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Scepticism and caution greet election of Yusuf as war-ravaged Somalia's president

DATE: 2004-10-15
AUTHOR: Peter Fabricius

"I am deeply sceptical of a president being voted into office by an unelected parliament meeting outside the country. What possible claim to legitimacy does he have?"

When he puts it like that, it is hard not to share with Princeton University political scientist Jeffrey Herbst his pessimistic prognosis of the 14th peace deal in the world's ultimate failed state, Somalia.

Herbst was talking about the election last weekend of Abdullahi Yusuf as interim president of the latest government of Somalia. Yusuf, a clan leader and former military colonel, was elected by the members of a new parliament who had been appointed - not elected, as Herbst points out - by Somalia's four main clans.

This arrangement was the outcome of almost two years of negotiations sponsored by the surrounding governments and the wider international community.

The negotiations took place in Kenya because Somalia was too dangerous.

And the parliament which elected Yusuf also met in Nairobi for the same reason.

Indeed Yusuf has no immediate plans to return to his dangerous country where his life might well be in danger from rival clan leaders.

Yusuf, a member of the Darood clan, was a senior officer during the reign of former dictator Siad Barre. In April 1978, Yusuf tried to overthrow Barre but failed and fled to Ethiopia. He later returned to Somalia, and, in 1998, became president of the semi-autonomous Puntland region.

Despite his inauspicious inauguration outside his own country, the surrounding states at least have welcomed Yusuf's election as has the UN.

"After 13 years of statelessness, Somalia is being given a new chance by what took place (on) October 10 2004," the Ethiopian government said, calling Yusuf's election "a historic achievement for the people of Somalia".

Eritrea, no friend of Ethiopia's, also welcomed Yusuf's election "as a very positive step in the right direction", Yemane Gebremeskel, a senior aide to Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki told AFP.

Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki also offered his support to Yusuf.

But these are all governments which have an interest since they backed the negotiations.

Most governments seem to be adopting a wait-and-see approach, conscious of the immense challenge any leader faces in trying to restore governance to a country with a ruined infrastructure, riven by vicious power struggles by countless clan leaders who are really just warlords.

On top of that, observers have grave doubts about whether Yusuf has the ability or even the sincere desire to bring about peace and order - despite his assurances in his acceptance speech that he would forgive his clan enemies and his call on them to forgive him.

An analyst with the International Crisis Group, Matthew Bryden, is not hopeful that Yusuf has the qualities it will take to bring peace.

"He is not what I would describe as a consensus figure, and he is not know as a conciliator," he told the Voice of America. "He has been a fighter for the last 36 years. I think it would be unexpected for him to make an about-face now."

He notes that in 2001 when Jama Ali Jama was elected president of Puntland to succeed Yusuf, Yusuf refused to yield office, provoking a bloody battle.

But Bryden held out some hope for Yusuf if he was able to change his leadership style.

"There will be division and there will be resistance," he told VOA. "He will have a choice: he can either try and reassure the opposition and bring them in, or he can try and impose himself. And I think if he does the latter, then the peace process will unravel pretty quickly."

The president's choice of a prime minister and cabinet would give an early indication of his approach, Bryden said. He added that Yusuf was widely seen as an ally of Ethiopia and the US, which irks militant Islamists in Somalia's capital, Mogadishu.

Iqbal Jhazbhay, senior lecturer in Islamic studies at the University of South Africa, and a Somalia expert, said Yusuf was likely to appoint a prime minister from the largest Hawyiye clan which was dominant in Mogadishu.

But because Yusuf's own Darood clan was not strong in Mogadishu, Yusuf might be unacceptable there and so he might choose to establish his government in Baidoa, at the heart of the friendly Dig and Mirifle clan's territory.

This would be highly divisive.

Electing any president with a clean record would be difficult in Somalia, given the country's history and the fact that the parliament was chosen by the very clans who have been doing the fighting.

Even so, Yusuf's election has surprised some observers and there were rumours circulating in Nairobi after his election on Sunday that votes had been bought, with Libyan money.

Bryden's advice that Yusuf should avoid imposing himself if he wants to succeed, is particularly pertinent to the way Yusuf handles Somaliland.

This region in the north ended its union with the rest of the country in the anarchy that engulfed it after Barre's demise in 1991.

It has since ruled itself as a separate state quite successfully, going back to its British colonial boundaries, though no government recognises its claim to independence.

The transitional parliament in Nairobi which elected Yusuf included 20 representatives from Somaliland, though these were not chosen by the government of Somaliland which considers them unrepresentative "mercenaries".

It fears that Yusuf will reassert sovereignty over its territory, especially because he has already tried to do that as president of the neighbouring Puntland region.

This week Somaliland threatened war if Yusuf tried to reclaim its territory. "We remind all concerned that the government and the president elected in Kenya is for Somalia and not Somaliland," Information Minister Abdillahi Mohamed Du'ale said in a statement.

"The people of Somaliland and its government are ready to confront any enemy that tries to violate its borders and territory with force."

Somaliland is concerned that the international community will most likely allow Yusuf's government to take a seat at the United Nations on behalf of both Somalia and Somaliland.

Jhazbhay believes it would be wiser for the international community, including South Africa, to reserve judgement on Yusuf's government until it has proven itself on the ground.

Another option is for the African Union to give both Somaliland and Somalia observer status, in order to level the playing field and to reduce current tensions.

In particular, the international community should urge Yusuf not to try to destabilise Somaliland but to concentrate his efforts on sorting out his own backyard in Somalia proper.

If not, the new government of Somalia could be faced with a civil war, making the already immense task of restoring peace and order impossible.

The US has correctly given a cautious response to the new interim Somali president, including an implicit call for respect of Somaliland's peace and stability.

"We urge all Somalis involved in the creation of these institutions to focus on the needs of the Somali people while respecting the peace, governance and security that exists in areas not currently participating in the Somalia National Reconciliation Conference," US state Department spokesman Richard Boucher said.


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Ma Run mise Riyo - By Amiin Amir

The Centre for Research & Dialogue (CRD)
The Somali-Canadian Working Group for New Generation
Midaynta Association of Somali Service Agencies - Toronto

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