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'NEW' POLITICAL CHAPTER: Fears exist that the new government will be similar to previous ones, with the same security problems, graft and division, writes Yara Bayoumy
YUSUF Garaad left his comfortable home and job as head of the BBC Somali Service in London to run for the presidency of Somalia when the Horn of Africa nation embraced a plan to shed its image as the archetypal failed state.
He is one of several new faces who have returned home to try to lead the country out of two decades of lawlessness and violence at the hands of gun-toting militias, fanatical militants and rapacious pirates.
"I watched for so long from afar, not doing anything but reporting and pretending it was not up to me to do something," Garaad said in his villa in the capital Mogadishu.
Since the outbreak of civil conflict in 1991, there has been no central government control over most of the country, but now there is an opportunity to close that long chapter in a regionally brokered and UN-backed roadmap.
As part of that process, a speaker of a reformed Parliament and a new president should have been elected by early this week.
In spite of heavy cajoling by donors, that deadline has been missed, though Western diplomats hope the delay will be just a few weeks. The bigger question is whether the new government can represent a break from the string of ineffective interim administrations of recent years.
Garaad and other newcomer contenders for the presidency are up against a determined phalanx of old-guard politicians. The top leaders of the existing transitional federal government (TFG) are all competing to be president.
So while the end of the interim administration is being touted as a new dawn in Somali politics, there are fears the new government will look much like previous ones, with the same security problems, corruption and fractious clan politics.
"If the current TFG leadership succeeds in manipulating the outcome, the end of the transition will be in some ways a distinction without a difference," said Ken Menkhaus, a Somalia expert and professor of political science at Davidson College in the United States.
On Monday, a new slimmed-down Parliament was sworn in, with 211 of 275 parliamentarians so far selected.
"I think the probability is that essentially the same cast of characters will be reflected by the new Parliament, and many of the challenges that the TFG has faced ... will continue to plague the new government," the International Crisis Group's Horn of Africa project director, E.J. Hogendoorn, said.
Many say the current administration has failed to deliver lasting security gains and basic services or improve living standards, yet President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, a former rebel leader in power since 2009, as well as the prime minister and Parliament's speaker, are all bidding for the presidency.
They also face allegations of massive corruption outlined in a report in July by the United Nations' Somalia monitoring group which found that US$7 (RM22) in every US$10 received by the TFG from 2009-2010 never made it into state coffers.
Ahmed, in an interview, rejected the report's allegations as "fabricated" and "a lie".
In war-scarred Mogadishu, where street lights, walls and cars carry billboards, banners and posters of the presidential hopefuls, many citizens worry the current leaders have hijacked the reform process to maintain a grip on power.
"This current government has been awful. They haven't given people their rights," said Fartoun, a fully veiled 21-year-old shopping in the open-air Hamarweyn souk where thousands of men and women jostled to buy gifts for the Aidilfitri holidays.
"We don't want him (President Ahmed) back because he doesn't help; he just takes all the money and leaves nothing for his people," she said, near a billboard that purports to show the choice facing Somalia. One half of a human figure carries a dove, surrounded by fruit. The other half, a skeleton, is surrounded by bombs and images of destruction.
Nick Birnback, chief of public information at the UN Political Office for Somalia, says Parliament's convening with a majority of lawmakers is an important step forward for the nation.
"But it is just that... A lot of hard work remains in the days ahead."
It is easy to be pessimistic about Somalia.
The UN, which is loudly supporting the "transition to transformation", has accused "spoilers" of trying to disrupt the process.
Augustine Mahiga, the UN special representative for Somalia, has not accused anyone directly of using intimidation and bribery, but he says some in the process have "a vested interest in maintaining the status quo".
Tribal elders from Somalia's complex clan structures have been nominating legislators who must have no history of violence, and at least a secondary education. A third of them must be women.
The lawmakers are vetted by a committee that includes members chosen by the top three leaders, including the president.
There have been reports that some on the committee have received threats over their work.
One of the presidential contenders, Abdulrahim Abdulshakur, who was once Somalia's representative at the Arab League, says the whole electoral process is flawed.
"It's a process where the referee and the players are the same. It's useless to watch the game," he said. "Somalia is at a crossroads. The new leader will determine whether Somalia is going forward or backwards," he added. Reuters