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Somalia clans try telephone unity

At first glance, the ruined capital of Somalia appears to have few graces, and far less infra-structure.

Nearly a decade of civil war, clan fighting, and finally a violent American-led United Nations intervention have reduced parts of Mogadishu to rubble. Some compare the devastation to the Beirut districts destroyed in the 1970s and 1980s or to Berlin after World War II.

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But a glance above street level these days shows an array of freshly strung-up telephone cables. Three phone companies are competing to connect Somalis to the outside world and with one another.

And in a country that has made do without a central government for nine years - the longest period for any country in modern times - the tangle of wires also points to an entrepreneurial spirit that is breaking down clan barriers and bringing Somalis closer together.

"When it comes to business interests, there are no clan divisions," says Abdi Mohamed Sabrie, manager of Nationlink, the newest of three phone companies competing for market share in Mogadishu.

"It is fair to say that if you want to lessen someone's clan loyalty, you can only come at it through business interests or employment," Mr. Sabrie says. "If you employ a man to protect a business from his own clansmen, he'll do it."

Very few businesses lend themselves to the controlled anarchy and freewheeling live-and-let-die mentality that has prevailed here for years. But Somalis love to talk, and since there are almost no jobs, many are dependent upon cash sent from abroad for survival. That means making lots of phone calls.

But setting up a phone system, in a city as sensitive to clan divisions as Mogadishu, is not easy. And expanding it across Somalia - where different fiefdoms and faction boundaries make up a shifting mosaic of clan loyalties and influence - is all the harder.

In Mogadishu, Sabrie formed Nationlink with several partners from different clans. They cobbled together some $1.2 million for 3,000 lines and hired an American company to place six miles of cable, branching out octopuslike from their headquarters in the main Bakhara market.

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Selling a third phone system might seem impossible, considering that customers of the first two companies already have to have two separate phones on their desks to reach each other.

But Nationlink hit upon a strategy that played on Somali clan divisiveness to jump-start its business - and convince customers that they should find room for yet a third phone on their desks.

"One of the ridiculous things in Somalia is that if you give the 15 or 16 most important people in a clan a phone, [the whole clan] wants it," Sabrie says. "It was a marketing ploy that could only work in Somalia, because everyone is related. If you give the biggest fish in every interest group a phone, all the others will follow."

NONPAYMENT is a problem and accounts for losses on 20 percent of Nationlink's calls. Bandits sometimes take a saw to the overhead phone cables, and bring a piece into the office the next day. They kindly offer to "watch" the lines for fee.

But the telephones cross clan boundaries in ways that people from different clans are only beginning to. At the Nationlink nerve center, an array of computers for 5,000 additional lines is being installed. A microwave system connects some villages. And in the capital, maintenance men with tall ladders are allowed to travel citywide to install phones wherever they are wanted.

"We are proving that people can live without a government," says Abdulkadir Abdi, the chief engineer. "It's not good, but we are showing that it can be done."

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