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Africa's Leaders Anxiously Await Somali Presidential Vote

The African Union is awaiting the possible election of a new president of Somalia. The Horn of Africa nation's parliament could choose a new leader at a session in Djibouti later Friday, allowing him to make his debut at a gathering of AU heads of state Sunday in Addis Ababa. The prospect of fresh leadership is providing a glimmer of hope for one of Africa's failed states.

Two of Africa's top diplomats, AU Commission Chairman Jean Ping and Peace and Security Commissioner Ramtane Lamamra have been relentlessly optimistic about the chance for a return to stability in Somalia. They are both predicting that several countries will come forward in the coming days with the troops and equipment needed to sharply increase the size and strength of the AU Somalia peacekeeping mission AMISOM.

Ping says a stronger AMISOM is essential to support the current process of broadening the transitional government's support by bringing in moderate Islamist groups

"We all agree that's a country that's been for two decades without any states," he said. "So that's a necessity to bring back peace and security there. We are calling member states to contribute to that effort."

Chairman Ping and Commissioner Lamamra say they expect an infusion of additional AMISOM troops from Nigeria, Uganda, and possibly other countries that have so far failed to make good on past troop pledges.

At the same time, however, reports from inside Somalia tell of clashes as rival Islamist groups battle for control of positions vacated by Ethiopian troops when they ended their two year military operation this month. The hardline Islamist al-Shabab is said to have captured the provisional seat of parliament in the town of Baidoa, while government troops and AMISOM peacekeepers control only a few blocks of the capital, Mogadishu.

In a VOA interview, Somalia's acting foreign minister Mohamed Jaama Ali cautioned not to give too much weight to al-Shabab's early military successes following Ethiopia's departure. He sees hopeful signs in the Djibouti process and the rejection of hardline Islamists by Somalia's clan elders

"There is a saying, Rome wasn't built in a day," he said. "We are trying to ameliorate, or to make better the security situation in Somalia. So all Somalis are awaiting the outcome of Djibouti. I hope when a new president is elected, the security situation will go better."

The international community has been sharply criticized by African leaders for ignoring Somalia's years of war and anarchy, then rushing warships to the Gulf of Aden when Somali pirates threaten lucrative shipping trade. But on the sidelines of the AU meetings, Danish Foreign Minister Per Stig Moeller said wealthy countries are ready to step in with assistance as soon as there are solid indications that Somalia's days as a failed state are over.

"If they succeed in Djibouti to make a national government where they also can bring in Muslim organizations and parties and get some Muslim parties on board the national government that break away from the Taliban-like Shabab, then they should be helped right away," said Per Stig Moeller. "Of course humanitarian, but also reconstruction."

But the Danish minister echoed the sentiments of many others at this gathering of African leaders and opinion makers. Even the relentless optimists know the political process underway in Djibouti may be the last best chance to establish a stable government in Somalia and save it from the clutches of Islamist hardliners. And the odds of success are maybe 50-50.