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Somalia at a crossroads

Al Jazeera's Mohammed Adow says there is hope the new president will end the war.

Last updated: 24 Feb 2009 10:22
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Many Somalis see Sharif Ahmed, the new president, as the man to end the bloodshed [EPA]

Recent developments in Somalia appear to suggest that the country may be on the verge of reaching an end to two decades of war, displacement and hunger. 

Somalis were first given hope when Ethiopian forces, who invaded Somalia in late 2006, began withdrawing in 2008.

This was quickly followed by the surprise resignation of Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed, the then president, who many had considered an obstacle to peace.

But it is the rise to power of the young Islamic cleric Sharif Ahmed that has created more jubilation in Somalia than any event in recent history.

The former leader of the Islamic Courts Union was elected president by an expanded Somali parliament convened in neighbouring Djibouti in early February.

Thousands of people took to the streets of the capital Mogadishu to cheer the man they believe is poised to usher in a new era of reconciliation and peaceful dialogue among Somalis.

Ahmed scored his first political goal when he nominated Omar Abdirashid Sharmarke, from the semi-autonomous region of Puntland, as his prime minister.

In doing so, Ahmed is addressing Puntland's grievances and bringing them back from a secessionist course they had embarked on immediately after Abdullahi Yusuf resigned.

Known ties

In depth

 Profile: Sharif Ahmed
Timeline: Somalia
Restoring Somalia
A long road to stability
Al-Shabab: Somali fighters undeterred
 Somaliland: Africa's isolated state
Sharmarke was picked from a long list that included people with known ties to regional powers.

Sharmarke, who graduated from Carleton University in Canada and worked for the United Nations, is the son of the last democratically-elected president of Somalia, whose assassination in 1969 was followed by a military coup led by Mohammed Siad Barre, who held power until 1991.

He belongs to the Majeerteen clan of the greater Daarood tribe that controls much of the politics and economics of the Puntland state.

The leadership of Ahmed and Sharmarke was also welcomed by the Somali diaspora.

Challenges ahead

On February 23, Ahmed returned to Mogadishu to begin the arduous task of forming a stable government.

The al-Shabab militia now controls huge parts of southern Somalia including pockets of Mogadishu. It has vowed to fight the new government saying it is no different to that of its predecessor.

A few other opposition groups, such as the Alliance for [the] Re-liberation of Somalia (ARS), and the Muaskar Kiamboni Mujahideen, have also united under the banner of the Hizb-ul-Islam, or Islamic Party, to fight Sharif's government.

In an interview with Al Jazeera recently Ahmed committed himself to dialogue. "It's the only way forward, we must avoid anything that will trigger further conflict," he said. 

Though he is hoping for dialogue with his opponents, sources close to the president say he is prepared for war.

He has already begun the task of bringing together as many militias as possible to implement his plan for pacifying the country, particularly the anarchic capital.

Al-Shabab's waning support

The al-Shabab militia say they will not agree to a ceasefire as long as foreign forces remain in Somalia.

With their primary target – the Ethiopian military presence – out of the way and now facing increasing resistance from Somali constituencies, al-Shabab have resorted to attacking African Union forces (AMISOM).

They have carried out suicide attacks and roadside bombings against the peacekeepers in recent weeks.

The withdrawal of Ethiopian forces has left al-Shabab with no mandate to continue fighting and their global jihad platform has alienated many Somalis who simply want peace and stability.

Other clan-based Islamist groups in Mogadishu have resisted al-Shabab's attempts to seize control of some key neighbourhoods in the capital.

Islamist groups who have already voiced support for Ahmed could call for effective disarmament of al-Shabab's fighters as a pre-condition to joining his government.

Possible scenarios

However, some analysts have cautioned that the country is at a crucial crossroads.

In the coming weeks and months, Ahmed will use his influence over the Islamic Courts Union to pacify Mogadishu.

This would allow the government to return to its traditional administrative capital and offer the city's residents some reprieve as law and order is restored.

It will likely mean a big boost for clans in the city who will almost certainly assume the highest positions in government.

However, al-Shabab and other groups might continue their guerrilla attacks and try to make the country as lawless as possible.

This would then lead to a second, less desirable scenario in which opposition fighters, including al-Shabab, exert control over the capital and consequently the rest of the country. An al-Shabab victory could then lead to disputes over power-sharing with its allies.

Many Somalis, already angry at al-Shabab's ruthless reign, could mobilise into an uprising against the Islamist fighters. 

The Ethiopian factor

If Mogadishu succumbs to civil war, Ethiopian troops may feel they have no choice but to return to Somalia and prevent a radical Islamist government gaining influence just across its border.

With numerous dissident groups jostling for power in Ethiopia today, Addis Ababa fears Somalia could be used as the platform on which Eritrea – its arch enemy - could unite Ethiopian rebels and arm them to destabilise the country.

The Ethiopian government also fears that the Islamists will rekindle age-old Somali territorial claims to liberate Ogaden – the Somali-inhabited region in Ethiopia. Ogaden is rich in energy resources such as oil and natural gas.

The US may also feel it necessary to intercede, backed by a UN Security Council mandate, against what it classifies an extremist faction in power.

Stalemate

The worst possible outcome would be a prolonged stalemate in which neither side wins territory or influence.

For Somalis, this would spell a catastrophe as food deliveries would most likely grind to a halt, forcing millions to become internally displaced.

With no clear winner in the capital other parts of the country could soon lose hope and announce their own armed clan fiefdoms.

Puntland would most definitely lead the way while Somaliland will continue to argue its case for recognition as an independent state given southern Somalia's protracted conflict.

This is a scenario many Somalis are hoping Ahmed can avoid.

Source:
Al Jazeera
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