DJIBOUTI (Reuters) - Somalia’s Islamist presidential candidate said he wants to make peace with Ethiopia, bring young militia fighters into a national security force, and rebuild the country’s social services.
Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, the moderate Islamist leader from the Alliance for the Re-Liberation of Somalia (ARS), also told Reuters he was ready to discuss any political or religious issues with Islamist insurgents still fighting in Somalia.
Ahmed, a law graduate from Libya, was chairman of the Islamic Courts’ Union which ran Mogadishu in 2006. Initially welcomed for bringing order to a city ruled by warlords, Ethiopian troops invaded and ousted them from the capital.
But the Ethiopian soldiers failed to quell a two-year Islamist insurgency and left Somalia on Monday. More than 16,000 civilians have been killed since the start of 2007, a million fled their homes and piracy has flourished off Somalia’s coast.
“It is very, very necessary to improve our relations with the neighbouring countries and to end the long dispute between Somalia and Ethiopia,” Ahmed told Reuters late on Monday.
“That will help the region’s development, because poverty in the region is encouraging the conflict to continue and we have to stand for eradicating it,” he said.
Somalia’s parliament agreed on Monday to invite 200 ARS members into an expanded assembly which international players hope will elect a new president this week. Another 75 seats have been left vacant for other opposition groups to join later.
The challenge for any new leader will be to bring security to the Horn of Africa nation and persuade the array of Islamist fighters to end their struggle now the Ethiopians have left.
Ahmed said it was time for all Somalis to find peace, whatever their political or religious ideology, and he would try and convince hardliners to work in the nation’s interest.
“The insurgents had been fighting for the Ethiopian withdrawal. Now they have pulled out of the country, there is no reason to fight and kill more Somalis,” he said.
“If they have a political agenda, we are ready to talk to them. And the second issue may be based on religion, and we are ready to discuss that with them.”
Fighters in Al Shabaab, which is on Washington’s list of foreign terrorist groups, have vowed to continue their fight to impose a strict version of Islamic law which has traditionally been shunned by more moderate Somalis.
“In this new era, we have to improve security. We will try to join all the forces available, whether they are insurgents, the current security forces or former military,” Ahmed said.
“What these young militia men believe is not what they were born into. We will try to convince them how valuable it is to be a security officer working for the nation’s interest,” he said.
Al Shabaab fighters captured Somalia’s seat of parliament, Baidoa, on Monday, taking advantage of a power vacuum just hours after Ethiopian soldiers withdrew.
Ahmed said including opposition parties absent from reconciliation talks in neighbouring Djibouti would be a priority, along with resettling the displaced, rebuilding the capital and restoring health services and education.
“I believe there is a big hope of creating a government of national unity,” he said.
“There are no major differences between the Somali people. But there are some fishermen in the ocean of politics who want to destroy the image of the good people. We must face them and then stop them before they become obstacles to our efforts.”