First elected Somali leader for a decade seeks peace amid chaos

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The Independent Online

Wearing a bullet-proof vest and surrounded by more than 1,000 gunmen, Somalia's first president in almost a decade arrived home to a hero's welcome last week, carrying with him a nation's fragile hopes for a return to peace and stability.

Wearing a bullet-proof vest and surrounded by more than 1,000 gunmen, Somalia's first president in almost a decade arrived home to a hero's welcome last week, carrying with him a nation's fragile hopes for a return to peace and stability.

Tens of thousands of Somalis thronged the national soccer stadium in Mogadishu to cheer Abdikassim Salad Hassan, the victorious candidate at the outcome of a four-month peace conference in neighbouring Djibouti, which also gave birth to a transitional parliament.

Mr Hassan was once Minister for the Interior under Siad Barre, the hated dictator whose fall in 1991 sparked a vicious, clan-based civil war. But these days Somalis are inclined to forget the past and concentrate on piecing together the remains of their shattered country.

Much of the Mogadishu he visited on Wednesday is still rubble following years of fighting. The streets are littered with mounds of uncollected rubbish while children play in the wrecks of abandoned UN armoured vehicles, a bitter reminder of the West's disastrous intervention of the early Nineties.

The gunmen and lines of heavily armed battlewagons parked outside the stadium where he spoke were a stark reminder of his most immediate challenge - to restore law and order to a country where the Kalashnikov remains the ultimate authority.

That will involve wresting control from warlords who have carved up southern Somalia among themselves. So far the omens haven't been encouraging. Two warlords have signed up to Djibouti but the most powerful figure, Hussein Aideed, warned yesterday that if the international community recognised the new regime "it might lead to war again".

Another warlord, Osman Ali Otto, told the IoS at his Mogadishu home: "The outcome of this conference will be another outbreak of fighting in 2000." Both warlords argue that the parliament has been hijacked by an unholy alliance of Islamic fundamentalists and disgraced cronies of the Barre regime. They will resist with "all necessary force," Atto said.

But behind the bluster the warlords are worried. Their own influence has been seriously eroded in recent years by Islamic clerics, who hand down justice through a popular courts system, and wealthy businessmen, who run thriving telecommunications, banking and media companies.

The two-kilometre-long motorcade that brought President Hassan from the airport last week was organised by local businessmen. When it cheekily whizzed by roadblocks manned by Osman Atto's gunmen, the warlords' ability to derail the peace process was seriously questioned.

Perhaps most significantly, ordinary Somalis have lost their sense of fear. "We're not afraid of them because we think it's going to end now. We're hoping they will be banished or put behind bars," said Mr Abdullahi Mohamed Hussein, a manager at one of Mogadishu's two mobile phone companies.

Many people chuckled recently at the story of how Hussein Aideed had a four-wheel drive stolen from him by his own men, who demanded a $20,000 (£13,800) ransom.

Son of the fearsome General Aideed, who repeatedly humiliated the UN, he has eschewed the militaristic image and dresses in a snappy black suit. Like fellow warlords Atto and Sudi, he speaks in grave tones of "human rights" and "democracy". Like them he also claims to have brought peace to Somalia and says the Djibouti process is in hock to foreign interests.

After leaving Mogadishu last week Mr Hassan flew to the southern city of Baidoa and on to the Egyptian capital, Cairo, yesterday, as part of a whirlwind tour to drum up international support. The UN and the EU have already given him and his fledgling parliament their stamp of approval. But he will have a harder job convincing the northern provinces of Somaliland and Puntland that his government can work. So far they have been unwilling to bet their peace on the untested Djibouti process.

Mr Hassan appears to have already beaten the warlords in the battle for Somalis' hearts and minds. But winning the trust of his obstreperous countrymen to the north could well prove to be a more formidable task in the long run.

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