The decision by Somalia's President, Maj. Gen. Mohamed Siad Barre, to commute death sentences recently passed on 10 prominent politicians has been welcomed by close allies, particularly the United States and Saudi Arabia. Both nations, along with other countries and international human rights groups, had urged clemency.
Western diplomats had feared that executions could seriously destabilize this strategically important Red Sea republic.
As Somalia's near-octogenarian President fast approaches the end of his 19-year rule, such instability, say US and British diplomats, could result in realigning allegiances in the ``horn of Africa.''
The politicians, including a former vice-president, were arrested in 1982 after their failed attempt to compel Barre's resignation through constitutional means. The arrests were widely seen in diplomatic circles as evidence of a power struggle. And Barre's restructuring of his government late last year was a sign to many that he was arranging for his succession.
In the restructuring, Barre demoted three senior ministers. The former defense minister, Mohamed Ali Samantar, retained the premiership. In the past, Mr. Samantar was seen as a favorite of Moscow's. Barre gave his own son, Maslah, the key post as military commander of the capital, Mogadishu. But though Maslah seems favored for the succession, other members of the President's inner circle have different views.
The man some see as most likely to determine who will gain the post, if not to be the actual successor, is Col. Abdelkadir Haji Mohamed, currently deputy secretary-general of the ruling party, says a well-informed Somalian journalist. The colonel is one of the last survivors among the 25 military officers who staged the 1969 coup that brought Barre to power.
Barre's hold on power has progressively decreased since the Somali Army's heavy defeat in a bid to wrest the Ogaden province from Ethiopia in 1977-78.
In the wake of that defeat, Barre had expelled the Soviets and opted for a new military alliance with the US and closer ties with conservative Arab neighbors in the Red Sea and Gulf.
However, it was not the Westward lurch in Barre's policies that led his former supporters to their actions, but his increasing mistrust of the major northern clans in a country where traditional nomadic loyalties remain strong. By relying increasingly on his own Marehan clan, Barre upset the former coalition among the major clans upon which political stability has rested. Tensions between the northern and southern clans have increased seriously in recent years.