The January 30th election that named the moderate Islamist leader, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed to the presidency of the Somalia Transitional Federal Government (TFG), was an opportunity that should not be overlooked. Why? Because Somalia has been without a functioning government since the fall of Mohamed Siad Barre eighteen years ago.
Since then, the international community has organized no less than fourteen “conferences of national reconciliation,” each supposed to give birth to a new government. Meanwhile, the radical Islamist movement has kept growing and in 2006 the CIA sponsored a gruesome alliance of warlords to eliminate them from the picture. Not only did the CIA fail, but they caused the public to support the Islamists (who had only a limited following so far), leading to the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) taking power in Mogadiscio. The UIC was a mixture of good (law, order, fighting piracy and contraband) and bad (religious intolerance and Puritanism). But for the first time in years, it enabled the population to breathe a bit more freely and violence diminished drastically. There were various trends within the UIC, including one of ultra-nationalism, which was of course very anti-Ethiopian.
This mixture of aggressive nationalism and radical Islamic tendencies acted like the proverbial red flag waved under the nose of the bull. In December 2006, the Ethiopian Army made a dash for Mogadiscio and occupied the capital. Sheikh Sharif, who had been the leader of the moderate wing of the UIC joined his colleagues in their common exile in Asmara, Eritrea (Eritrea, as usual, was happy to accommodate anything inimical to the enemy Ethiopian regime) and became one of the activists of the anti-Ethiopian resistance.
Sheikh Sharif quickly parted ways with the radicals led by Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys. Like Sheikh Aweys, Sheikh Sharif belonged to the Hawiye clan which was spearheading the war against the Ethiopians. Sheikh Sharif believed that a workable authority had to include a broader political and clanic spectrum. He left Eritrea and started negotiating with the Ethiopia-backed TFG president, Yusuf Abdullahi. Yusuf, a cranky veteran of opposition politics in Somalia (he had led a coup against Siad Barre back in 1978) had a questionable and violent past. Regardless, he had been picked by both the international community and Addis-Ababa to head the TFG back in 2004. Yusuf refused to deal honestly with the opening he was being offered and his refusal to see beyond the narrow clanic circle of his Majerteen supporters led to his eventual downfall. He quarreled with his own Prime Minister and even his Ethiopian sponsors finally got tired of him.
There were sixteen candidates for Yusuf’s succession at the Djibouti meeting on January 30th and the fact that Sheikh Sharif was picked is symptomatic. For starters, he is the man who had been kicked out of Mogadiscio by the Ethiopian Army and described by the Americans as an “extremist.” To be honest, some of his associates are extremists, but many others are simply nationalists who are tired of disorder, warlordism, and foreign intervention. He represents the average Somali population, even if some of his views are not very palatable for Westerners. In the present circumstances Sheikh Sharif is capable of federating many different trends and can stand up to the al-Qaida linked real radicals (of the al-Shebab movement); it is something a pro-western leader could not do.
Now the international community is sponsoring a force of about 3,000 foreign soldiers (Ugandans and Burundians) sent by the African Union under the name of African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). The soldiers are supposed to “stabilize” the situation. Yet, on February 2nd these soldiers acted panicked, under-trained, isolated, and lost. They opened fire on a crowd of civilians after being targeted by an al-Shebab terrorist attack. AMISOM killed thirty-nine people and wounded twice that number. The UN representative, Ahmedou Ould Abdallah, quickly denied the massacre and even compared the Somali journalists who had reported it to the Rwandese genocidaire Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines. It was an atrociously unfair comparison, as the Somali journalists have paid an inordinately high price for keeping the freedom of information alive in such terrible circumstances. Many have died in the line of duty.
AMISOM soldiers have to go. They serve no military purpose, they antagonize the public by their violence, they are incapable of keeping any kind of order, and they gravely compromise the chances of success of the new president. After the massacre, the al-Shebab radicals denounced Sheikh Sharif as an ally of the Americans and the Ethiopians. Declaring him not fit to rule the country. The danger is that, once more, like in 2006, those Islamists with whom it would be possible to work with will find themselves marginalized and eliminated while Somalia would lose still another chance and sink again into a new maelstrom of violence.
Gérard Prunier is a widely acclaimed journalist as well as the Director of the French Centre for Ethiopian Studies in Addis Ababa. He has published over 120 articles and five books, including The Rwanda Crisis and Darfur: A 21st Century Genocide. His most recent book, Africa’s World War: Congo, the Rwandan Genocide, and the Making of a Continental Catastrophe focuses on Congo, the Rwandan genocide, and events that led to the death of some four million people. Living in Ethiopia allows Prunier a unique view of the politics and current events of Central and Eastern Africa. Be sure to check back on Tuesdays to read more Notes From Africa.