By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, December 18, 2008
NAIROBI, Dec. 17 -- Somalia's parliament voted Wednesday to begin impeachment proceedings against President Abdullahi Yusuf, another sign that his U.S.-backed government is unraveling.
"This is the end of the government. This is it," said Mohamed Amin, a member of an opposition coalition that has a majority in parliament.
Yusuf's government began disintegrating almost from the start two years ago, when it was installed with the might of the Ethiopian army and help from the United States.
At the time, the United States and Ethiopia viewed Yusuf -- a warlord known as a tough and wily survivor -- as a viable alternative to an Islamist movement that had taken over the capital of Mogadishu and that they accused of having links to al-Qaeda. The transitional government and its elaborate system of clan representation was to be Somalia's first functioning central government since 1991, when warlords overthrew a dictator and then turned on one another.
But Yusuf quickly proved to be a brutal leader devoted to the interests of his own clan, and his forces have killed and kidnapped political opponents, among the human rights abuses that other parties to the conflict also carried out.
Yusuf and his Ethiopian backers have faced a relentless insurgency made up of clan militias and, increasingly, a radical Islamist faction known as al-Shabab. The group, which the United States has designated a terrorist organization, has in recent months advanced on cities and towns across a swath of southern Somalia and much of Mogadishu. Yusuf's forces control just a few blocks in the capital.
Now the president is losing what tenuous political support he had.
The Ethiopians announced last month that they would withdraw from Somalia at the end of the year. U.S. and U.N. officials appear to be shifting their support to his main rival, Prime Minister Nur Hassan Hussein, who helped broker a peace deal that in theory gives substantial power to an opposition coalition. Yusuf fired Hussein this week, but the parliament rejected the move and voted to extend his term.
On Wednesday, lawmakers accused Yusuf of blocking the reconciliation process and voted to begin the process for his removal.
"He is committing suicide in terms of his political calculation," said Ali Said, director of the Center for Peace and Democracy, a Somali group operating in exile in Nairobi that promotes democratic government and human rights. "He will become isolated."
One U.S. official put it more bluntly. "Yusuf is finished," the official said on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon warned this week that Somalia could descend into "chaos" when the Ethiopian troops leave the country, and efforts to rally a U.N. peacekeeping force to replace them have been unsuccessful.
The looming question is what happens next in Somalia, where more than 1 million people displaced by two years of fighting are now facing drought, hyperinflation and a dearth of humanitarian assistance. Across the border in Kenya, the Dadaab refugee camp is bulging with tens of thousands of Somalis as busloads of newcomers arrive almost every day.
On Wednesday, Somali lawmakers signed what is known as the Djibouti agreement, which substantially increases representation in parliament of moderate Islamists who were pushed out of Mogadishu by the Ethiopians, as well as members of the vast diaspora, intellectuals, clan elders and others. The leader of the opposition coalition, Sharif Ahmed, recently returned to Mogadishu after nearly two years in exile and is trying to persuade clan elders and their militias to stop fighting and back him.
"He is there selling the Djibouti agreement," Said said, adding that support for the Shabab would plummet after the Ethiopians withdraw.
Others see the situation as far more bleak. "The military situation on the ground is completely different from the political picture," the U.S. official said. "It's just a matter of time before the Shabab move into Mogadishu."
If that happens, the next phase of Somalia's perpetual conflict would probably be a bloody power struggle between various clan militias and the Shabab. The rise of a radical Islamist group in Somalia would amount to the very scenario that Bush administration officials had sought to avoid by backing Yusuf.
The Shabab has thrived under the banner of fighting the Ethiopians, whom it views as proxies for the United States. But other than the exit of the Ethiopians and an end to U.S. involvement in Somalia, its goals are unclear.
In some areas it controls, the Shabab is demanding strict adherence to its brand of Islamic law. Two months ago, for example, Shabab militiamen stoned to death a 14-year-old girl who had been raped after accusing her of being promiscuous.
Special correspondent Mohamed Ibrahim contributed to this report.