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Clan Divisions Threaten Somalia Government


In Somalia, the demise of the country's once-powerful Islamist movement is putting enormous pressure on the secular, U.N.-recognized interim government to rally popular support and stabilize the country. VOA Correspondent Alisha Ryu, in the Somali capital, Mogadishu, reports government leaders must first overcome growing clan divisions, which are threatening to derail the process.

In early January, Somalia's interim government troops entered the capital, after defeating Islamist fighters in a string of battles and sending their leaders fleeing for their lives.

Re-taking Mogadishu from the Islamists was critical for the interim government, which was formed more than two years ago, but has had no power to legislate or to move beyond its base in Baidoa, 250 kilometers away.

Several sources in Mogadishu tell VOA the interim government has so little grassroots support it would have been nearly impossible for the government to establish itself in the capital without the military backing of regional giant, Ethiopia.

One source, who wishes to be identified only as Ibrahim, says the government's close ties with a country many Somalis dislike and distrust have only deepened the government's unpopularity.

"The Transitional Federal Government has never been in Mogadishu, until now, and it came by the assistance of Ethiopia, a historical enemy," he noted. "People feel you are a puppet for Ethiopians and this is losing their credibility with the citizens."

It is less than an ideal beginning for the interim government, which has received international recognition but has struggled to shed its reputation as a fragile and weak institution.

That is because Somalia's transitional federal government, formed in 2004 in neighboring Kenya, is largely made up of the same factional leaders, who began the country's crippling civil war in 1991, by overthrowing Somalia's dictator Mohamed Siad Barre and carving up the country into personal fiefdoms.

Squabbling among the factional leaders doomed more than a dozen other previous attempts to bring the warring sides together. But this time, international and regional diplomats were determined to end Somalia's political anarchy and pushed the warlords to cooperate to form a transitional government.

In October, 2004, newly-appointed parliament members elected then-70-year-old factional leader Abdullahi Yusuf as president.

Mr. Yusuf is a former military officer from the semi-autonomous Somali region, Puntland, whose forces helped Ethiopia crush a militant Somali nationalist group called al-Itiyaad al-Islamiah in the early 1990's.

From 1998 to 2001, Mr. Yusuf served as president of Puntland and remained a close ally of Addis Ababa.

To partly demonstrate inclusiveness in the new Somali government, Mr. Yusuf, who is a member of the Darod clan, appointed a member of the rival Hawiye clan as interim prime minister. Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Gedi hails from the Mogadishu area, where the Hawiye clan dominates.

The former veterinarian has repeatedly pledged to keep factional differences from hindering the work of the transitional government. But, now that the government is in the capital, long-established clan divisions are again proving to be formidable obstacles.

According to Mogadishu resident Ibrahim and several other sources, Prime Minister Gedi's Hawiye clan, whose members formed the core of the ousted Islamic courts and is the clan of many members of the interim government, is deeply unhappy that thousands of government troops, most of whom belong to President Yusuf's Darod clan, are securing the capital.

Ibrahim says when Prime Minister Gedi recently ordered the city to disarm, Hawiye clan members that included several factional leaders in the government, refused because they feared the Darod clan could end up with most of their weapons.

"Gedi has Hawiyes against his policies," he explained. "They say, 'If we just transfer the weapons to the government, does that not mean we are disempowering ourselves and empowering other clans?' That is the fear and concern in Mogadishu."

Further complicating the issue is the fact that every clan is subdivided into many smaller clans and each one has its own ideas about how things should progress in Somalia.

Somali journalist Mohamed Gureh warns that clan tensions are threatening not only to undermine the government's ability to function, but also to cause enough instability and chaos to provide an opportunity for radical Islamists to regroup and attempt a comeback.

"If they [the Darod] marginalize the Hawiye clan, it will be like Sunnis in Iraq," he noted. "Everything depends on how the international community understands this and acts."

A Somali journalist in Mogadishu, Mohamed Ibrahim Mohamed, adds the influence and power of clans in Somali society cannot be underestimated.

"We would like to forget the problems of the clans and sub-clans, but we cannot," he said. "When we became a failed state, the only system that we had was the clans."

In the past week, Somali experts have called for the West, particularly the United States, to formulate a comprehensive policy on Somalia that is not based solely on counter-terrorism.

But, in Somalia's dizzying political environment, Somalis acknowledge that will be an enormously difficult task.