The president of Somalia on Thursday nominated a humanitarian administrator and former police colonel to become the next prime minister of the troubled Horn of Africa nation.
Nur Hassan Hussein, who spent much of the last 20 years at the Somali Red Crescent Society, was praised as a neutral and respected leader. But it remained unclear whether his selection by President Abdullahi Yusuf would appease anti-government clans still waging a civil war in Mogadishu, the capital.
Hussein, 68, has been secretary-general of the Somali Red Crescent, where he helped rebuild hospitals and provide emergency health services to the beleaguered population. Dividing his time between Nairobi, Kenya, and Mogadishu, Hussein twice escaped apparent assassination attempts in the late 1990s when militants grew angry over his handling of a 1998 abduction of 10 Red Crescent workers.
His nomination was formally submitted to Somalia’s parliament, which was expected to approve it today.
In a speech before lawmakers, Hussein pledged to restore peace and work toward reconciliation of Somalia’s warring factions.
“Consultations will be my first priority, meeting with Somali politicians, elders and also our neighboring countries,” he told lawmakers in the south-central city of Baidoa, where parliament sits.
Somalia has been without a fully functioning government since the 1991 overthrow of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre.
Hussein, who studied law in Italy and worked as a government prosecutor during the Siad Barre regime, would replace Ali Mohammed Gedi, a professor of veterinary medicine plucked from political obscurity in 2004 to serve as prime minister in the U.N.-recognized transitional government. Gedi resigned last month after a power struggle with the president, allegations of corruption, and a flurry of criticism over his administration’s failure to restore security.
The resignation was seen by many as a chance for the government to reach out to critics, including factions of the dominant Hawiye clan and former fighters of Somalia’s Islamic Courts Union, an alliance of religious leaders that controlled Mogadishu until last year.
The Islamic courts group, which was accused by the U.S. of harboring terrorists, was chased out of the capital in December by government soldiers and Ethiopian troops. Islamic fighters, in turn, went underground and began waging a guerrilla war against government soldiers and Ethiopian troops.
Hundreds of civilians have died in fighting this year and about 600,000 have been displaced, mostly from Mogadishu.
Western officials said they were encouraged that the president selected a prime minister from outside the government, a sign that the leadership might be willing to adopt a more conciliatory approach.
“This gives them a chance to open up the government and be more inclusive,” said one Western official who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly. “But now we have to see if they seize it.”
Experts and citizens said they would be closely watching to see whom Hussein picks to serve in his Cabinet, specifically whether he names officials from outside the government, members of anti-government clans and moderate Islamic leaders. Under Somalia’s transitional constitution, most of the statutory power rests with the president, but the prime minister is responsible for day-to-day operations.
“If this new prime minister collaborates with the opposition and gives some of his ministries to the opposing parties, especially those residing in Mogadishu, he would succeed in restoring the peace process,” said Mohammed Hassan, 27, a teacher in Mogadishu.
Yusuf reportedly consulted with Hawiye leaders about the prime minister’s post. Hussein is a member of the key Abgal subclan, which has been one of the most critical of the government.
Hawiye leaders expressed cautious optimism.
“We welcome him if he can alter this worsening situation in Mogadishu, but we will have to wait to see what comes,” said Abdullahi Hassan Abdullahi Dhere, Hawiye’s traditional elder spokesman in charge of politics.
Other clan leaders have been more critical, noting that in recent days the government has launched a crackdown on its critics, closing down two radio stations, silencing an outspoken human rights group and arresting the spokesman of a prominent anti-government council. Several clan leaders have fled the country or are in hiding.
The government shake-up comes at a time when fighting and suffering are at one of their worst levels since 1991. Aid groups say malnutrition rates surpass those in the Darfur region of Sudan, and thousands of children are at risk of starvation because of recent flooding.
More than 200,000 people fled Mogadishu in the last month alone, lining the roads on the outskirts of the capital in camps.
“We live on the verge of death,” said Sadeo Suliman, 36, whose husband and daughter were killed in the violence this month. She now lives under a tree on the outskirts of Mogadishu with her three surviving children, dependent on aid groups for food. “I don’t know why the international community isn’t helping us.”
Special correspondents Lutfi Sheriff Mohammed and Mohammed Bile in Mogadishu contributed to this report.