Finding Somalia’s government on the web can be confusing. There is no .so domain. www.somali-gov.info claims to be the “Official Federal Government Website for Somalia” but if you have been following developments in Somalia you will soon realize that the president and prime minister are no longer in power. The site for the new president, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, can be found at www.nationtv.org, not an obvious address for the official government.
Then there is the website for al-Shabab, the organization that currently controls much of south-central Somalia. While this website, http://www.kataaib.net, has recently been taken off-line, al-Shabab, like its al-Qaeda affiliate, has a dynamic media arm with YouTube videos receiving thousands of hits.
As the internationally recognized leader of Somalia, Sheikh Sharif has the major communications challenge of selling his government both internally and externally. The enormity of this political and peacemaking endeavor will require the most ambitious of plans.
Internationally, Sheikh Sharif faces the challenge of having potential partners listen and support difficult decisions. He was, after all the same leader that was ousted by Ethiopia and the US in 2006 after seizing control of part of the country from the ineffective leadership of Abdullahi Yusuf. The United States saw Sheikh Sharif’s Islamic Courts Union (ICU), a coalition of Sharia courts, as a radical Islamic organization with links to al- Qaeda. The historical nemesis of Somalia, Ethiopia, had its own concerns.
This was a clear mistake. First, Sheikh Sharif is a Sufi Muslim and more moderate than much of al-Shabab, who are influenced by Wahhabi teachings.
But it is really what has happened in the past two years that should give us all pause, and Sheikh Sharif some bargaining power: by some estimates more than 15,000 Somalis have been killed and one million displaced; the military wing of the ICU has become more radicalized and powerful while the moderate Islamists have been isolated; and Somalia, particularly with the presence of Ethiopian troops, has become a recruiting ground for US and UK youngsters who have left their countries to go and fight.
In recent weeks the FBI quietly noted that last October a US citizen from Minnesota was a suicide bomber in the north of Somalia. And the media in the UK has been running investigative reports about the disappearance of teens from London and Bristol later popping up in Mogadishu. This chapter is not yet over, some of these young people may return to Europe or North America or they may continue blowing themselves up locally in an attempt to destabilize the region.
Even for Somalis who are used to war and violence, these operations have been surprising. Suicide missions are new and are largely considered culturally un-Somali and the internet has certainly played a role. Offering an alternative and local narrative is essential in competing with al Shabab. In 2006 the ICU offered the most stability the country has seen since 1990. And now, once again, Sheikh Sharif is the only viable leader that has a modicum of a chance to deliver any sort of stable government.
Part of the problem with listening to Sheikh Sharif is that many countries in the west have given up on Somalia. Some Somalia watchers suggest stopping external interference may be best.
Americans are not alone in struggling to exert control over this region. Everyone from the Eritreans, Qataris, Saudis, Ethiopians, and the list goes on… is involved and is vying for influence. Sheikh Sharif recently declared that he was introducing Sharia law at the request of mediators and elders. The decision is prudent and not surprising. Sheikh Sharif has little intention of implementing the most restrictive forms. Achieving peace and stability appears to be the paramount issue for his government rather than extending Islam.
If the government’s fledgling website is any indication, Sheikh Sharif and those around him are at least willing to listen. Apart from the feedback links (with questionable functionality) interspersed throughout nationtv.org offering the opportunity to leave a message for the President’s office or request more information, Sheikh Sharif has already demonstrated more willingness than his neighbor, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia, to hold press conferences and talk to the media. But many of these media houses, such as the popular and resilient HornAfrik, support him as they did in 2006. In Somalia, an effective government communications strategy will stretch well beyond outlets such as radio but would include elders, religious leaders, tea houses, among others.
And part of this is simply getting the country domain .so up again. A visit to the Network Information Centre’s site states, “As Somalia has no internationally recognized government, this domain is not currently used. We simply have parked this top level domain till an official government is implemented”. Apparently Sheikh Sharif’s government is trying to get back .so. Let’s see this as symbolic that he is serious about bringing a government as in 2006- and this time, let us wish him the best.