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Somalia: a new beginning? After 14 years without a central government, Somalia now has a new leader, with the mountainous task of rebuilding the country. President Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed is a former army colonel from the self-declared autonomous region of Puntland, but will he be equal to the task?, asks Farhiya Ali Ahmed.

The year was 1978. Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed, a senior military officer together with other high-ranking commanders were plotting the overthrow of President Siad Barre. The coup failed and many of the officers implicated in it were arrested and executed. Yusuf Ahmed escaped into neighbouring Ethiopia.

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Over 26 years later, he has become president of the Federal Republic of Somalia, a war-ravaged country that has been without a central government since Barre's regime was eventually toppled in 1991. Fourteen years and 14 peace conferences later, Somalia now has a new president whom many believe can finally bring closure to the crippling conflict and insecurity of the last decade and a half.

Although not voted into office through national elections, Yusuf Ahmed was endorsed by 270 of the 275 members of the recently-assembled Somali parliament at a special ceremony in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi. The security situation in the Somali capital, Mogadishu, was deemed too dangerous for the electoral process to be held there. Garnering over two-thirds of the vote and beating his nearest rival, the former diplomat and cabinet minister, Dr Abdullahi Adow, by 189 votes to 79, Yusuf Ahmed promised to restore peace and stability to the shattered country.

"Having given me the honour by electing me, I pledge before you and the international community to work hard to reconcile Somalis to bring back peace and security and revive the country," he said in a speech that also appealed for foreign assistance.

"Somalia is a failed state and we have nothing," he continued. "We need you [the international community] to stand by us and help us disarm our militias which are destabilising the Somali people."

The new president's first task was to appoint Professor Ali Mohamed Ghedi as prime minister, who began a selection process to establish a cabinet by early December. Once formed, the new government will transfer back to Mogadishu and begin serving its interim five-year term in office before being followed by general elections in 2009. Ahmed's election was the culmination of a two-year negotiation process supported by the regional Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD). The 20-hour long run-off elections saw five of the original 27 candidates pull out before Ahmed emerged victorious. However, put simply, the task he faces is ominous.

After the collapse of the Barre regime, clan-based military factions competed for control in a bid to fill the sudden power vacuum. Before long these tribes splintered into sub-clans, forming their own armies and turning their guns on each other. Somalia collapsed into chaos.

The country's infrastructure was destroyed as governing institutions disintegrated. Tens of thousands lost their lives while millions more sought refugee overseas. Since then, authority has been in the hands of warlords who deploy their private militias to maintain control of their fiefdoms.

Previous efforts by the international community to re-establish a central government and bring peace and stability back to Somalia failed. The last was a product of the Arta Conference of 2000, which resulted in the formation of a Transitional National Government (TNG). However, it lacked any real authority and control outside Mogadishu, with mushrooming coalitions of warlords blocking and undermining any attempts to restore order.

Central to the new president's success will be his ability to rein in these militias and warlords and warlords and bring them under a stabilising umbrella of peace and reconciliation. Yet many have already expressed doubt in the aptitude of a former soldier and rebel leader to achieve this.

Yusuf Ahmed's critics say a military-style ruling will ultimately undermine his capability to stabilise the country. However, it is this particular trait that has enabled him to achieve victory in the elections and may well be a decisive factor in his efforts to disarm the militias.

Dr. A.A. Hassan, former attorney general of Somalia and connoisseur of Somali politics, once equated the country's situation to a cancer sufferer who keeps smoking despite his doctor's orders not to. Like the patient who knows the damage the habit causes him, those perpetuating the violence in Somalia know that what they are doing is detrimental to the country and themselves.

Just as the patient needs someone who cares enough to force the patient to quit smoking, what Somalia needs now, goes the argument, is a leader who is determined and dedicated enough to disarm those destroying the country. According to this line of thought, peace can be restored in Somalia by a strong-willed leader who is intolerant of lawlessness and can assert his authority. Yusuf's supporters say his strength of character, military training and experiences, will enable him to achieve this.

A career soldier, Yusuf graduated from the Frunze War College in the former Soviet Union in the 1960s, and served as a military attache there. He was jailed for six years in 1969 for refusing to take part in a coup attempt by General Mohammed Siad Barre against the then president, Abdul Rashid Ali Shermarke.

While in exile in Ethiopia after his own coup attempt against Barre failed, Yusuf formed the Somali Salvation Democratic Front (SSDF). He was detained again, this time by Ethiopia's military government, from 1985 to 1991, for challenging its claims to Somali territory.

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He returned to his native land in 1991 and was elected president of the semi-autonomous region of Puntland in northeast Somalia and declared its independence from the rest of the country in 1998.

Yusuf's success at restoring peace to the whole of Somalia will depend on the disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration of the ex-combatants into civilian society. The first step, which has been described as a mission impossible by some observers, is the disarmament of the militias and their subsequent demobilisation.

Yusuf has already requested the African Union to deploy up to 30,000 troops to help disarm the tens of thousands of factional fighters in Somalia. He told the AU's Peace and Security Council in Addis Ababa on 25 October: "There are two million pieces of armament, small and heavy artillery, in the hands of the people. In order to bring peace and reconciliation, we need to disarm these people."

The last foreign military intervention in Somalia was a disaster. In 1992, the deployment of US forces to protect a UN peacekeeping mission resulted in high casualties on both sides. The subsequent withdrawal of international troops left Somalia more isolated and adrift than ever.

Whether the AU will adhere to Yusuf's request remains to be seen. What is paramount, however, is the establishment of a safe environment for the voluntary disarmament of the warring factions to take place. Given the deep sense of animosity and mistrust between them, the size of this task cannot be over-estimated.

Successful demobilisation and subsequent reintegration of the militias will also be an enormous challenge as many fighters have only known a life of conflict and war. For his part, Yusuf has vowed to do his best to serve his country, and promised that should he fail in his mission, he himself "will go back to parliament and ask them to elect another president".

Among the many pitfalls to his rule is the possible opposition to him and his government in Mogadishu. The cooperation and support of the Hawiye clan, which controls the capital and its surrounding area, is of the utmost necessity. A lack of such support would, like that of his predecessor, Abdul Qasim Salaad, the president of the TNG, likely render his government more or less ineffective. He is also faced with the challenge of the financial resources needed to reconstruct the country, with the UN having estimated at least US$4bn needed for the task. His useful alliances with both Washington and Addis Abba will be crucial to this programme of rebuilding Somalia.

Yusuf's intentions and actions regarding the self-declared Republic of Somaliland in the north are also cause for concern. Somaliland refused to participate in the peace talks and electoral process that brought Yusuf to power, and has warned of renewed conflict should he interfere or lay claim to the territory.

Though many obstacles and challenges face Somalia and its new leader, the determination he has thus far displayed has shown his intentions and apparent fortitude. Yusuf's leadership qualities and military credentials, which might have counted against him in different circumstances, render him the appropriate man for the job. Only time will tell if this proves to be true.
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Title Annotation:Around Africa
Author:Ahmed, Farhiya Ali
Publication:New African
Geographic Code:6SOMA
Date:Dec 1, 2004
Words:1395
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