The president of Somalia's northern Puntland region is expressing concern that the new government of national unity led by President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed may abandon the federal system that gives his region its semi-autonomous status. President Abdirahman Mohamed Farole says even the name "Government of National Unity" violates the basic concept underlying the formation of the Transitional Federal Government. The federalism issue has the potential to undermine efforts to stabilize a country that has been without an effective central authority for nearly two decades.
During a visit to Addis Ababa for talks with Ethiopian leaders, President Farole emphasized Puntland is part of a federal Somalia set up under a 2004 charter. It gives Puntland substantial autonomy within the transitional government. In a VOA interview, he questioned whether the new coalition government headed by Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed might abandon that the system.
President Farole says federalism is the only system that will bring Somalia together, and believes most Somalis favor it, even those in the breakaway northwestern Somaliland region.
"We know the middle river people are also for federalism, and we know the people of the central and Jubaland region are for that," he said. "We know Somaliland can be negotiated only to come back from secession only in the federal system. That is the only choice that Somalis can reconcile among themselves."
Farole, who was elected in January, refused to comment on whether Puntland would secede if President Sheikh Sharif gives into pressure from hardline Islamists to repeal the federal structure to force nationwide implementation of Islamic Sharia law. He said that Puntlanders would reject any attempt to take away the region's autonomy.
Earlier this month, Sheikh Sharif's government was forced to adopt Sharia law, despite previous indications he would hold the constitution as the country's supreme law. Farole said his administration is going to "'wait-and-see" what the government in Mogadishu does.
"It depends on what they intend to do. Somalis are Muslims and all the laws are based on Sharia," said the president. "Any law that will not recognize Sharia is not law in Somalia, and that was the case since independence. But the main thing they are saying when they adopt Sharia law, we will see what they mean, whether they mean there will be a constitution or not."
Puntland has traditionally rejected the militant brand of Islam favored by some hardline groups prominent in the southern part of the country. Some of the worst clashes between hardline Islamists and more moderate Muslims took place in Puntland in the early 1990s when the local faction, led by former President Abdullahi Yusuf battled militants of Al-Itihad, headed by the militant cleric Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys. Farole says Puntlanders are still firmly opposed to religious extremism.
"We are for the constitution," he said. "Constitution which rejects everything against Sharia, but constitution for the Somali people."
Puntland has enjoyed relative stability since regional administration began in 1998. But its reputation as an oasis of tranquility in an otherwise failed state has been shattered in recent months by a surge in piracy and the abduction of foreign journalists. A United Nations report this week alleged links between pirates operating off the Somali coast and senior Puntland government officials.
Somalia has not had an effective central government since the dictator Mohamed Siad Barre was ousted in 1991.