ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) - African leaders feted Somalia’s new moderate Islamist president on Monday as a hope for peace in the anarchic nation but hardline former allies declared war on his government and called him a traitor.
Sheikh Sharif Ahmed was greeted with a standing ovation from African Union leaders at a summit in Ethiopia, whose army drove him out of power only two years ago. He came to the summit directly after being elected president of the Horn of Africa country in a parliamentary vote on Saturday.
Militant Islamists allied with Ahmed before he was ousted, declared jihad and mocked the trip to his former enemy, rallying their supporters for war against the new government.
Ahmed headed a sharia courts movement that brought some stability to Mogadishu and most of south Somalia in 2006, before Washington’s main regional ally Ethiopia invaded to oust them.
Washington accused hardline members of the courts movement of having links with al Qaeda.
Ethiopia’s army withdrew last month, clearing the way for Ahmed’s election and raising tentative hopes for peace in the country, torn by conflict for 18 years.
But outgoing AU chairman Jakaya Kikwete told the summit the United Nations must lead the international community in helping Africa bring peace to Somalia.
Calling for U.N. troops to help a small AU peacekeeping force in Somalia, Kikwete told the second day of the annual summit that a rash of piracy offshore had internationalised the conflict.
“This situation compels the international community to be involved in the search for a solution to the Somalia conflict... It is high time that the international community led by the United Nations comes to our assistance,” he said.
Underlining the size of the task in restoring peace to Somalia, a roadside bomb killed three civilians in Mogadishu on Tuesday and injured a soldier from the AU force.
AU Commission chairman Jean Ping introduced Ahmed to the summit and asked him to stand up, saying “some shades of hope have appeared in Somalia”. The former geography teacher smiled, waved and bowed in response to the applause.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon also hailed Ahmed’s election. “All of us can take pleasure in the progress towards a peaceful settlement in Somalia,” he said in his summit speech. “I count on your wise and visionary leadership.”
Elected in a U.N.-brokered peace process in neighbouring Djibouti, Ahmed, 42, will fly to Mogadishu straight after the summit to put together a unity government and face the threat of militant Islamist insurgents led by the al Shabaab group, who control swaths of southern Somalia.
“We shall fight the so-called government of Sharif in every place!” Sheikh Hayakalah, who heads the Islamic court in the Shabaab-held port of Kismayu, told a crowd on Sunday.
Al Shabaab grew out of the armed wing of the sharia courts movement but later split with Ahmed.
“He is now with our number one enemy, Ethiopia, and calling for more support from non-believers. Imagine how Sharif, who was once our leader, deceived us and Islam,” Hayakalah said.
Al Shabaab supporters staged another small demonstration against Ahmed on Monday in Baidoa, seat of Somalia’s parliament, which fell to the hardliners last month when the Ethiopians pulled out.
“We shall fight till we lose the last of our blood or Somalia is ruled by Islamic Sharia” local Shabaab leader Sheikh Sherif Sheikh Hussein told the demonstration.
While Ahmed has widespread support among many factions in Somalia, key to his success will be neutralising al Shabaab by defeating or isolating them or even bringing them into an alliance.
In Somalia there are rumours of splits within al Shabaab. Locals also say its popular support has waned due to hardline practices like prohibitions on watching foreign films, and executions and other public punishments.
Since an insurgency began at the start of 2007, some 17,400 Somali civilians have died in fighting, at least a million people have fled from Mogadishu, and a third of the population needs food aid in one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises.