Sun, Oct 19, 2003 - Page 6 News List

Somali peace talks a laughing stock

DPA , NAIROBI

An old woman with a Somali flag wrapped around her takes a swing at a member of parliament. Groups of men sit around playing cards or chewing narcotic khat leaves. A warlord with a shaved head, sunglasses and a foot-long grey beard tells the press peace is at hand.

It's just another day at the Somali peace talks.

One year after negotiations aimed at ending Somalia's civil war began amid great optimism, the talks have little tangible to show for the effort -- or for the price tag, estimated at more than US$2 million.

If Somalia's situation weren't so tragic, the ballooning list of delegates, disputes with hotel owners and fisticuffs that marred the early phase of the talks could have been considered comical.

But more fundamental is whether the federal system of government being cobbled together at the talks will bring peace to a country ripped to shreds by 12 years of anarchic conflict.

Twice the facilitators have announced "major breakthroughs" on an interim constitution and the composition of parliament only to be rebuffed by key faction leaders.

"This is the end of this conference," the president of the transitional government, Abdiqassim Salad Hassan, said when the facilitators announced a deal on the interim charter last month. "Whoever is behind this treachery has succeeded in scuttling the peace process. The talks have totally collapsed."

Abdiqassim has since stayed out of the talks along with several powerful faction leaders and even one of the three organizing countries, Djibouti.

The facilitators insist the conference is on track -- "alive and well" in the words of James Kiboi, liaison officer for the organizing body, the regional Inter-Governmental Authority on Development.

Thirteen previous formal sets of negotiations since the regime of dictator Siad Barre collapsed in 1991 failed to achieve a comprehensive agreement between the country's fractious militia leaders.

The current talks were hailed as Somalia's best -- and possibly last -- chance for peace when they began on Oct. 15 last year. Key international players were all on side, including the US, the European Union, the Arab League and Somalia's neighbors. All faction leaders were invited and agreed to participate.

Within two weeks, a ceasefire deal was agreed, tinging the talks with even more optimism.

Yet the unravelling was already under way. The organizers lost control of the delegate list, as faction leaders tried to flex their muscles by having larger and larger entourages. At one point, more than 800 delegates were registered -- all eating and sleeping on the international community's tab at around US$100 a day each.

The host hotel refused to serve food one day over unpaid bills. One faction leader got into a fist-fight with a civil society delegate and some of his supporters beat up another delegate with a lead pipe.

Walkouts began in January as faction leaders called for the resignation of the mediator, Elijah Mwangale. He was replaced in February by a former Kenyan ambassador, Bethuel Kiplagat just as the conference endured a chaotic move to a run-down college campus on the edge of Nairobi as a cost-savings measure.

Kiplagat promised more transparency and his personal energy and enthusiasm gave new life to the conference. He focused discussion on how to create a federal system, devolving power to the regions -- a way of simultaneously devolving power to the clans, which hold the allegiance of most Somalis.

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