By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, December 30, 2008
NAIROBI, Dec. 29 -- Somali President Abdullahi Yusuf resigned Monday, conceding that Islamist insurgents had overtaken much of the country and that he had been unable to unite the perpetually fragmented Horn of Africa nation.
"Most of the country is not in our hands," Yusuf said in a speech before parliament in the town of Baidoa, describing the nation as "paralyzed."
Though there are more optimistic scenarios, many Somalis and other observers say that Yusuf's resignation will help force the country deeper into a power struggle among clans and Islamist militias, which appear to be splintering along ideological lines.
Though the hard-line Islamist group known as al-Shabab -- which the United States has designated a terrorist group -- has taken over towns across much of southern Somalia, other, more moderate Islamist groups are lining up to fight it.
On Monday, a group known as Ahlu-Sunna Wal-Jama battled the Shabab for control of two towns in central Somalia. And a new militia calling itself the Juba Resistance Movement also vowed to fight the Shabab, whose extremist version of Islam is at odds with the more moderate tradition Somalis have embraced.
"The people of Somalia reject the Shabab -- they don't want the Shabab," said Mohamed Amin Abdullahi Osman, who is allied with moderate Islamists and an opposition coalition that had pushed Yusuf to resign. "People in lower and middle Shabelle are ready to fight Shabab and take over the region," Osman said, referring to a central region in the country. "I'm sure others are the same."
Yusuf had come under increasing internal and international pressure to step down, and his announcement Monday was widely anticipated.
The 74-year old leader's administration was plagued by a relentless insurgency almost from the moment his transitional government was installed in a U.S.-backed Ethiopian invasion in 2005. Yusuf's opponents accused him of ruling like the warlord he once was, encouraging clan divisions and finally blocking a U.N.-backed political settlement that many see as a long-shot hope for salvaging Somalia's first central government since 1991.
His government was never able to build coalitions and never controlled much more than a few city blocks in the capital, Mogadishu. In recent weeks, Yusuf had lost the support of the United Nations, the United States and, significantly, his Ethiopian backers, who have promised to withdraw from Somalia within days.
The most optimistic observers said Monday that Yusuf's exit would clear the way for the political settlement known as the Djibouti agreement, which promises a new government that includes moderate Islamists, clan leaders, intellectuals, businesspeople and others sidelined during Yusuf's tenure.
The hope is that a new government, along with the Ethiopians' departure, could help undermine support for the Shabab, which has made a cause out of battling the Ethiopians and is the strongest force on the ground, according to analysts.
The top U.N. diplomat for Somalia, Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, praised Yusuf's decision Monday, saying in a statement that "a new page of Somalia history is now open."
The U.S. State Department issued a statement supporting Yusuf's resignation and urging implementation of the Djibouti deal.
On the ground, however, a bleaker scenario was already unfolding, one best expressed by a Somali lawmaker who was busy Monday evacuating his staff members, money, family and possessions from Baidoa, where Somalia's fractious parliament seemed to be disintegrating further by the hour.
The lawmaker, Abdul Kadir Nur Arale, a Yusuf supporter, had already evacuated to Nairobi, in neighboring Kenya.
"The militiamen in the area and the Shabab, they all feel that now is the time to act," Arale said. "It is time for the scramble for power."
The speaker of parliament will assume the presidency until lawmakers choose a new leader, which is supposed to happen within 30 days. It is unclear, however, whether the 275-member parliament will be able to muster the necessary numbers to do so, as Yusuf's supporters leave and others flee.
Yusuf flew Monday to his home in the northern region of Puntland, and many predicted that members of his clan, the Darod, would follow him there, abandoning positions in government and setting the stage for another period of all-out clan warfare. Others speculated that Puntland would declare independence, as the neighboring region of Somaliland has done. Some Somali leaders say they are done with the idea of a strong central government, believing that the only viable form of government is a decentralized federation of clan-based regions.
Not long after Yusuf's announcement Monday, mortar shells were being fired around Mogadishu, according to the Reuters news agency. In recent days, clan militias have been gearing up, buying guns at the local market, where the price of an AK-47 assault rifle is a reliable barometer of coming conflict. In the past week, it has nearly doubled, with many in the capital expecting that the Shabab will attempt to advance.
"The Shabab will probably make a push, but Yusuf being there would have only made things worse," said a Western diplomat in the region who was not authorized to speak publicly, adding that a total collapse of the government "is certainly a possibility."
While Yusuf's resignation represents the failure of one more central government in Somalia, it also represents one more failure of U.S. policy in a region where American officials have long worried about the threat of terrorism.
The primary aim of the U.S.-backed Ethiopian invasion that installed Yusuf's internationally recognized transitional federal government was to dislodge a relatively diverse Islamist movement that had taken over Mogadishu. But two years later, the most radical wing of the ousted Islamist movement has emerged stronger, more battle-hardened and better-financed than ever.
In addition, six known U.S. airstrikes inside Somalia have mostly stoked anti-U.S. sentiment. The strikes were aimed at alleged al-Qaeda operatives, including the alleged perpetrators of the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. But only one target, a Shabab leader, has been confirmed killed.
Meanwhile, Yusuf leaves behind a humanitarian crisis that some U.N. officials describe as the worst in the world, if measured by unmet need. Thousands of people have been killed and more than a million others displaced across the drought-stricken country.
Still, Prime Minister Nur Hassan Hussein, who has led the efforts this year to find a political solution to the problem, put a brave face on the situation Monday.
Hussein had been at odds with Yusuf, and he welcomed his resignation.
"I am happy that the Somali president has resigned," Hussein told the Associated Press. "I wish him to become a Somali elder and play a role in the common endeavor to restore peace and order in Somalia."
Special correspondent Mohamed Ibrahim in Nairobi contributed to this report.