchwork of heavily armed fiefdoms that still clash periodically.
A new government was formed last year after tortuous negotiations among warlords, clan elders and civil-society leaders. But it has no budget and meets in neighboring Kenya because it considers Somalia too dangerous.
Yesterday, President Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed and Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Gedi made their first trip homesince forming a government in exile last year. They are assessing whether it is finally safe enough to move their government to Somalia and run their country from within.
"We need a government," read placards held up by some of the hundreds who lined a road in the central Somali town of Jowhar to welcome the leaders. Other signs read: "Peace is our life, anarchy is our death." After Gedi's return to Kenya the government would decide where it should be based and where African Union troops should be deployed.
Officials say Mogadishu may be too dangerous initially.
The government, Somalia's 14th attempt at effective central administration since 1991, is trying to arrange sufficient protection to enable it to establish its authority and begin disarmament of the country's many militias.
Yusuf has asked African and Arab states to supply 7,500 peacekeepers to help disarm militiamen roaming the capital.
With no state to provide services, private initiative rules.
Parents, nostalgic for a time when education and health care were free, scrape together what they can to pay their children's teachers. Schools range from informal classes under a tree to a rapidly expanding university in Mogadishu, the capital, that offers degrees in nursing, business management, computer science and other subjects to some 2,000 students.
Somali doctors working abroad have returned to work at several private hospitals. With no government support, all are forced to charge the equivalent of a few U.S. dollars — the currency of choice here. But even that can be prohibitive for Somalis who have lost everything in successive bouts of fighting and drought.
"If you don't pay, nobody will see you at the hospital," complained Asha Ali Abdi, lifting her veil to reveal her infant daughter, with the shrunken limbs and ginger-tinged hair that betray severe malnutrition. Abdi fled fighting in the south for a makeshift camp of cardboard and wooden shacks in the northern port city of Bossaso — one of many such camps across the country.
Mogadishu's harbor stands idle and camels graze at the national airport. But business is booming at private airstrips and natural harbors, with gun-toting militia fighters on hand to take their cut.
Private companies providing power and running water to a few hundred households apiece have mushroomed across towns.
When Somalia still had a government, Faduma Mayow bought her water off a donkey cart for about $1.50 a barrel. It was expensive, sometimes contaminated, and never enough, said the mother of eight.
Now Isaf Water and Electricity Supply has installed a faucet in her courtyard from which chlorinated water flows for less than half the price. The chlorine comes from UNICEF, but otherwise ISAF is privately funded.
The same company powers lights and electric mixers at the family bakery, at 65 cents per outlet per day.
"Before, we used to mix everything by hand," said Mayow's husband, Abdallah Kasim Mohamed. "So now that we have mixers, we are making big business."
Isaf installs the cables and pipes as well as street lighting using neon strips wired to old lampposts.
Somalia's telecommunications are among Africa's best. With three companies competing, a land line can be installed in 24 hours. Local calls are free with the $10 monthly fee and international calls cost 50 cents a minute.
Cellphones are widely available, though Somalis are cautious about chatting in public lest a gunman help himself to the phone.
For 18-year-old Omar Ali, an Internet cafe is a cheap way to stay in touch with friends abroad.
"I come here every chance I get," he said, typing quickly so he can get home before night falls and the streets get dangerous.
Outside the national stadium, car owners run a driving school, letting adults and children drive for about a dollar a turn.
"Right now, we don't have particular rules," explained Farhaan Mohamed, a former bus driver. "As long as you can make the tires turn, you can go."
Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company