The African Union special envoy to Somalia said Somali President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed has assured him the national unity government now being formed will be secular. The head of the AU peacekeeping mission AMISOM is hailing Sheikh Sharif's rise to power as a 'big chance' for halting the insurgency that has made Somalia ungovernable for nearly two decades.
Special envoy Nicholas Bwakira is appealing to the international community for sustained diplomatic and political support for efforts to establish a stable administration in Somalia. After briefing the AU Peace and Security Council, Bwakira said he had been assured by Somali President Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, a Somali cleric, that his government would not be religious.
"He also indicated that ... on the matter of religion, it would be the government, the State which will outline the policy, not the clerics," he said.
Bwakira told reporters President Sharif and his newly-named Prime Minister Omar Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke are likely to name a full cabinet this week, and then return to Mogadishu to begin the monumental task of rebuilding their shattered country.
The envoy said Nigeria, Uganda and Burundi will soon be sending reinforcements for the African Union peacekeeping force known as AMISOM. He did not specify a date, though senior AU officials had previously said the force would be strengthened from its current 3,500 to more than 5,000 by the end of this month.
The AMISOM force commander, General Francis Okello said he needs more troops as his peacekeeping operation joins forces with Somali government forces to bring stability to Mogadishu. But he told reporters he is encouraged not so much by the prospect of AMISOM's improved military strength, but by the seeming willingness of Somalis to accept President Sharif's peacemaking political initiative.
"It is not actually the number of troops we have on the ground that will achieve peace, and I think we have a very big chance now in the presidency of his Excellency Sheikh Sharif who is demonstrating openly that peace can be attained by reaching out to everybody, by including everybody on board," he said.
General Okello acknowledged security conditions in much of Somalia remain fragile. He said two insurgent groups, al-Shabab and the Party of Islam, have staged seven attacks in Mogadishu in the past month, including the suicide bomb blast that struck just as President Sharif was making his debut at the AU summit this month.
News reports at the time had told of Ugandan AMISOM troops responding to the bombing by opening fire on a nearby crowd, prompting calls from human rights groups for an independent international investigation. Okello said an AMISOM Board of Inquiry is almost finished with its own internal investigation of the incident, which killed 11 civilians and two policemen. But he flatly denied reports of indiscriminate shooting of civilians.
"This is called indiscriminate use of force, AMISOM has never indiscriminately used force. And this is the perception being created, that when this happens, AMISOM jumps out and starts shooting anyone in sight. This is not what happened," he said.
Okello said the conclusions of the internal probe will be made public as soon as they are available.
An earlier Ugandan army investigation had concluded that all the fatalities were caused by the bomb blast, and not by gunfire.