WHEN the Bush administration finally decided that the tragic conflict in Somalia warranted United States military intervention, people who love Africa, including Rakia Armar, formerly of Africa Watch, voiced their oppositions or reservations.
Their main objection to the deployment of more than 20,000 American ground troops in Somalia boils down to the question of sovereignty: US intervention violates Somali independence and territorial integrity.
In Africa, as in other parts of the world, the claim to sovereignty may have killed more people than famine. Concern for their own sovereignties has caused African leaders to look the other way rather than intervene to rescue their brother nations from disastrous crises. A nonintervention policy was accordingly enshrined in the charter of the Organization of African Unity. While such policy is understandable and may have prevented large-scale regional wars in the continent, it has also had its price. For
several leaders, sovereignty became the right to acquire and maintain power even if massacres and mass starvation were the means or consequences.
That is why Somalis are dying. They are not fighting an ethnic war. The people are homogeneous in their ethnicity. The war is not religious, either. Virtually all Somalis are Moslems and almost all are of the Sunni sect. So this is one African conflict that defies the stereotypical labels. In the second US presidential debate, George Bush referred to the Somalia conflict as a tribal war. Even some analysts who know better seem unable to escape their stock categorization of Africa. They have found ways to
attribute tribal characteristics to the naked power struggle between two Hobbesian warlords. It is now called a war between "clans" or "sub clans." The danger of this type of learned incapacity is that it masks the real cause of the problem in Somalia and, therefore, the capacity to impose a permanent solution.
Gen. Mohamed Farah Aideed and Mohamed Ali Mahdi are the primary culprits in the Somalia tragedy. Their struggle is not to protect their people. They are of the same ethnicity and they even belonged to the same political party, the United Somali Congress, which in 1991 overthrew Maj. Gen. Mohamed Siad Barre, the cold-war dictator.
Mr. Ali Mahdi promptly declared himself president, and General Aideed wanted the job himself. So began the present phase of the civil war, which quickly degenerated into anarchy, resulting in hundreds of thousands of deaths. Neither Aideed nor Ali Mahdi has control of their armed "followers," but they still bear primary responsibility for the chaos. The pressure should be on them.
Somalia presents an opportunity for the international community to assume and implement a new doctrine of sovereignty, one in which humane imperatives outweigh sovereign rights and other concerns. Though the Bush administration has not formally enunciated such a doctrine, its commitment of troops in Somalia could be an exemplification of the doctrine.
SEVERAL commentators have wondered what the intervention suggests about US and United Nations obligations in other troubled spots. Smith Hempstone, US ambassador to Kenya, expressed his opposition in cynical, racist terms, confessing his bemusement at the "haste" with which the US had "sought to embrace the Somali tar-baby."
While definitive criteria for humanitarian intervention will take time to evolve, prudence and compassion suggest that it be undertaken in the following circumstances and conditions:
* Where there is mass starvation and death;
* When the activities of relief agencies become impossible or ineffectual;
* When there is anarchy, with little chance that internal forces could bring order within a reasonable time; and
* Under the auspices of the UN.
These conditions would guarantee that interventions are undertaken only when they are absolutely necessary, ensure that internal processes of conflict resolution are given primacy, and guard against exploitation of one country's problems to advance another's agenda.
This doctrine is consistent with the evolution of the concept of sovereignty over the years and it is especially appropriate in the new world order.
The American Revolution depersonified, decentralized, and transferred sovereignty from the persons of the sovereigns to all citizens. In 1789, the French revolution added to this divisible or popular sovereignty. By the original conception of sovereignty, intervention in Somalia is justified, since there is no government that can claim sovereignty. By the more enlightened conception, the Somali situation presents an ideal opportunity to institute "popular sovereignty."
Before they were forced into the streets by followers of Aideed and Ali Mahdi, the people of Somalia were able to feed themselves and plan for the future without the aid of international relief agencies and the US Marines. They lost their individual and collective sovereignty when they were deprived the right to life because of the personal struggles of a few individuals. The people would have been spared much of their present hardship had the international community become involved earlier.
According to the London-based West Africa magazine, UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali said that limited attention was paid to Somalia partly because, while he received frequent calls about Yugoslavia from European leaders, he hardly heard from African leaders about Somalia - notwithstanding the presence of an African Group Office at the UN headquarters in New York, an office that is responsible for coordinating Africa's position on major international issues. The death of thousands of Somalis ap parently did not qualify as a major international issue, perhaps, because of concern for Somalia's sovereignty.
The Bush doctrine which intervention in Somalia would tacitly establish should serve notice to dictators and warring factions that in the new world order recognition of the sovereignty of any state will be directly related to that state's recognition of the sovereignty of its citizens.