The new president of Somalia, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, has a lot to contend with: pirates, a humanitarian disaster and deadly rivals. But is he the man to revive the failed state? We meet him in Nairobi during a round of shuttle diplomacy.
Somalia’s last president, Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed, was a cantankerous septuagenarian warlord, accused of war crimes during his time in office. By the time he resigned in December his corrupt and incompetent government – a UN and western-backed shell – had control over just a few streets in the capital, Mogadishu.
His successor, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, could not be more different. A softly spoken Islamist and former geography teacher, Sheikh Sharif commands broad support among the Somali population, who see him as a potentially unifying force. For once in Somalia, a country beset by countless civil wars and foreign military interventions since 1991, there is a small window of hope.
This is partly based on experience. In 2006, Sheikh Sharif was chairman of the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC), a loose coalition of Islamist militias and elders who forced out some of Somalia’s most hated warlords. For six months the Islamic Courts ruled Mogadishu and most of southern and central Somalia. Residents and regional analysts credited the courts – and Sheikh Sharif – with bringing a semblance of law and order to one of the world’s most dangerous capitals.
The Courts’ rule didn’t please everyone. Hardliners in the administration threatened to attack Somalia’s neighbour, and long-time foe, Ethiopia, while the United States’ top Africa diplomat, Jendayi Frazer, claimed the UIC was run by “East Africa al-Qaida cell individuals”. In December 2006 a US-backed Ethiopian force crossed the border and installed Yusuf’s government. Sharif, however, was always more moderate than his hardline Islamist colleagues. Now, after a peace conference in Djibouti he is back and has the support of the international community.
The scale of Sharif’s task is immense. Somalia is in the midst of an unprecedented humanitarian disaster. Out of an estimated population of seven million more than 3.2 million are in need of emergency aid. But Somalia’s problems are not its alone. Many believe Somalia has become a haven for terrorists, while Somali-based pirates have terrorised the Gulf of Aden capturing passing ships. And as ever in Somalia, not everyone is happy with Sharif’s election. Al Shabaab, the Islamist insurgency group that led the fight against the Ethiopians and the last Somali government, has refused to recognise Sheikh Sharif.
Solving Somalia’s myriad problems would be a challenge for any new president and Sharif is not the most outgoing man, nor is he an inspiring speaker. His leadership experience is just a six-month period ruling Mogadishu. But he has survived despite being written off before by both the Bush administration and extreme Islamists. What’s more, unlike previous Somali rulers, Sharif appears committed to tackling his country’s woes.
Monocle: Piracy has become a major problem off the Somali coast. What will you do to prevent it?
Sheikh Sharif: The basis for dealing with piracy is establishing an effective and stable government in Somalia that can address these kinds of criminalities.
M: What do you make of the West’s attempts to deal with the problem?
SS: Now there are fleets of navies from different nations in Somalia. Instead of sending their money there they should have spent it on reconstruction and re-establishment of a Somali government that can deal with it more efficiently.
M: Would you consider allowing foreign forces to enter Somalia to apprehend pirates?
SS: That can be discussed. We can have a debate about that.
M: Do you have concerns about allowing foreign forces to do that?
SS: In international law the use of force on the territories of other nations is difficult. It is better to use international conventions rather than taking the law into your own hands.
M: This is the 15th attempt to have a functioning central government since 1991. Why do you think you can succeed?
SS: Somalis are tired and fed up of internal fights. But there is a shift in the international community. It was reluctant in the past, now it is more willing to support a functioning Somali government.
M: Do you think you made mistakes last time you ruled Mogadishu?
SS: Yes, we made mistakes in the past. Imperfectness is inherent in humans. But there was also, on the other side, the international community, which was dragging its feet to get involved.
M: In your view, how did the international community fail?
SS: We were willing to negotiate. We went to Khartoum for that purpose. But we were let down every step of the way.
M: How is your relationship with the US?
SS: It is exceptionally good. During the negotiations they were part and parcel of the process and supported it. Since we were elected as a government they have been behind the process. Last night we had dinner with the US ambassador here and we are trying to work together.
M: The US believes there are terrorists inside Somalia, including the culprits of the 1998 US embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. Have they asked you to arrest them and hand them over?
SS: Both governments realise that we are at a stage where we can cooperate. But right now we are not in the situation to point fingers at anyone in particular.
M: If they asked you to hand someone over would you consider the request?
SS: I think it’s impractical to ask these questions or make these kinds of demands. More powerful forces went into Somalia and they were not able to apprehend or capture anyone.
M: The insurgency continues despite your election. Will you negotiate with Al Shabaab?
SS: We want open dialogue with everyone who is interested.
M: Are you willing to accept leaders of Al Shabaab in your government?
SS: Everybody in Somalia, every citizen has the right to be in government.
M: What’s your vision for Somalia?
SS: Yes, we have a vision, a programme but I don’t think it needs to be published in the newspapers. We want a Somalia that is peaceful, prosperous and united.
M: And do you think that you will be able to achieve that?
SS:It is our aim. It will be difficult.
1964: Born Shabelle region.
1992: Studied Arabic and geography at Kordofan University, Sudan.
1994: Studied law and Islamic sharia at Open University, Tripoli, Libya.
2002: Taught geography at a Mogadishu secondary school.
2003: Established an Islamic court in Jowhar, Somalia.
2004: Helped to form Union of Islamic Courts, becoming chairman.
2006: Union of Islamic Courts threw out warlords and ruled Mogadishu. Fled Mogadishu following Ethiopian invasion.
2007: Becomes leader of new opposition group, Alliance for Re-liberation of Somalia.
2009: Appointed Somali president.