Mogadishu Slides Toward Chaos

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If there is one lesson to be learned from Afghanistan and Iraq, it's not to invade a country without a plan for the aftermath. When the new Somali Prime Minister Ali Mohammed Gedi rode into Mogadishu behind a column of invading U.S.-backed Ethiopians in January, he did have a plan: build a new government as quickly as possible, and leave business well alone. Unfortunately, he hasn't stuck to it. And that may be why, a little over three months later, Mogadishu is engulfed in some of the most savage fighting it has ever seen. Eight days of firefights pitting Islamist and clan fighters against Ethiopian and Somali government troops has seen close to 400 killed. Earlier this month, 1,000 were killed in four days. And more than 300,000 residents have fled the city, leaving behind bodies in the streets.

Gedi's plan made sense for two reasons. In 16 years of civil war, Somalia had known only a few months of peace and order, which came during the brief rule by the Islamic Courts Union (I.C.U.) overthrown by Gedi and his Ethiopian enforcers. Gedi — technically junior to President Abdullai Yusuf, but who made much of the running because of Yusuf's poor health — admitted that he needed to match the standards set by the Islamists in bringing law and security to the city. "They attracted the support of the people," he said at his villa in Mogadishu. Hence his hurried inauguration of a new national army and a new justice system in his first few days in office. "I'm moving very fast," he said.

Gedi also recognized that Somalia's great strength was enterprise. "Somali people are very hard workers, they are innovators," he said. Business had not only survived the war but, unrestrained by rules and bureaucracy, had profited — notably the telecom industry, which was able to erect new masts anywhere it liked, and exporters of camels and mangos to the Middle East, who paid no tariffs. Gedi knew business would support him only to the extent that he helped them. Peace and security were good for business; corruption and red tape were bad. "Government should limit itself to legislation, policy and security," he declared, stressing his previous career as a business development coordinator for the international community.

Since then, Gedi has given lucrative government jobs to members of his clan, tried to rein in private enterprise — legitimate as well as illegitimate — and imposed a 300% tax at the ports. Now reports filtering out of Mogadishu indicate that alongside Islamist rebels, the Ethiopians and Somali government troops are fighting private clan armies and even entrepreneur associations trying to protect their businesses. As the Ethiopians pounds insurgent positions in the city with tanks and artillery, the New York Times reports that businessmen are even buying up missiles to use in counterattacks. In January, TIME asked Gedi what his dream was. "If law and order is restored, within a few years, five years, Somalia will have a different image," he said. "Yes, this is our dream — the beach, the tourist industry, luxury hotels, a road network, an airline network, export-import..." Once he broke with his own plan, that turned out to be a very big "if."