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No longer Limboland
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 14 - 10 - 2004

Are Somalia's warlords at last willing to loosen their iron grip on the country, wonders Gamal Nkrumah
A new dawn breaks over Somalia. The interim Somali Parliament convened a special session in Kenya and elected Colonel Abdullah Yusuf Ahmed, the self-styled leader of the autonomous region of Puntland, as the new interim Somali president. The election was considered a jolly affair in spite of the country's chequered history and uncertain future. The vote focussed largely on the relatively successful Puntland experiment and on who could best manage Somalia -- politically and economically. Yusuf was favoured in large measure because he has excellent working relationships with Somalia's East African and Arab neighbours.
The Somali legislators' choice was hailed as a "big victory primarily for the Somali people and all neighbouring countries," by Ethiopia's Information Minister Bereket Simon. Kenya also warmly welcomed the inauguration of Yusuf which took place on its soil. "People should not see this as the end, but as the beginning of a greater task ahead of us," said Bethwel Kiplagat the Kenyan chief negotiator, sounding a note of warning.
The newly-elected Somali President was inaugurated in Kenya on Thursday 14 October. The foreign ministers of the seven members of the Inter- Governmental Authority for Development (IGAD), a regional organisation which groups seven East African countries including Somalia, were present at the inauguration ceremony. Also present were the president of neighbouring Yemen Ali Abdallah Saleh and a number of African leaders. Also present was Secretary General of the Arab League Amr Moussa.
Yusuf was chosen on Sunday by a large majority of interim Somali legislators. The 275-member Somali Parliament currently sits in Kenya.
Somalis, or at least their legislator- representatives, admit that Yusuf deserves credit for his prudent management of Puntland and can justly take pride in his victory. He declared Puntland a self-governed political entity in 1998, but has always said that he favoured Somali national unity.
Yet there is also a more general problem with the political underpinnings of the country. There are two million Somali refugees in neighbouring countries and overseas. Yusuf himself is not expected to return to Somalia for at least the next six months, but he is expected to travel extensively to Arab, African and Western capitals.
Yusuf was running neck-to-neck with Abdallah Adow, financier and former Somali ambassador to the United States. But Yusuf is also in Washington's good books. He has an excellent working relationship with the Ethiopians, too.
And this is a vitally-important factor. Ethiopia has long exerted tremendous political influence in Somalia. Many Somali dissidents-- including the country's newly elected president -- have sought refuge in Ethiopia in the past. Moreover, Ethiopia has often been accused of playing one Somali warlord against the other.
But Ethiopia now says that it wants peace and security in Somalia. A peaceful and prosperous Somalia could emerge as the cornerstone of stability in the Horn of Africa region. The country has been in the throes of civil war since the political demise of the late military dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991.
Yusuf, an army commander in the 1960s, was imprisoned for refusing to take part in the coup d'état that brought Mohamed Siad Barre to power in 1969. He was released in 1975, and three years later headed a plot to topple the Barre regime.
Yusuf was supported at the time by Ethiopia, but fell out with the Ethiopians over their claim to Somali territories. Ethiopia's military dictator at the time, Mengistu Haile Mariam, threw Yusuf in jail in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa in 1985. But Yusuf was released when the Mengistu regime collapsed in 1991. He was released from prison by the present Ethiopian regime headed by Prime Minister Meles Zennawi, and ever since he has received the backing of Ethiopia.
But it is not only Ethiopia and Kenya that have warmed up to the Yusuf; the entire international community gave its stamp of approval on the election process. United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan congratulated the Somali people for the election of Yusuf as president. He also appreciated the manner in which the Somali president was elected. After the third and final round Yusuf emerged as the winner securing 189 votes against 79 for his run-off rival. Adow immediately declared his unconditional support for the winner. The smooth transition of power was commendable, and it augured well for Somalia.
Yusuf must now accept the responsibility that comes with victory. He will now preside over a sprawling country with disparate and often fiercely contentious factions vying for power, economic clout and political influence and prestige. He will be called upon to improve fiscal performance and economic productivity in the war- battered Somali economy.
But some observers note that underlying tensions remain. The clash between the political factions within Somalia could also become sharper in the next few weeks as warlords and seasoned Somali politicians jostle for ministerial positions in the new government.
The question is whether these events are leading to the milestone that everybody in Somalia wants to reach next -- the creation of a viable and vibrant democracy in the country. Is Somalia, which has languished in a state of utter lawlessness for 13 years, getting safer?
"Everyone agrees that the newly- elected Somali President has a strong personality and enjoys the trust of his people. We need a powerful father figure to lead the nation at this critical historical juncture," Somalia's Ambassador to Egypt Abdullah Hassan Mahmoud told Al-Ahram Weekly.
"I am very optimistic about the country's future. For the first time in years there is consensus in the country about the leadership. All the various Somali tribes and clans participated and had their say. No warlord disputes the results of the Somali legislators' choice. This is an unprecedented development," the Somali ambassador to Cairo told the Weekly.
Four years ago when the outgoing president Abdul-Kassem Salad Hassan was elected in Djibouti, many Somali warlords refused to acknowledge the result of the vote. Indeed, a number of Somali factions banded together to form the Somali Reconciliation and Restoration Council (SRRC) and set up a rival administration to the Salad's Transitional National Government (TNG). The TNG formed in 2000 was undermined by Somalia's notorious warlords and their incessant factional fighting.
This time around, no warlord objected to the election of Yusuf.
But just what does this add up to? "Puntland has been one of the best run parts of the country. It is perhaps the safest and most secure part of the country. The ports of Puntland run efficiently and there are no gangs of gun- brandishing and trigger happy youth terrorising people like you have in other regions of Somalia," Ambassador Mahmoud explained.
He said that credit must be given to the newly-elected Somali president for running his enclave so efficiently. "We hope that the new president will achieve the same peace, security, efficiency and prosperity in the entire country like he has so effectively done in Puntland," the ambassador added.
This bold and optimistic outlook is of a broader regional and international relevance. It runs counter to doomsday predictions by those who have little faith in the Somali people's will to rebuild their country.
But, this is not to say that everything in the new government is rosy. Somalia stuck in the rough.
Somalia's newly-elected president said that his country needs at least $5 billion to kick start the reconstruction process. Sizable enough, but that sum palls in comparison with what Somalia really needs to turn the economy around. The Somali economy is in ruins. Infrastructure is in a tattered and sorry state.
It is not clear what the newly- installed Somali president can say that has not been already said. Yusuf comes across as filled with foresight and dogged determination.
On the negative side, he is rumoured to be authoritarian, even ruthless.
Some observers also point out that the health of the new Somali president is not up to par. He is said to have had a liver transplant, but as a devout Muslim he neither drinks nor smokes. At the ripe old age of 70, Yusuf appears to enjoy reasonably good health at the moment.
By most accounts, his triumphs outnumber his faults and shortcomings. Yusuf is widely regarded as a strongman capable of restoring law and order. Somalis assimilate change easily, and most of the country's ten million people are looking forward to the dawn of a new era.
Yusuf seems to understand his people's need for strong leadership, and to have the will to fulfill their aspirations. In hard economic times, factional disputes and tribal and regional rivalry become more difficult to gloss over.
And, Yusuf also realises that Somalia will remain dependent on outside help for some time to come. However, Somalis are bitterly disappointed with the Arab and international response to the crisis in Somalia. They had expected the international donor community to finance the reconstruction of their war- torn country.
Somalis are hoping that many of their tough problems will eventually be resolved when wealthy oil-rich Arab states reach out for their cheque books. They are banking on Gulf Arabs to fund development projects and reconstruction programmes and lay the foundations for a prosperous Somalia. But to the Somalis' chagrin, the Gulf Arabs are no longer willing or able to be this generous. On the whole, they appear to be in a much meaner mood.
Still, Yusuf is said to have good relations with a number of Arab states, including neighbouring Yemen and some oil-rich Gulf states.
Yusuf, who hails from Somalia's Darod people, one of the six major tribal confederations of the country, has signalled his intention of bringing into his government key figures from other Somali tribal groupings.
Reforms, political and economic, remain fearsomely difficult especially with the lack of security in much of the country. Thanks to Yusuf, the autonomous region of Puntland in northeastern Somalia was an exception to the rule. Puntland is one of the best-run regions of Somalia and it does brisk trade with the Arabian Gulf, Southeast Asia and South Asia. But it remains to be seen if Yusuf can extend Puntland's relative calm to the rest of the country.


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