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Somalia’s President: Still the ‘best hope,’ or leader of a failed state?
Somali President Sheikh Sharif Shiekh Ahmed addressed world leaders this week at the United Nations, asking for international support for his war-torn country.
National Security Reporter
Monday, February 27, 2012
There was a time when Somalia’s future rested on the shoulders of Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, the trim and bespectacled Sufi scholar appointed president three years ago and the leader busy greeting visitors this weekend in suite 309 of his Park Lane hotel.
Sharif had come to London for Thursday’s conference on Somalia — a gathering of world leaders from 55 countries, hosted by U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron — which catapulted the East African nation on to the world stage.
On Saturday night, the lobby of the Grosvenor House where Sharif stayed was crowded with a British delegation of Somalis from Kismayo, a hotly contested port city on Somalia’s southern coast.
They had been there most of the day and were getting impatient, having waited hours to have a word with their president.
By the time Sharif was whisked in with his team of British security agents, there was only an hour left before he had to depart for Heathrow Airport and his flight home. His stressed advisers were keen not to turn the group away without at least a handshake and a nod.
“London traffic,” one of Sharif’s team explained to the group and apologized that our interview, now 2.5 hours late, would have to be cut to five minutes (it lasted 10).
Osman Abdi, a businessman who worked with oil company Chevron in southern Somalia in the mid-1980s, was among those waiting, but unlike the others, he was not here to cheer Sharif on.
“Some people just blame Western powers for the problems of Somalia, but I blame ourselves. It’s our land and we should run it properly,” Abdi said.
“The people who run the country now are not properly qualified. I’m sorry to say that the most corrupt leaders are the ones now. . . not just them, but the people around them.”
It is not an uncommon refrain among Somalis fed up with the ineptitude of the Transitional Federal Government Sharif heads — particularly upset that Sharif was a part of the political squabbling that led to the dismissal of the country’s popular former prime minister last year.
Sharif has been described as everything from a political chameleon who acquiesces to outside pressures from the West, United Nations or neighbouring countries or, alternatively, as a well-intentioned, but hapless leader at the mercy of corrupt Somali backers.
Time will judge his popularity, since one consensus of last week’s conference was that Somalia’s TFG would come to an end in August and the country would prepare for elections.
Sharif confirmed in our brief interview Saturday that he intends to run for the presidency once the TFG’s term expires.
“Why not?” he said in Somali. “Like any other, I have the right to contest.”
But while Sharif was a much-sought figure among Somalis here, he did not figure prominently in last week’s conference, breaking with a past focus on his leadership.
In 2006, as head of Somalia’s Islamic Courts Union, Washington regarded him warily, while in southern and central Somalia he was feted for the security the ICU restored. “There is light at the end of the tunnel,” he told me in an interview in Mogadishu just two months before Ethiopia invaded to oust the ICU, plunging Somalia into two years of war.
With Ethiopia’s withdrawal in 2009 and Sharif’s appointment to the head of the new TFG, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared him the “best hope” for Somalia in years.
But what has he accomplished? Allegations of corruption continue to plague the TFG, last year’s famine killed an estimated 29,000 children, and while the Shabab’s power is largely diminished, it is thanks mainly to the presence of an African Union force and offensive led by neighbouring Kenya.
“We came at a really bad time, a hard situation and there have been lots of obstacles,” Sharif said.
Unlike Abdi, Sharif does blame foreign powers for Somalia’s woes.
“We believe that a lot of money has been generated in the name of Somalia, but it never reaches government shores, never comes into the hands of the Somali government, or the people,” he says, to allegations of corruption within his ranks, saying the theft extends back to donor countries.
When asked what he believed what was the most important result of the conference, Sharif replied: “That the Somali process has to be supported (and) the Somali armed forces had to be built, because, ultimately, they’ll have to take over security.”
The African Union force of Ugandan and Burundi troops secured Mogadishu last year and on the eve of the conference pushed the Shabab, the Al Qaeda-linked group, from their stronghold in Baidoa. The mission, known as AMISOM, expanded last week to include Kenyan forces and an increase of troops to almost 18,000.
Sharif, who at first opposed Kenya’s incursion last year, said he supported the initiative since the Kenyans will now be operated under the AU.
“One of the objections we had was that they needed a mandate when they came into the country,” he said.
The battle with the Shabab will drive much of the ensuing peace process.
Shabab leaders were not invited to the conference and the group’s spokesperson said the meeting smacked of colonization, telling London journalist Jamal Osman that “your peace depends on us being left alone.”
Sharif has called for negotiations with some of the group’s members opposed to the recent merger with Al Qaeda, but denied rumours that government officials were involved in meetings purportedly underway in Qatar.
“If Qatar is able to find people within those elements that are going to stop their Al Qaeda ways and are ready to negotiate and be part of the Somali process, then of course, by all means (we’ll be involved),” he said.
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