Somali Government In Exile; Islamists Take Over

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Somalia hasn't had a functioning government since 1991, but this week, the transitional government collapsed completely. A group of radical Islamist fighters overran the seat of government in the town of Baidoa and declared Shariah law.

Somali government leaders are gathered in the neighboring country of Djibouti. If they want to return to Somalia, chances are they will have to fight their way in.

The exiled leaders plan to choose a new president in the coming days, but Musa Jama, a Somali textile trader, says he's not optimistic.

Musa was a supporter of the last president of the transitional government, Abdullahi Yusuf. Two years ago, Yusuf arrived in Somalia's capital city, Mogadishu, in triumph — courtesy of the Ethiopian army. The Ethiopians had broken an Islamist movement that briefly controlled Somalia's capital and much of southern Somalia.

Today, nearly all of the government's territory is in the hands of an Islamist insurgent group called al-Shabab. The Ethiopians have pulled out. Yusuf is gone.

Ali Said Omar, who directs the Center for Peace and Democracy in south-central Somalia, says he thinks all Somalis are waiting to see what will come out of Djibouti.

"That's the only hope we have now," he says. "And, if that fails, it's like the Shabab will rule Somalia."

A Growing Movement

Ali says he left Mogadishu for good last year when he got caught in gunfire outside a mosque. If the insurgency has taught the world anything, he says, it's that Islamist leadership in Somalia is a sign of the times.

After all, Somalia is a Muslim nation and there has been a popular Islamist movement toward a more conservative read of the Quran. Islamists credit themselves with getting the unpopular Ethiopian army to quit Somalia. That's probably why Somalia's internationally backed government is reinventing itself.

In Djibouti, government leaders have nearly doubled the size of their parliament to include moderate Islamists. Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, a moderate, is now favored to become the next president. But Ali says it's unclear whether any moderate can lead all the disparate clans of Somalia.

"Many things will depend on the first message that president releases. If it becomes a message of unity, a message of hope — like Obama did in America, you know — if it becomes like that message, then everybody will say, 'We need a government,'" Ali says.

Many Groups At Odds

And yet, muscling back into Somalia may prove impossible. The government has al-Shabab to contend with — a group the U.S. says has ties to al-Qaida.

But al-Shabab reportedly has its own problems. There is said to be dissension in the ranks, as not all who fight say they are properly compensated. And Ali says there aren't enough Shabab fighters to govern all of Somalia. In most of the places it conquers, the militia leaves only a few people around to collect money from local businesses.

Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, the United Nations special representative for Somalia, says the Shabab don't know how to live in peace. But he also says there are many other groups doing battle in Somalia.

"The violence we have now in Somalia, what violence is it? Is it political? Is it religious? Is it business? Because the conflict has been so long it is very difficult to pin [down]," he said recently.

What's more, there's no guarantee that any group will ever take the biggest prize of all: Mogadishu. Somalia's capital is dominated by powerful clans that have their own militias. Moderate Islamists also keep fighters there. And Mogadishu's big business owners, like those who run the nation's multimillion-dollar telecommunications and money transfer industries, employ hired guns.



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