Somalia's President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed has chosen a Western-educated son of an assassinated former president to be the country's prime minister. The nomination is expected to win easy approval in Somalia's newly expanded parliament.
The Somali president Friday chose Omar Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke to lead the newly-formed national unity government that is the latest hope for raising the Horn of Africa nation to respectability after nearly two decades as a failed state.
Sharmarke is the son of a former Somali president who was elected in 1966 and assassinated almost three years later. He was raised in the United States and Canada, holds Canadian citizenship, has worked for the United Nations in Darfur, and has most recently been Somalia's ambassador-designate to Washington. Like President Sheikh Sharif, he is in his mid-forties.
Officials close to President Sheikh Sharif say Sharmarke's appointment is intended as a signal to the millions of Somalis living abroad that it is time to re-engage with their homeland. Somalia's former ambassador to the African Union Abdi Kareem Farah, who is playing a key role in building the national unity government, says support from the diaspora will be crucial in rebuilding the country after 19 years of anarchy.
"So during 19 years, 80 percent of the Somali population went outside Somalia, so from neighboring countries all the way to Alaska. This 80 percent is a lot of population, and they have a lot of contribution what's happening in Somalia, and obviously the government should encourage those people to come back, and if the prime minister is also from the diaspora, that is one way of encouraging and bringing those people from outside in the country. He's a young man, never been part of all this warlordism and criminals and all this looting taking place in Somalia. He hasn't been in Somalia for a while. Most of his life is outside the country. Now we need to see the young people coming into politics, probably they have energy and new ideas," said Farah.
Diplomats and observers say the Sharmarke nomination should win easy approval in the newly-expanded Somali parliament, where President Sheikh Sharif enjoys strong support.
One of Sharmarke's biggest immediate challenges will be the Islamic extremists who control a large part of southern and central Somalia. The head of the main extremist faction, al-Shabab, which the United States considers a terrorist organization, was quoted this week calling President Sheikh Sharif's government un-Islamic, and a puppet of Western powers.
Western and African diplomats, however, warmly welcomed the nomination, calling it a hopeful sign that President Sheikh Sharif, a Muslim cleric, intends to distance himself from his past affiliation with extremist elements, and to focus on improving relations with the West.