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President Sheikh Sharif: One Year Later

Somali President  Sheikh Sharif Ahmed 

By Dr. Mahamud M. Yahya

I.                   Introduction


Last month marked the first anniversary of Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed’s coming to power as the President of the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) of Somalia. Initially, there was a general euphoria among the Somalis, both at home and in the Diaspora, for the selection of Sheikh Sharif as the new leader of their country. This is because Somalis normally have great affinity and respect for their religious leaders who normally endeavor to promote peace and stability in their communities, work for the general good and exert great efforts to spread the peaceful message of their noble religion of Islam. Since he did not belong to the old, discredited generation, some people also saw his advent as a breath of fresh air. However, I was not myself convinced that this Muslim cleric was the right man to lead our nation at this very critical juncture of its modern troubled history. Why­? Simply because I thought he was not qualified for that lofty and very demanding job in terms of modern education, relevant work experience and strong leadership qualities. I presented my humble opinion a year ago in an article, titled “Was Sheikh Sharif the Right Choice?” which was posted on most leading Somali websites. I argued that I didn’t doubt the honesty, sincerity and patriotism of the Sheikh, but the man is simply not the right person for the job. I believed, and still do, that Somalia badly needed a person with more appropriate educational qualifications in, say, political science, economics, law or public administration.


Moreover, I argued that any candidate for Somalia’s presidency should possess relevant work experience with regard to the running of a modern state. Unfortunately, Sheikh Sharif had none of these requirements. He was trained as a Muslim scholar and he used to be a simple teacher of Arabic, Islamic religion and geography at secondary school level.  Sheikh Sharif is relatively young and had never run even a small village in his life. (The only other practical experience which he had was running the now defunct Islamic Courts Union [ICU] for about six months). At the time I thought, and still do, that his rival for the job, Mr. Nur Hassan Hussein (a.k.a. Nur “Adde”), ex-Prime Minister of Somalia and legal expert, was more suitable for the job than him. Consequently, I predicted that the Sheikh would not bring much success to Somalia and that he would encounter enormous difficulties, particularly from his former colleagues at ICU, who pacified Mogadishu for about six months in 2006, and who now regard him as a real turncoat or traitor. Nonetheless, as he had already been selected as Somalia’s new President, and to overcome these serious deficiencies, I suggested that the Sheikh should surround himself with people of strong educational as well as work qualifications, if he wants to rescue Somalia after almost 20 years of never ending civil strife, lawlessness and a non-functioning central government.   


II.        Achievements of Sheikh Sharif’s Government


My disappointment with the selection of Sheikh Sharif Ahmed to lead Somalia at this very critical stage of its history was sufficiently vindicated by the very poor record of his government for the past one year. The current TFG – which some writers flatter by calling it a Government of National Unity (GNU) – has virtually done nothing worth mentioning. Today it controls only a few blocks of the Somali capital, Mogadishu, comprising the Presidential Palace (or Villa Somalia) and the air- and seaports. That is why one of the insightful commentators on Somali affairs, Mr. Ismail Ali Ismail, characterized the Sheikh as “less than the Mayor of Mogadishu" (this is true because the other two notorious extremist outfits, Al-Shabab and Hizbul Islam, occupy the greater part of our capital). And what Sheikh Sharif’s government controls is much less than what the preceding administration of Abdullahi Yusuf had previously controlled. The country has also witnessed during the Sheikh’s tenure some of the fiercest fighting in its approximately 20 years of civil war; thousands have been killed or maimed; and thousands upon thousands of Somalis have been driven out of their homes and rendered internally displaced persons (IDPs) or made destitute refugees in neighboring countries – all the way to Yemen. And on the country’s long coastline piracy is as rife as ever. As the “Somali Cause” organization, USA, rightly pointed out, the current TFG should have focused on the following main areas upon which its success or failure could have been measured, i.e., Security, Reconciliation, Humanitarian Aid, Development and Good Governance. Unfortunately, this TFG has not achieved anything tangible in any of these important benchmarks. The only achievement worth mentioning that it has so far made is that it has not yet fallen or taken over by al-Shabab, as Prof. Ali Khalif Galaydh, former Prime Minister of Somalia, put it in a recent interview with Voice of America (VOA) -Somali Service.           


            Another blunder that Sheikh Sharif and his regime has committed was to have alienated Somalia’s semi-autonomous state of Puntland – the only area in Somalia that has a functioning regional government and has enjoyed relative peace and stability in the past 12 years or so, while the south-central regions (including Mogadishu, the capital) have been mired in total chaos during that period. Earlier last year, the TFG’s Prime Minister, Mr. Omar Abdirashid A. Sharmarke had, with the consent of Sheikh Sharif, entered into a cooperation agreement with the leaders of Puntland after serious negotiations lasting several weeks. One of the main articles of that agreement was to establish a center for fighting against piracy in Punstland, since the latter region is where most of this criminal act originates from. However, one of the ordinary members in the TFG’s cabinet – a guy by the name of Mr. Abdirahman Adan “Ibbi” - unilaterally annulled it and shifted the proposed center to Djibouti. In addition to that, the TFG is alleged to have ceded a vast area of the country’s continental shelf to neighboring Kenya under very suspicious circumstances – and without even consulting its parliament. Overall, none of the important articles of that agreement with Puntland has, for all intents and purposes, been fulfilled by the TFG. Why, as Somalia’s Head of State, didn’t the Sheikh extend a hand of friendship to Puntland, which used to provide the previous TFG with substantial support, both militarily and financially? And why didn’t he pay at least one single visit to that region to see on the ground how its leaders were able to bring about a good measure of peace, stability and development to their region? Does Mogadishu alone constitute Somalia? On the other hand, Sheikh Sharif’s administration has thus far failed to give meaningful support to the more moderate Islamist group, Ahlu Sunna Wal Jama’a, the staunch enemy of Al-Shabab, and obtain their collaboration for combating against the latter extremist thugs. That is why the important city of Balad Weyne, capital of the strategic region of Hiran which links northern and southern Somalia, has been lost to al-Shabab/Hizbul Islam by the TFG and its allies several times.


III.       Reasons for the Sheikh’s Failure


As I alluded to earlier, the main reason for Sheikh Sharif’s failings, which some of us had anticipated more than a year ago, is that the man is simply given a task that is beyond his capacity – in terms of both education and practical experience. The only significant qualification he had is that he hailed from one of Somalia’s major clans (the same thing applies to his Prime Minister and Minister of Finance who are mentioned below). An official who works in his administration and has observed Sheikh Sharif’s activities from reasonable proximity said: “Selecting Sheikh Sharif to run shattered Somalia is like asking one of us, ordinary folks, to run America’s space agency, NASA. He simply has no clue about what he’s really supposed to do.”


Again, instead of surrounding himself with people with adequate educational as well as relevant work experience – so as to compensate for his lack of both of them – he chose some men who are woefully inexperienced like him for the top positions of his administration. And some of them are alleged to have dubious characters. Let us start with his selection of the Prime Minister (PM). Mr. Omar Abdirashid A. Sharmarke (a Canadian/Somali) to whom he had given the PM portfolio is highly educated and carries a well respected and recognizable family name (his father, the late Dott. Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke, was the first Prime Minister of Somalia at independence in 1960 and later became its second President). But Omar is also relatively young and not that different from Sheikh Sharif with regard to relevant work experience. He has never run a village or even a governmental department in his entire life. The only practical experience Omar had was that he had worked as a low level  officer in the UN’s humanitarian aid branch in Sub-Saharan Africa.


Another fellow worth mentioning is Sharif Hassan Sheikh Aden, the current Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance (nicknamed Sharif “Sakiin”, or Sharif “the Knife” for his reported toughness and his great reputation for cutting deals). I was told that, in his previous incarnation, Sharif Hassan had spent most of his life as an ordinary general trader in Somalia, East Africa and United Arab Emirates. It is also reported that he had never worked in Somalia’s previous administrations, had never led a political party or organization or even run a small city in the past. But it’s an open secret that Sheikh Sharif, the President of TFG, is beholden to this second Sharif, because he is the one who convinced him to run for the Presidency of Somalia in the first place. Sheikh Sharif is said to be a very humble man, who knew his credentials very well, and who had never entertained the idea of becoming the next President of Somalia. It was, however, Sharif Hassan who influenced him and changed his mind. Some observers who are privy to the news of the inner circles of his government told me that today what Sharif Hassan says or decides is what counts. In effect, Sharif Hassan is today the President, Prime Minister and Speaker of Parliament in one (Omar Sharmarke, the nominal PM, has been sidelined long time ago). In this context, one incident that I still vividly remember is that before Omar Sharmarke put together his cabinet early last year, Sharif Hassan had informed several people that he would be the next Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister of Somalia. And, lo and behold, that is exactly what has happened!


One of the most dubious/very controversial acts that Sharif Hassan did in his new capacity was to have chosen an auditing firm, called Price Waterhouse Coopers, Nairobi (Kenya), to manage funds allocated to Somalia by the external donors. As external auditors, the latter company is supposed to check the accounts and completed financial statements of their clients and not to manage their cash. Thus to ask a foreign entity, situated in a country that is well-known for its widespread corruption, to handle Somalia’s finances – after almost 50 years from its independence – is a serious affront to its sovereignty. (Some observers believe that selecting Price Waterhouse is just meant to present a façade of transparency to the external donors). Incidentally, the renowned Somali cartoonist, Mr. Amin Amir, has recently posted an interesting cartoon on the internet in which Sheikh Sharif is shouting angrily: “Ninkaan ayay Sakiin ku magacaabeen, waa daacad. Wey ka muuqataa, waa aamin shariifkani.” (They call this man “the Knife”; he’s honest; and this is demonstrated by himself. This sharif is trustworthy.” But the cartoon also depicts Sharif Hassan sitting in front of him and joyfully milking a cow named “maaliyadda qaranka” or the finances of the State!


Another main reason for the failure of President Sheikh Sharif and his acolytes is that they spend most of the time traveling overseas instead of building strong alliances, expanding and strengthening national reconciliation. The need of the cash-strapped TFG to solicit external donors’ financial help is understandable. But these foreign donors will not extend a helping hand to the TFG unless and until they see our leaders making concrete accomplishments. Most probably that is why no significant amount of the $230 million promised to Somalia at a conference held in Bruxelles (Belgium) last year has yet materialized. Even in his frequent and extensive foreign tours, Sheikh Sharif does not offer a clear vision and a political/economic programme for rescuing Somalia beyond the usual general nationalistic statements and empty platitudes. This is what some Somalis, who had attended some of the gatherings organized for him during his last trip to America, last year, told us. They were greatly disappointed by the outcome of these meetings. Moreover, a Somali government official who came back from Mogadishu has informed me recently that in addition to his frequent foreign trips, the Sheikh is busy marrying more and more wives. He is reported to have recently tied the knot with his fourth wife (this is typical of a young, traditional Somali cleric).


IV.             Conclusions


There were high hopes among the Somalis – and even within the wider international community - when Sheikh Sharif Ahmed was elected last year as the country’s new President. But, unfortunately, not much of these aspirations were fulfilled in the first year of his reign. This failure could mainly be attributed to the Sheikh’s lack of proper credentials; neither did he surround himself with officials of adequate qualifications and also let them do the job as they deem fit. This is very important because as the 26th President of the USA, Mr. Theodore Roosevelt, was quoted to have said: “The best executive is the one who has sense enough to pick good men to do what he wants done, and self-restraint enough to keep from meddling with them while they do it."  We, Somalis, should draw the following major lesson from Sheikh Sharif’s first year of tenure: If the main consideration or qualification for selecting our government’s top officials is based on a rigid, institutionalized tribal system, Somalia’s nightmare will not end soon and some of the best qualified members of our nation will be left out. In this connection, and in the light of our nation’s experience last year, the best and highest position that could have been given to Sheikh Sharif – in my view - is that of an imam or a preacher at a major mosque in our capital, Mogadishu. As such, I hope that the Sheikh would be modest enough to realize by now his serious limitations and would not, therefore, run for the Presidency when his term ends next year.


Mahamud M. Yahya, PhD

[email protected]




            (1) I wish to dedicate this article to the memory of the late Prof. Ibrahim Hassan Addow, Somalia’s former Minister of Higher Education, with whom I had worked at the Islamic Development Bank in Jeddah (Saudi Arabia), and who was brutally murdered by an extremist suicide bomber at a graduation ceremony at Shamow Hotel, Mogadishu, on Dec. 3, 2009. May his soul rest in eternal peace.

            (2) The Arabic word “sharif” (or shareef) means “a dignified or honored man”. Somalis use it as a title and normally bestow it on a man whose ancestors are believed to hail from Prophet Muhammad’s family (peace be upon him). Sheikh Sharif is not one of them but perhaps Sharif Hassan is.

(3) The other Arabic title: “sheikh” connotes a very learned Muslim cleric, a community/clan leader or simply an old man.