DJIBOUTI, (Reuters) – Somalia’s president has chosen Omar Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke, the U.S.-based son of a murdered former leader, to be prime minister in a unity government intended to end civil conflict, official sources said on Friday.
Showing the task awaiting Sharmarke and newly-elected President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, an al Qaeda leader urged jihad against the Western-backed, moderate Islamic government.
“Aim your arrows towards them … direct your battles against them and intensify your campaign,” Abu Yahya al-Libi said in a video released on Islamist web sites on Friday.
Sharmarke’s nomination — designed to shore up both diaspora and national support for the administration that is the 15th attempt to set up government in Somalia since 1991 — drew wide approval among many Somalis but condemnation by local rebels.
“An unlawful camel never gives birth to lawful ones,” said Sheikh Hassan Yucqub, a spokesman for the al Shabaab insurgent group which is fighting against Ahmed’s government.
Ahmed’s choice of Sharmarke, 49, was to be formally announced later on Friday in Djibouti, where Somali politicians are meeting, senior government sources told Reuters. “The president has signed the nomination paper and met with the prime minister designate,” an aide to Ahmed said.
Ratification by parliament is expected to be a formality given Ahmed’s wide backing in the legislature.
Sharmarke, who has held various U.N. posts and was educated in the United States, is the son of Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke, an elected president shot dead in 1969 during a military coup. Though his family base is Virginia in the United States, he has both Canadian and Somali citizenship, his aides said.
By choosing a diaspora figure, Ahmed will hope to win backing and involvement in his government from the several million Somalis abroad, many in Europe and the United States. “More than the diaspora aspect though, Sharmarke is a figurehead who can bridge the gap between the Islamists in government and the international community, given his ties to the U.N. and profile abroad,” one Somali analyst said.
Sharmarke is a member of Somalia’s Darod ethnic group, whereas Ahmed, a former geography teacher and moderate Islamist who led a sharia courts movement in 2006, is Hawiye. Somalia’s government is meant to share key positions among major clans.
“I believe he will change a lot on the ground,” said Ali Abdi Aware, an unsuccessful presidential candidate. “He is a simple man who listens to different ideas. He can keep unity.”
The major challenge for both president and prime minister will be to face the threat of armed Islamist insurgents led by al Shabaab, which is on Washington’s terrorism list.
It says Ahmed’s government is an illegitimate “puppet” administration put together by foreign powers. Although Ahmed is a moderate Islamist who used to lead a sharia courts movement in Somalia, al Shabaab denounces him as anti-Islamic. “Number one priority will be bringing peace and security to the capital as well as completing the transitional tasks like finishing a draft of the constitution and holding a public election,” said Abdirahman Osman, assistant to the outgoing prime minister.
Around Somalia, much reaction was cautiously positive.
“We welcome him,” said Sheikh Abdiqadir Ali, a clan elder in the northern port of Bosasso, in northern Puntland province where Sharmarke comes from. “He was not involved in Somali politics and we are sure he will bring peace.”
Sheikh Abdirahim Isse Adow, spokesman for the moderate Islamic Courts movement, said the new prime minister was an “honest” man who should bring “positive changes.” “We hope President Sharif and his new prime minister will not argue like the former government leaders. May Allah make them leaders liked by all,” he added.
Some Somalis remembered Sharmarke’s father with affection. “We hope the new prime minister will be patriotic and will make Somalia peaceful. He is the son of our beloved late President Sharmakre who was just killed because of being honest,” said Botan Hashi, a clan elder in Gurael town. “Welcome – like father, like son.”