DJIBOUTI // Somalia's parliament endorsed today the appointment of the Western-educated son of a slain former president as prime minister in a unity government tasked with restoring order to the failed Horn of Africa state. After a 414-to-9 vote in his favour, Omar Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke, 48, took the oath of office at a session of the legislature in neighbouring Djibouti. "I will form a government of national unity that will give top priority to peace and security," he told parliament. "The nation and the people are waiting for us."
Mr Sharmarke and current president Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, a moderate Islamist leader who chose Mr Sharmarke to try to broaden the appeal of his government at home and abroad, face the Herculean task of bringing peace to Somalia for the first time in 18 years. Armed Islamist insurgents have declared jihad against the new power-sharing government, formed in a UN-brokered peace process in Djibouti. Some 1 million people live as internal refugees around the shattered nation.
In Mogadishu, several hundred people held a rally in favour of the new prime minister. But in the regional town of Beled Hawo, a women's group demonstrated, saying women, plus smaller clans, had been ignored in the creation of the new government. Yet the appointments of Mr Ahmed, the former leader of a sharia courts movement, and Mr Sharmarke, a former UN employee and member of Somalia's large diaspora, have provided a new political dynamic that is giving some cause for hope.
"I am more optimistic about the future of Somalia than I have been in a number of years," Professor David Shinn, an Africa expert at George Washington University, said. "The selection of a PM from the large Darod clan is a wise choice to balance President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed's Hawiye clan connection," he said, adding that Sharmarke's distinguished family and diaspora connections would also be advantages.
"I think this selection increases the possibility that the Sheikh Sharif government will be able to pull Somalia out of its downwards spiral and eventually even create an administration that is broadly accepted by Somalis." The leading Islamist insurgent group al Shabaab, however, is determined to stop that. It has attacked both the government and African Union (AU) peacekeepers in recent days and held anti-government protests in areas of south Somalia it controls.
An al Qa'eda leader, too, urged Somali militants to step up jihad against the government in a video released yesterday. Washington believes al Shabaab is al-Qaida's proxy in Somalia, and the group is known to have foreign fighters in its ranks. The government controls only a few blocks of Mogadishu, whereas Islamist insurgents control other parts of the city and large swathes of the south. Somalia descended into anarchy and civil conflict when warlords kicked out dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991, and this is the 15th attempt to set up a government since then.