Somalia's Prime Minster Resigns Amid Tensions
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Somalias prime minister was forced out today amid political infighting and growing danger in Mogadishu. His U.S.-backed regime has been widely criticized as corrupt and unable to deal with a violent Islamist insurgency. NPR's Frank Langfitt spoke with the prime minister in Mogadishu on Sunday.
FRANK LANGFITT: The office of Omar Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke felt like a bunker under siege. Sharmarke sat in a beige leisure suit in front of a steel blast wall.
The room was mostly dark because the fluorescent ceiling light was out. He told a group of Western reporters that despite the criticism heaped on the Somali government, it deserved credit because it was still standing.
Mr. OMAR ABDIRASHID ALI SHARMARKE (Former Prime Minister, Somalia): I think we managed to actually sustain ourselves in the face of a totally huge challenge.
LANGFITT: That challenge is al-Shabab. The Islamist militants tried to topple the government last month with a surge of suicide bombs and mortars. At the same time, members of the Somali government have been taking political shots at each other - bickering over resources, revenue and strategy.
The infighting came to a head today as Sharmarke resigned under pressure from his chief rival, President Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed. Over the weekend, because his sacking was rumored, I asked Sharmarke this:
Why does the government fight so much? I mean, there are lots of huge problems out there.
Mr. SHARMARKE: You know, you have to understand that this country has gone into conflict for 20 years. And mechanisms in which to handle such conflicts were not there.
LANGFITT: Somalia hasnt had a central government for nearly two decades. It's a clan-based society where many arguments are resolved with bullets. People in Mogadishu say the government is so ineffective and dishonest that it cant protect the population. Take the military.
Captain AUSMAN MOHAMMED MAHMOUD (Somali Army): My name is Captain Ausman Mohammed Mahmoud.
LANGFITT: I met Captain Mahmoud lying on a bed in a hospital. Hes a soldier in the Somali army. Al-Shabab shot him three times in a recent firefight. He took two bullets through his thigh, and another in the abdomen. Mahmoud says the government treats its soldiers terribly.
Capt. MAHMOUD: We are fighting without food, without salary, without money - without anything. I dont know where we are going.
LANGFITT: The government is supposed to pay Mahmoud a hundred bucks a month. He says he hasnt been paid in a year. Other soldiers tell similar stories. Many dont show up to fight, or they run when the shooting starts.
Sharmarke, the outgoing prime minister, says army salaries come from overseas donors, such as Italy and the United States. He claims they are tied up in foreign accounts of agencies like the United Nations Development Program.
Mr. SHARMARKE: The money is in Kenya and are not consistently paid. Some funds are sitting in the UNDP and other trust funds.
LANGFITT: Foreign countries are trying to fund a national army to stop an al-Shabab takeover. But the government is forced to rely on more than 7,000 African peacekeepers to prop it up. If the African Union troops left, the regime would probably fall in hours.
Some Somali officials say they are trying to make a difference but face enormous obstacles.
Mayor MAHAMED NOOR (Mogadishu, Somalia): My name is Mahamed Noor. Im the mayor of Mogadishu and the governor of Panad Region.
LANGFITT: Noor has about 90 employees and almost no public records, including birth certificates. He says a man absconded with all the citys land titles.
I met the mayor in a heavily guarded compound - essentially, the few city blocks the government controls. He was standing against a wall that like most in Mogadishu, is pockmarked with bullet holes.
Noor grew up in Mogadishu in the 1960s, when it was peaceful. Despite the ruins around him, he struck an optimistic tone common among mayors the world over.
Mr. NOOR: Mogadishu was beautiful, with the breezes of Indian Ocean. I want to bring back that. Thats my dream.
LANGFITT: Can you see a day where people do come back to Mogadishu to see it as a beautiful city, and go to the beach and have fun?
Mayor NOOR: Yes, no doubts.
Mayor NOOR: Whenever we defeat these guys.
LANGFITT: Given the weakness of the government and the strength of al-Shabab, that day seems a long way off.
Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Nairobi.
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