Can Somalia's Government Survive a PM Resignation?

Can Somalia's Government Survive a PM Resignation?

Somali president Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed, second left, sits with Somali prime minister Omar Abdirashid Sharmarke, right, during a news conference in Mogadishu's presidential palace, Somalia,Tuesday,Sept. 21,2010.
Mohamed Sheikh Nor / AP


When Somalia's President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed took office in January 2009, hopes were high that here, finally, was the man who might stand a chance of pulling his country from the ruin it had fallen into after 20 years of near-perpetual war.

A former member of Somalia's main Islamic political group, Sharif supposedly had good enough contacts to start reconciling with armed Islamic hardliners. He was also hailed as a man of integrity who could rise above the corruption, petty squabbles and clan politics that had turned Somalia's Transitional Federal Government (TFG) — which he would now lead — into a laughingstock. (See more on Sharif in this TIME Q&A.)

But whatever hopes there were that Sharif's administration would turn things around were dashed on Tuesday when his prime minister, Omar Abdirashid Sharmarke, resigned under pressure, in the culmination of a political battle that had dragged on for several months. That two leaders could clash so intensely when their government controls an area only the size of a few football fields and offers no services to Somalia's people might seem funny if it were not so awful, and so typical of the Somali leaders who have come before them.

Foreign diplomats, experts and Somalis themselves say that whatever faith anyone had in the TFG as an institution is now spent, and many predict its imminent collapse. These days, Somalis in Mogadishu see very little difference between the government and the main insurgent groups. "Everybody is giving up on TFG," Bronwyn Bruton, author of a special report on Somalia for the Council on Foreign Relations, tells TIME. "I don't think anybody is taking them seriously. Honestly if you look down the road three or four months, it does not look good." (See pictures of Somalia's pirates.)

Founded in 2004, the Transitional Federal Government was meant to be a bridge to a more permanent government once peace was restored to Somalia. The deadline for that to happen was 2011, when Somalia is also supposed to adopt a new constitution. But instead of doing what they can to govern their country, Somalia's leaders have always seemed more interested in playing games and one-upping each other.

Somalia's current leaders say the looming deadline was the reason for Sharif's getting rid of Sharmarke. "The president felt that the government was not performing to the maximum," Sharif's spokesman Abdirashid Hashi tells TIME, in what could be the understatement of the millennium. "He wanted a leaner, more effective cabinet, so there was a feeling that it was better to reform the system and move forward." (See how al-Shabab emerged from the chaos of Somalia.)

Indeed there is quite a lot of flab in Somalia's government, which has, among its 40 or so Cabinet members, one who oversees the Ministry for Tourism and Wildlife — even though the country, on the brink of war and where foreigners are considered prime targets for hostage taking, isn't exactly a tourist hotspot.

Despite international backing and the presence of African Union troops, the TFG has proven totally incapable of making life any better for Somalis, and in fact has seen its power steadily erode as insurgent group al-Shabaab has gained strength. The group has recently carried out a string of successful and deadly attacks, culminating with the storming of a Mogadishu hotel in late August that killed at least 30 people.

See pictures of the twin bombings in Uganda's capital.

See more on Somalia's al-Shabab: A global or local movement?

Al-Shabaab is clearly delighted with the rancor within the TFG. In an interview with TIME, group leader Sheikh Muktar Abdirahman Godane even went so far as to claim credit for the prime minister's resignation. "Indirectly, we as al-Shabaab do sometimes create those conflicts within the TFG," he said. "We don't want to see a unified government that can fight against us. It's part of our political operation."

So what happens next? The international community is bracing itself for the outright collapse of the TFG. Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni has recently started saying he wants the Ugandan peacekeeping contingent out of Somalia by January, a prospect that would be disastrous considering Ugandan troops make up about half of the African Union forces currently in Somalia.

Uganda's only other proposed solution has been to send 10,000 army reservists into Somalia, but only if it gets financial support from the U.S. Yet that scenario would likely just cause more chaos, since the reservists would not have nearly the same training as the Ugandan army's full-time soldiers.

The problem is that Somalia's government has a great trump card to help stave off international interference in its business: al-Qaeda. The U.S. believes that Islamic insurgents in the country have ties with al-Qaeda, and experts believe that the U.S. would rather keep the weak TFG in place rather than face the scenario of hardline Islamic insurgents taking control of the country. (See how Somalis balk at outsiders — including Osama Bin Laden.)

That gives the TFG very little incentive to get its act together because the U.S. continues to back it — and probably will as long as it believes that keeping Somalia friendly could help contain al-Qaeda. Last year, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appeared alongside Sharif in Nairobi and called his government "the best hope we've had in quite some time" for progress in Somalia. (Comment on this story.)

On Tuesday, even after Sharmarke's dismissal, the U.S. seemed to indicate that little had changed. A State Department official says that the dispute between Sharif and Sharmarke "essentially paralyzed the Transitional Federal Government," was "counter-productive," and didn't "serve the best interests of the Somali people." Yet the official also reiterated that the U.S. government remains committed to "supporting Somalia's Transitional Federal Government to bring security and stability to all of Somalia."

Somali leaders could not have asked for a better endorsement, or a better indication that Washington is happy to let the TFG keep doing what it's doing.

"These mild statements of concern don't do the trick. [Somali's leaders] are people who need to be given a public dressing down," says Rashid Abdi, a Somalia analyst for the International Crisis Group. "This language that 'We don't have any other partner; we don't have any other option' — this is the language that inflated the TFG's ego." (See more on the attack in Uganda.)

Sharif's staff, for their part, insist they have nothing but their country's best interests in mind. "The cynics have their own way of questioning things," says spokesman Hashi. "But the president is positive. He thinks change is possible. If the will is there, I think there should be a way."

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