Saturday, January 31, 2009

Sheikh Sharif: Somalia's new President

Somalia has a new President. He is none other than Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed-the former head of the Union of Islamic Courts. Part of a handful of contestants, the youthful moderate Islamist leader garnered 263 of the votes in an election that included political heavyweights like the current Prime Minister Nur Hassan Hussein, former Prime Minister Professor Ali Khalif Galleyr, and Maslax Mohamed Siyad Barre, son of the former deposed President Major General Mohamed Siyad Barre who trailed behind by a wider margin. The much-awaited Somali Presidential election was held in the neighboring state of Djibouti in the glare of international media.

The man who was once demonized by the West for waging a political onslaught and sacrilegious war against the West-funded, much-despised warlords in 2006, has made headlines in every media outlet. In the broader Somali community, some see him as an idealist, triumphalist, and a hero while others harbor the same Western sentiments by referring to him as a tribalist, religious fanatic, Islamo-fascist, terrorist, and other similar vulgarities aimed at maligning his good name and reputation.

According to media reports, leaders of neighboring Ethiopia were against the election of the Sheikh for fear he may be tempted to transform the Somali nation in to an Islamic state. Somalia's dispute with Ethiopia over the occupied Ogaden region, the rise of armed fundamentalist groups in Somalia, internal strife within Ethiopia's political landscape coupled with a devastating drought, the desire of the Somali people to avenge Ethiopia's two-year occupation of their country, armed guerrilla activities in Ethiopia, and the inauguration of Islamist President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh must be a source of unease and apprehension for the administration in Addis Ababa.

Sheikh Sharif fought the Ethiopians several ago years ago in the streets of Mogadishu and Kismayu before sending his fragile movement underground to fight a prolonged guerrilla war-an armed struggle that subsequently resulted in the signing of a peace deal with the TFG which subsequently led to celebratory victory for the Somali people and a grievous humiliating defeat and complete withdrawal of Ethiopian troops from Somalia.

Subsequent to his departure from Somalia, the Sheikh forged alliances with Ethiopia's number one enemy, Eritrea. Eritrea, a nation that seceded from Ethiopia in the early nineties after a 30-year armed struggle, has a territorial dispute with Ethiopia over the border towns of Badme and Zalambesa. To ensure Ethiopia's territorial ambitions and surreptitious political attempts never materialized in Somalia, President Issaiah Afewerki, Eritrea's strongman, became a source of inspiration for Somalia's weakened armed groups. By providing material and moral support, Eritrea finally succeeded in her long cherished goals that culminated in the defeat of the Ethiopian army followed by total withdrawal from Somali soil. Thus, Asmara, Eritrea's capital, came to symbolize a symbol of hope for Somalia's armed movements. Together with a handful of renegade parliamentarians from the TFG seat in Baidoa, Sheikh Sharif established base in Eritrea where he formed a political movement that came to be known as the Alliance for the Restoration of Somalia (ARS). As fate would have it, the initial alliance split in to two political groups. The Sheikh's moderate and reform-minded splinter group epitomized marvelous dialogical framework and good intentions.

On the other hand, the other splinter group espouses a philosophy of war devoid of any form of reconciliation with the enemy-an ideological foundation party stalwarts think will lead to the emergence of a formidable Somalia in the long run. They use threats and intimidation to advance their aims and objectives. However, the death of innocent civilians in any armed event is none of their business. Because the leaders of this armed splinter group are wanted in the West for either being hardcore terrorists or terrorist sympathizers, they will do everything in their power to escape intentional as well accidental dragnets. Put it another way: they will do everything in their power and apply all means at their disposal to ensure Somalia does not see stability because, as they portend, if Somalia settles for posterity, it will lead to their subsequent arrests and trial in the International Court of Justice to face crimes against humanity.

Going by the old adage "a coward dies many times before his real death", Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys and his compatriots who are engaged in genocidal crimes have no other alternatives left except to continue dragging the Somali insurgency until they achieve their dubious aims and objectives and emerge as winners and heroes or until they get killed by foreign forces so as to attain martyrdom-the easiest path to paradise. The first entity to denounce the inauguration of Sheikh Sharif was the hard line Jihadist Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys-a man who once was in the same political camp as the new President before parting ways. The two rivals belong to the major Hawiye clan.

Despite Sheikh Sharif's election as President of Somalia, the nation's current political, social, and economic affairs calls for the collective efforts of all concerned Somalis and the international community as the entire infrastructure and institutions of governance have been destroyed beyond repair due to the long running civil disobedience that spans close to two decades.

Ironically, the Sheikh's enthronement is seen by his bitter rivals as contravening the teachings of Islam, because, as they claim, he has opted for a man-made constitution that is contrary to the divine teachings of the Glorious Qur'an. To those Somalis and foreigners who have read the Somali constitution, there is no mention of a single article that contradict or contravene Islamic Sharia law.

Currently, most of southern Somalia is in the hands of a religious faction known as Al-Shabab that is perceived by Western powers as a terrorist group. So far, the leaders of Al-Shabab have denounced the Djibouti initiative which calls for dialogue and mutual respect and cessation of hostilities among the signatories to the convention-a convention that brought together the Transitional Federal Government and other various armed factions fighting to oust Ethiopia's occupation forces and AMISOM peace keeping troops from Rwanda and Uganda. Al-Shabab is neither Hamas of Palestine nor Hezbollah of Lebanon. It constitutes an amalgamation of poorly-armed, poorly-trained youth fighters drawn from various tribes or clans struggling for scarce resources in the absence of equity and efficiency of economics.

The new President, in a speech delivered to parliament, pledged to work tirelessly and to strive hard to bring peace and harmony to Somalia and he also promised to respect the territorial integrity of Somali neighbors-a reference to Ethiopia and Kenya. So far, several nations have congratulated the new President. As the world media outlets broke the silence in order to relay the victory of Sheikh Sharif across the globe, rancorous applause, adulation, reveling and jubilation among the ranks and file of his ardent supporters continued throughout that memorable night in major cities across North America, Oceania, Asia, Europe, Middle East, and Africa. Celebrations have been reported in Somalia's major towns and cities most notably in Mogadishu, Bossasso in the autonomous region of Puntland, in Beletweyne, and in Baidoa-the former seat of the Transitional Federal Government currently in the hands of Al-Shabab.

President Sheikh Sharif has so many birds to kill with one stone and many rivers to cross. His first step will be to win the hearts and minds of Al-Shabab leaders and other armed factions that oppose the presence of foreign forces on Somali soil. On the other hand, he will have to deal with pressure from the international community; he will be responsible for marshaling forces to combat crime and lawlessness; he will be tasked with combating piracy off the coasts of Somalia; it will be his prime responsibility to solicit funds from international donors; in like measure, the President will embark on a major plan that will oversee the relocation of the internally displaced persons and refugees in camps across Somali borders; his prime target will be to devise measures to micromanage the economy in a land known for greed and misappropriation of funds, and above all, uniting the nation remains the most touching issue.

How to deal with the unrecognized breakaway republic of Somaliland will depend on how the new Somali administration applies wisdom and sound judgment. Any attempt to use force against Somaliland could lead to unprecedented hostility and armed resurrections. Whether to leave Somaliland remain a sovereign entity or admit it back to Somalia will depend on the will of the people of Somaliland and her leaders. An internationally supervised referendum for the people of Somaliland may be the best option to alleviate any political miscalculations and misadventures.

Paradoxically, Somalia harbors men who have been mentioned as belonging to terrorist groups or are financiers of terrorist networks. Some of these men control heavily armed militia groups and large swathes of land in the volatile central and southern regions. Some have instituted Sharia law as a deterrence to crime with amputations for petty theft and stoning to death for adultery becoming the norm in the absence of legal defense systems. For now and in the foreseeable future, how the new President deals with these most-wanted men, remains a burning issue for many political pundits.

Opponents of the new Somali administration are of the view that President Sheikh Sharif is a reincarnation of or a replica of Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan. Will the new administration fail to deliver as happened to past failed Somali leaderships? Ironically, the size of the current parliament is raising eyebrows. With Somalia's population estimated at approximately 10 million, how to instill discipline and how to finance the 550 members that constitute the legislature is beyond comprehension.

A few hours from now, Somalia's new President, Sheikh Sharif, is expected to rub shoulders with African leaders with differing political thoughts and processes in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. With strong security detail and multitudes of supporters to his credit, the Sheikh could as well set foot in his war-ravaged hometown of Mogadishu within days and perhaps receive a heroes welcome. The President hails from the popular Abgal sub-clan that wield strong political power in Mogadishu and its environs. Unlike former Prime Minister Professor Ali Mohamed Ghedi, a fellow tribesman who accumulated immense wealth under the recently ousted hard-nosed ex-President Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed, Sheikh Sharif's rationale ought to focus on accountability, execution of justice, national defense, and social coherence.

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