CAIRO — As Somalia's first president in 10 years, Abdiqassim Salad Hassan faces a unique situation: He has no office or administrative structure in place. He has no police to enforce his authority in a land famous for its warlords' battles. And neither did he earn his title at the ballot box.
Yet, the largest-ever gathering of world leaders at the UN summit in New York last week intently listened to Mr. Hassan as he told them, "It is gratifying to bring Somalia back to the United Nations."
That was the easy part.
Hassan now faces a daunting task as he begins to establish peace and security and rebuild the country's collapsed infrastructure.
"The tragedy is great, and the destruction is total," Hassan said in an interview with the Monitor in Egypt, on his way to the UN. "Ahead of me and the parliament are great challenges."
Indeed, in the last few days the Somali capital, Mogadishu, was hit by renewed violence by clan-based militia factions. But in a glimmer of hope, ordinary citizens Monday protested the rising tide of violence.
African affairs expert Gamal Nkrumah says that Hassan has a "better chance than anyone before him to turn Somalia around," but cautions that "this is not a guarantee that he can do it."
Backed by a populace largely weary of violence, last month 2,500 Somali traditional leaders meeting in neighboring Djibouti elected Hassan and a parliament.
For Somali refugee Fadumo Abdukadir and her eight kids, Hassan's appointment is bringing hope that their lives will change. "We have no food, no medicine, no help, and no hope," she says. "What we need is a government."
Somalia has been without a central government since 1991, when several factions joined forces to oust former dictator Mohamed Siad Barre. The country, about the size of Texas and shaped like a boomerang, dissolved into factional fighting between rival clan warlords, turning the nation of 7 million into battling fiefdoms.
There is "tremendous symbolic value to Hassan's appointment as Somalia's national leader," says Cyrus Reed, head of the Africa Studies Program at Cairo's American University. "It is still uncertain how much practical value the election has because northern tribes are refusing to recognize him. [But] it's important for Hassan to appear statesmanlike in order to overcome Somalia's image in the world and to be able to gain the resources needed to empower his ability to rule."
Hassan says that one of the first tasks will be to gather the arms and retrain militias to safeguard Somalia's security. In this regard, he says, the international community could provide technical assistance in establishing the country's security forces.
"We have learned from our past mistakes. The people of Somalia are for peace, and they demonstrated that publicly by welcoming their parliament and their president," says Hassan, who was welcomed to Mogadishu by more than 100,000 cheering residents. "There is no need for international forces in Somalia.... But we need technical help."
Analysts say Hassan must consolidate his internal power base by overcoming the warlords, but also warn that he lacks the resources to collect weapons.
"[Hassan] has the support, at least in theory if not in substance, of the international community," says Said Samatar, a history professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey. "And he is at the moment wildly popular in and around Mogadishu, Somalia's new president lays groundwork for peace
the capital, an area that has been the principal cause of Somalia's miseries. most significantly, the Somali populace is now, finally, sick and tired of violence and anarchy."
However, Mr. Samatar cautions that "the ultimate solvent in Somali affairs these days is the gun. He has no single rifle, i.e., policeman. How is he going to govern?"
Four Somali warlords, including Hussein Mohamed Aideed, are urging the international community to deny Hassan's government recognition, and are calling for a national reconciliation conference of their own. They object to Hassan having served as interior minister under Barre.
Another pressing priority for the new president is to form a government. Somali leaders who met in in Djibouti for the Somalia peace process agreed to a transitional charter, which is separate from a constitution, and will be in place for three years. The charter stipulates that Somalia must return to a multiparty political system.
"Democracy will take place. Everybody can compete for the general elections, which will be held after three years of this transitional period," says Hassan.
Over the past 10 years, Hassan has been engaged in peacemaking conferences. His family is based in Cairo, but Hassan has been in Somalia for all but 17 months since 1991. And for the past three years, Hassan has been working in Mogadishu toward a peace conference.
Hassan says that he wants to close the dark chapter of his country's history for good: "The warlords destroyed the country and the Somali people. The warlords killed, in a barbaric way, those who came to help Somalia."
The largest peacekeeping force in UN history was sent to Somalia from 1992 to 1995 to deal with a famine, but with disastrous consequences. The peacekeepers were constantly attacked, and 18 US soldiers died in a failed attempt to arrest a warlord. It was, however, the graphic footage of a dead US soldier being dragged through Mogadishu's streets in 1994 that prompted a swift US military withdrawal.
Hassan says he will use dialogue to try to unite a country fractured by violence.
"We will sit together, we will talk to whoever wants peace and reconciliation - not through the barrel of a gun, but through the traditional Somali way of solving problems," says Hassan. "I may say - like Martin Luther King said - I have a dream. That dream is to see the Horn of Africa in peace, in development - the process of economic integration in that part of Africa and all of Africa as well."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society