In an interview with IRIN, chairman of the Somali National Peace Conference, Hassan Abshire Farah, said the forum was a unique opportunity for Somalis to elect a government after a decade of civil war. A former mayor of Mogadishu, Hassan Abshire was appointed Minister of Interior in 1998 for the newly autonomous Puntland region, north-eastern Somalia - but resigned this April when leader Abdullahi Yusuf refused to allow participation in the Djibouti peace process. On June 15th, he was elected chairman of the conference, along with co-chairman Abdalla Deerow (of the Rahanwein Resistance Army). The conference is being held in Arta, 30 km from the Djibouti capital.
Q: Who has come to the Djibouti peace process?
A: This is the thirteenth peace conference. There have been thirteen attempts at reconciliation, hosted in different countries, including Ethiopia and Egypt. But this type of conference is a first. This is different. Before, only warlords were invited. Here we have elders, sultans, kings and religious leaders from all the Somalis. We have intellectuals, former politicians, businessmen and women. There are also many representatives from the Somali diaspora. So we have all sections of civil society.
Q: But it is a clan-based process?
A: Yes. It is clan-based, of course, but that is just how it is organised. In Somalia, people belong to clans; civil society belongs to clans. So we have NGOs, intellectuals and women, but it is organised on a clan basis.
Q: Are all Somali clans represented here?
A: Yes, all clans are represented from every corner of Somalia. It is an inclusive process. Even the Issak from Somaliland are represented here (the clan of Mohamed Ibrahim Egal, leader of Somaliland, who has rejected the process). They are part of the delegation and they have told us they are, as the Issak, full representatives of Somaliland.
Q: Is it a problem that some faction leaders have rejected the conference and remain in Somalia?
A: We need all Somalis to come here, because we don’t want opposition when we finish the process. So yes, we want the faction leaders to come. We appealed several times for them to come to Djibouti, especially Kanyare, Abdullahi Yusuf, Hussein Aideed, and Egal. We need all the warlords to come and to sit with us here and try to solve our differences in a peaceful way. We want to establish that dialogue.
Q: Do you think they will come?
A: We have signals now that those in Mogadishu will join us next week (from July 1). Hussein Aideed, Musa Sude, Osman Ato and Kanyare have indicated that they will come to the conference.
Q: Abdullahi Yusuf in Puntland has been the most aggressive in his rejection of the conference, and looks unlikely to change his mind.
A: Well, there are some people close to Abdullahi Yusuf who are trying to persuade him to change his stance. But I know him very well and I don’t think he will come. Anyway, the point is he has lost the confidence of our people. Ethiopia sent a general to Puntland to talk to him. Ethiopia managed to take General Morgan to Addis Ababa and talk to him; even if General Morgan does not come to the conference I think he would accept the result.
But generally, I think the people we have here are close enough to these warlords, and the Djibouti government has made the invitation clear. By having people here very close to the remaining warlords we can continue to try and persuade them and stay in contact with them. The majority have been contacted and that is what is important.
Q: And when the faction leaders arrive, do they get a place in the official delegations?
A: That is not our job. Every clan has its own way of dealing with that, and will sort it out among their own people. The delegations are not being expanded.
Q: Are the political leaders needed?
A: Not all politicians remain in Somalia, some are here already. We have Ali Mahdi Mohamed, and Mohamed Abshire, Hussein Bod and Shatgudud. Any leader or politician who comes here won’t get special consideration or treatment. He’s like us, like me; we are all equal. If Somali people decide to elect them and support them it is up to the people, but there is no automatic status for faction leaders, no special consideration for warlords. When they request to talk they get three minutes like everyone else, then they have to sit down. If they think they are entitled to an hour because they are a warlord, they are wrong.
Q: Is the next big step electing the Transitional National Assembly?
A: No, first we have to draw up and debate the Charter and the Constitution and we have to talk about the form of government. We have to talk about how to represent people equally. We have nominated committees who are now discussing the Charter, disarmament, development and social services, and the status of Mogadishu. These committees have to prepare their reports and present the options to the conference. The proposals are being typed up, they will be distributed and discussed. It all takes time.
Q: But the Djibouti government is under great financial pressure to conclude this process.
A: Yes, the Djibouti government would have liked to finish the conference on July 1, which is Somalia independence day. But we have been to see President Ismael Omar Guelleh and requested him not to hurry the process. It was agreed that we should aim to finish around July 14-15. They have accepted we need time.
Q: It’s rumoured that there is already a list of 38 presidential candidates.
A: (laughs) No, no! Up to now, actually, the Hawiye have been putting names down as presidential candidates. There is a list of maybe 15-16. But otherwise the process is in the making, and clans are beginning to select among themselves who should be candidates.
Q: Will the president be a ceremonial head, or a political head?
A: The conference will debate that. We need to decide whether the president is elected by parliament, or by the conference itself. Those are two options to look at. It will then be the job of the prime minister and president to appoint members of government and develop policies. I personally hope the conference will agree to elect members of parliament before a prime minister and president is elected.
Q: How will the government go back to Somalia?
A: That is up to the elected government to decide. That is their task. Maybe they will need time to prepare for the transfer; but it is not going to be a government in exile.
Q: Are you worried about how the new government will be received?
A: We are not worried because we know we have the support of the people and the international community. The international community must know that this conference is the best - that there never was anything better for Somalia and that all Somalis are represented.