MOGADISHU (Reuters) - Somali Prime Minister Omar Abdirashid Sharmarke resigned on Tuesday, paying the price for the government’s failure to beat back an Islamist insurgency that has killed thousands of civilians.
Thousands of African Union peacekeeping troops have been sent to support the interim administration, but hardline militants now control much of the capital Mogadishu and huge swathes of the southern and central regions.
Politicians loyal to President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed quickly said Sharmarke’s departure would end the internal divisions that have beset the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and slowed government business to a crawl.
Ahmed said he welcomed Sharmarke’s decision to quit.
He later named deputy prime minister Abdi Wahid Goonjeeh as caretaker prime minister and said he would nominate a new prime minister as soon as possible. It was not immediately clear who would be candidates for the post.
Some Horn of Africa analysts said Islamist militants would see the change of leadership as a propaganda coup and that it would change little as long as the division of power between the president and prime minister was poorly defined.
“This is an attempt by Ahmed and his allies to re-invent the TFG but this cannot be achieved by changing an individual,” said Rashid Abdi, a Nairobi-based Somalia analyst at the International Crisis Group.
“It is a problem with the hybrid system (of governance) which ... is supposed to bring checks and balances, but Somalia’s culture of a strong leader lags behind that system.”
Abdi said the beleaguered Ahmed, a former Islamist rebel, was looking for a scapegoat as he tried to reassert his authority over a brittle administration and a disillusioned nation.
The Sufi militia group Ahlu Sunna Walijamaca, which earlier this year signed a power-sharing deal with the TFG, said Sharmarke’s departure would only worsen the insecurity.
Flanked by Ahmed, Sharmarke said he was stepping down in the light of the crisis within government and escalating violence in Somalia.
Last week, Ahmed criticised Sharmarke for failing to resolve the conflict and said numerous cabinet reshuffles had yielded no improvements.
“This could be a good opportunity for the transitional government. It could generate new political capital if the new PM is competent and gains the support of the Somali people,” said Afyare Elmi, a Somali professor of politics based in Dohar.
Whether the leadership shuffle steadies the interim administration, whose mandate is expected to expire in August 2011, depends on who replaces Sharmarke, a diplomatic source said.
The al Qaeda-linked al Shabaab militants have stepped up their offensive to topple the government in the last six weeks. A suicide bomber blew himself up outside the presidential palace compound on Monday night, wounding two peacekeepers.
The rebels have used suicide bombers to devastating effect over the past two years, killing five government ministers and dozens of AU peacekeeping troops. Al Shabaab was also behind attacks in Uganda in July that killed at least 79 people.
Additional reporting by Abdi Guled and Abdi Sheikh in Mogadishu and Sarah Abdi and Richard Lough in Nairobi; Writing by Richard Lough, editing by Tim Pearce