Somalia President Promises 'Peace and Dignity'

A soft-spoken former schoolteacher is Somalia's new president, tasked with calming one of the bloodiest, most brutal conflicts on the global map.

In his first interview with American media, he told ABC News about his plans to curb piracy, quell the violence and give Somalia back its "peace and dignity."

To do that, President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed will need to defeat a culture of piracy that has taken root in the country in the last several years and temper the threat from Islamist group Al Shabaab, which controls most of southern Somalia.

Sheikh Sharif was elected last month by a parliament in exile; the threat of violence in Somalia is so dire that voting took place in the neighboring country of Djibouti.

He is a man with a political past, a moderate Islamist who held power for six months in 2006 before being ousted by U.S.-backed Ethiopian forces. During his time in office, he quieted the capital of Mogadishu and curbed acts of piracy off the coast of Somalia, an accomplished history fueling the hope that he can, once again, calm his country and its waters.

On piracy, which has surged since he left office, Sheikh Sharif said the Somali navy would patrol the coast while state security forces address the issue on land. Somali pirates are holding seven vessels with 123 crew members hostage, according to the International Maritime Bureau. Sheikh Sharif called on those pirates to release the captive ships and pledged to work with the international community on counter-piracy efforts.

"Fighting piracy is inevitable but cooperating as two states, Somalia and the United States, would be a good solution," he told ABC News.

But the piracy problem he has inherited is much different than the one he had nearly solved. Piracy began with Somali fishermen hijacking boats under the pretext that they were protecting their waters from illegal fishermen. In time it grew into a lucrative criminal enterprise, bringing in millions of dollars in ransom money.

"The problem is in 2006 the stakes were low; it was very easy to move into those coastal areas and say, 'Stop it,'" said Ken Menkhaus, a professor of political science at Davidson College in North Carolina who's worked on Somalia issues for 25 years. "It's a mafia economy now. The stakes are higher."

Working Relationship With Obama

Most of the piracy stems from Puntland, a semi-autonomous region in Northern Somalia that's home to former president Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed, Sheik Sharif's rival. So far, the region refuses to even accept the president. Even if he wants to stop piracy, Menkhaus said, Sheikh Sharif may not have the influence to do so.

"It would be an unreasonable expectation that this fragile new government shut down piracy in the coming year," Menkhaus said. With so many problems facing Somalia, "it's not a good benchmark to measure the effectiveness of the new government."

One asset the president is cultivating: a warm, working relationship with the Obama administration. Despite America's role in his ouster, Sheikh Sharif sees U.S. policy as supportive of his efforts toward a stable Somalia. He told an Egyptian newspaper last week that the United States is a "force for peace" in East Africa.

"America has been honest in pushing the peace process ahead, and they encouraged us to get involved in this process," he told ABC News. "And they have remained steadfast; that's why we have a new goodwill toward America."

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