Somalis stick to their guns

Times Staff Writer

A government-mandated disarmament program got underway here Tuesday without much of a bang.

At one designated weapons drop-off point in the Somalian capital, bored-looking Ethiopian soldiers milled about with little to do. A second collection site, nestled on a bluff overlooking the Indian Ocean, closed early because “no one showed up,” a Somalian government soldier said.

The disarmament program is the first major test of Somalia’s transitional government since its troops and Ethiopian allies defeated Islamic fighters and seized control of the capital, a city so awash in guns that most government officials were previously afraid to visit.


Somalian Prime Minister Ali Mohammed Gedi on Monday set a three-day deadline to collect guns and threatened to use force after that to pacify the city.

But if Tuesday’s turnout was any indication, the government is facing a steep challenge to persuade Mogadishu residents to part with their weapons. The campaign is reigniting long-standing clan rivalries and distrust, which are certain to play a big part in the nation’s turnaround.

Since the government announced the disarmament program, the streets have been abuzz with debate over whether it would succeed. Though most people support disarmament in theory, those with guns call it a Catch-22 situation: The government wants to round up weapons before dispatching more soldiers into the capital, but residents don’t want to give up their guns until they are sure the troops can keep the peace.

The presence in Somalia of soldiers from Ethiopia only complicates the issue. The two nations have a history of warfare, and many Somalis worry that the Ethiopians are attempting to occupy their country.

“I will never give my gun to the Ethiopians,” said one young man, who, like many, did not want to be identified because he feared the government might come and take his gun. “They are the enemy.”

Others cited financial considerations. Assault rifles and machine guns in Mogadishu cost anywhere from several hundred dollars to several thousand, and for many families, such weapons are their biggest asset. For thousands of young men, carrying a gun and working as a militia member or security guard are the only job prospects available. But the government is not offering cash in exchange for guns.

As a result, prices for weapons at Mogadishu’s gun market plummeted in recent days as gun owners rushed to sell their weapons rather than give them away to the government. AK-47 assault rifles dropped from $300 to $120.

In June, the Islamic Courts Union became the first local authority to sharply reduce the number of weapons in Mogadishu in about 16 years. Rather than collecting weapons themselves, the Islamists set up regional, clan-based authorities to retrieve guns from fellow clansmen.

But when the Islamists fled Mogadishu a week ago, they opened their weapons stockpiles to the public, flooding the city with guns.

The current disarmament campaign is sparking familiar clan distrust. Most residents of Mogadishu are members of the Hawiye clan, considered Somalia’s largest. But many Hawiye subclans, including those of several warlords and Islamist leaders, are deeply skeptical of the transitional government. They say it’s unfair to disarm Mogadishu without collecting the guns from the rest of Somalia. Hawiye clan members fear they will become vulnerable to attacks by other clans.

“I’m keeping my gun,” said a 33-year-old former Islamic courts official. “They should disarm the entire country at the same time.”

He and other Hawiye complained that President Abdullahi Yusuf is a member of the Darod, another major clan based originally in the north. Darod and Hawiye began fighting over control of Mogadishu after the 1991 fall of military dictator Mohamed Siad Barre.

In the end, many Darod were killed or driven out of their homes. Now Hawiye in Mogadishu fear that Yusuf, who has spoken disparagingly about their clan in the past, will use the disarmament program to exact retribution.

“He’s trying to favor his own people,” the former Islamic courts official said.

Clan experts say the government must demonstrate that it is neutral before clan rivals will trust it.

“The only language the government can use to unite the clans of Somalia is to restore peace and order through justice and equality,” said Sharif Mohamed Ali, an elder with the small Ashraf clan, which has avoided clan wars.

In the past, clan identity was less important in Somalia, whose people share a common language, culture and religion. But after the 1991 rebellion, clans attacked one another for power and resources, Ali said.

Today, clan identity is the first question many ask a stranger, using the answer to determine whether the newcomer is a friend or foe.

The government’s disarmament plan is not the first time authorities have attempted to sweep weapons from the streets of Mogadishu.

In 1993, U.S. and United Nations troops tried unsuccessfully to seize weapons before abandoning the mission after 18 U.S. servicemen were killed.