AMID the flurry of international concern with the European economic crisis, the American elections, the controversy surrounding Iran and the fall-out from the Arab spring, it is important not to ignore Somalia. There is a rare opportunity taking shape there that deserves international support.

The crisis in Somalia poses a danger not only to the Horn of Africa, but also to the security and economies of the world. Almost 50 per cent of the world’s maritime trade passes through the region, and the Somalian coast extends for 3,000 kilometres from the straits of Aden to the Indian Ocean. Attacks by pirates cost the world economy more than $7bn annually, making the Somali crisis an international crisis.

The Horn of Africa has become the military theatre with the widest array of international forces after Afghanistan. The US, China, Russia, Nato and the EU all maintain naval forces in the region to combat piracy. On the ground Ethiopian and African Union forces are mostly focused on safeguarding key locations in the capital, Mogadishu, and fighting al-Shabaab mujahideen in the south of the country.

Despite the complexity of the Somali problem, there have been several important developments in the past two months. The first was the drafting of a new constitution for the country; then there was the appointment of 275 members to parliament, whose formation all the clans agreed upon. That was followed by the dissolution of the transitional federal government, often described as weak and corrupt. On Sept 10, the parliament elected a new president with a majority vote of 190 in a historic meeting that showed signs of national unity for the first time in many years.

Last week I met a number of Somali politicians and activists in Mogadishu and came away with the impression that there was widespread optimism among the people after the election of Hassan Sheikh Mohamud as president. Now in his 50s, he is a former chancellor of the University of Somalia and has no record of political strife. Instead, he is known for his extensive work within civil society and for his efforts to bring about national reconciliation.

The president is convinced of the need to rid Somali politics of clan loyalties, even though he belongs to the Hawiye, the largest clan in the country. Meanwhile, Mogadishu is enjoying a climate of relative calm, especially after al-Shabaab withdrew its forces from the city. On a regional level, the death of the Ethiopian president, Meles Zenawi, has restored hope for a more balanced relationship with Addis Ababa.

I met Mohamud in his office in the presidential palace in Mogadishu. Naturally, there was nothing about it to suggest that it was presidential, or a palace. Some call it Villa Somalia. It is ensconced in a fortified military compound guarded by Ugandan and Somali forces. Within it are located most of the state agencies. It is a target of constant mujahideen attacks.

It was very clear that the president is conscious of the enormous responsibility that rests on his shoulders: a state without institutions; a government without resources; a society torn apart by vicious wars; and perplexing regional and international intervention.

By arrangement with the Guardian

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