DJIBOUTI, Jan 31 – Islamist leader Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed on Saturday was elected Somalia’s president, leaving him in charge of a fragile peace process aimed at ending 18 years of civil conflict.,
The young cleric promptly vowed to form a broad government and invited all armed groups in the war-ravaged Horn of Africa nation to join the UN-sponsored reconciliation effort.
Sheikh Sharif, who chairs the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), comfortably won the vote held in neighbouring Djibouti only days after the Ethiopian troops who sent him into exile two years ago completed their pullout from Somalia.
He defeated Maslah Mohamed Siad Barre, a general and the son of a former president, in the second round of voting, according to an official tally of some 430 lawmakers’ votes.
"We have 293 votes for Sharif Sheikh Ahmed and 126 for Siad," said Hussein Mohamed Jama, head of the presidential electoral commission.
"I declare Sharif Sheikh Ahmed the president of Somalia after winning this election," Parliament Speaker Aden Mohamed Nur said.
In a brief acceptance speech following a vote that ended after 4 am (0100 GMT), Sheikh Sharif vowed to reach out to the former transitional government as well as to the Shebab, a hard-line offshoot of the ICU which rejects talks.
"Very soon, I will form a government which represents the people of Somalia. We will live peacefully with East African countries and we want to cooperate with them," he said.
"I am extending a hand to all Somali armed groups who are still opposed to this process and inviting them to join us," he added.
Prime Minister Nur Hassan Hussein, long seen as the young cleric’s main rival to take the helm of the war-ravaged country, pulled out of the contest after trailing Sheikh Sharif by a massive 160 votes in the first round.
"I am ready to cooperate with whoever is elected to make Somalia a peaceful country," he then said.
The vote by a parliament enlarged earlier this week to include Sheikh Sharif’s moderate wing of the Islamist-led opposition started late Friday, after hours of intense discussions between MPs.
Sheikh Sharif, a former geography teacher educated in Sudan and Libya, ran in the election as the head of the Alliance for the Re-liberation of Somalia (ARS), an Islamist-dominated opposition umbrella formed in 2007.
The new president, in his mid-forties, was one of the main targets when Ethiopian troops invaded in late 2006 to remove what they saw as an extremist Islamic movement on their doorstep.
But after two years of deadly guerrilla war, the Ethiopians have pulled out with little progress to speak of, more radical groups have blossomed and Sheikh Sharif is seen by many as occupying the political centre.
Observers in Djibouti had tipped Hussein as a possible successor to Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed, who resigned last month after a failed attempt to sack Hussein.
But the internationally-backed septuagenarian lacked domestic support and since he belongs to the same clan as Sheikh Sharif, Somalia’s transitional charter will also prevent him from keeping his job as premier.
Some TFG MPs had warned they would vote for Sheikh Sharif, notably those close to the former president.
The new president is expected to represent his country at the African Union heads of state summit which starts on Sunday in Addis Ababa.
Somalia has had no effective central authority since the 1991 ouster of former president Mohamed Siad Barre touched off a bloody cycle of clashes between rival factions.
Sheikh Sharif will face the daunting task of taming Shebab fighters, who control several key towns, and overcoming clan divisions within his future administration.