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Hope at last in Somalia

The new Somali PM has freed some opposition leaders and journalists in a gesture of goodwill and seems willing to talk to all parties in the conflict, presenting the first glimmer of hope.


By Abdurrahman Warsameh
Thursday, February 14, 2008


Soon after his arrival in the Somali capital Mogadishu late last month, new Prime Minister Nur Hassan Hussein ordered the release of some of the prominent opposition leaders being held by the government - a move hailed as a goodwill gesture and part of the new administration's wider strategy toward national reconciliation.


Since his nomination for the post in mid-November 2007, Hussein has repeated his commitment to negotiating with all opposition groups, whether they are the myriad armed insurgent groups fighting the government troops and foreign forces in the country, particularly Ethiopian troops, or the alliance of opposition politicians based in the Eritrean capital of Asmara.


The new government has on many occasions called on the opposition to join talks with the government and cease attacks on Somali and foreign forces targets. But opposition forces have refused, repeating their demands that all foreign forces be withdrawn from Somalia before any talks with the transitional federal government, which the opposition does not recognize as legitimate.


Having fled to Asmara, the opposition coalition is composed largely of two groups: renegade Somali parliamentarians who opposed the arrival of Ethiopian troops in Somalia and were fired as a result; and the leaders of the Islamic Courts Union, an Islamist movement that had been in control in much of southern and central Somalia before Ethiopian troops arrived in late 2006 (fearing the rise of Islamist-nationalist movement could spark new calls for the reunion of Ogaden, a Somali-speaking region in eastern Ethiopia, with Somalia proper).


Many in Somalia consider the Ethiopian presence in Somalia as an invasion by an historic enemy country because the two countries fought two wars over the disputed Ogaden region. They technically have been at war since the 1977 border conflict as no conclusive solution has been reached on the issue.


A UN Security Council resolution early last year authorized an 8,000-strong African Union (AU) peacekeeping force to replace the Ethiopian troops currently deployed in the country to help prop up the weak transitional government, formed in 2004 after the 14th attempt at setting up a national administration since the fall of the late ruler Mohamed Siyad Barre 1991.


Only Uganda and Burundi have deployed their contingents of nearly 2,000 troops between them. Other African countries who pledged to contribute have been unable to do so because of logistical and security concerns.


However, Somali insurgent groups have been engaged in fierce battles with government troops, AU troops and Ethiopian troops in the country, causing the death and injury of thousands of people, mostly civilians caught in the cross fire, and the displacement of almost one and half million people including nearly half of Mogadishu's residents.


The arrival of Hussein in the restive capital this month has made the local people hopeful that the current government could finally ease their suffering. The first ray of hope came when cabinet members worked to hold a meeting with local elders to discuss how reconciliation with the opposition should be approached.


Scores of leaders from the Hawiye clan, including the revered spokesman for the Hawiye Clan Unity and Culture Council, Ahmed Diriye, and four other members of the council were released from government custody as a result.


Clan elders, the largest in the south and center of Somalia, had been vocal in their opposition to government policies and to the presence of Ethiopian troops in the war-torn Horn of Africa nation.


The 160-member council had been calling for the withdrawal of the troops and the holding of a national reconciliation conference in a neutral venue with the participation from all parties to the conflict.


The new minister of information also released a number of detained journalists.


Prominent opposition leader Sheikh Sharif Shiekh Ahmed welcomed the move by the new government but called for the release of all prisoners in Somali and Ethiopian detention centers.


The opposition has also said that it is ready to talk to the new transitional government - an unprecedented change of tune and certainly cause for optimism.


But violence rages on almost daily in Mogadishu and the southern and central regions of the country, rendering calls for national reconciliation by both the government and opposition challenging indeed: We must now go beyond optimistic lip service and take and reciprocate more confidence-building measures.


There are signs of differences between the Somali government's top leadership and the new prime minister's and his small group of technocrats over national reconciliation efforts.


Somali President Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed, currently in London for health reasons, was said to be unhappy about the current moves by his prime minister.


In an interview with local radio, the president expressed dissatisfaction with "the premier's ready willingness to talk to terrorists."


The president was also quoted by Voice of America's Somali service as saying that "the government cannot negotiate with people known to have blood on their hands."


These mixed signals further confuse the public and remove their hopes for change and reconciliation after nearly two decade of anarchy and misery. For the first time in so long, the transitional government has someone seemingly willing to change the rules of the game, to sit down and talk with its enemies in a last ditch effort for peace. Regardless of the motivations, it is the best chance for Somalia to date.


Abdurrahman Warsameh is a Mogadishu-based journalist, who writes ISN. based in Zurich, Switzerland, the Center for Security Studies (CSS) at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH Zurich), provides via the International Relations and Security Network a wide range of high-quality and comprehensive products and resources to encourage the exchange of information among international relations and security professionals worldwide. The ISN works to promote a better understanding of the strategic challenges we face in today’s changed security environment

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