Feb. 11, 2009 — -- 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."
Congratulating Sheikh Sharif on his appointment, the U.S. government commended him on working "diligently on reconciliation efforts in Somalia." In a press statement, the Obama administration said it looked "forward to cooperating with President Sharif and his broad-based government on these efforts to establish democracy and achieve peace in Somalia."
Somalia has not had a functioning government since 1991 and the country lacks any real infrastructure or criminal justice system. Nearly 1 million people have been displaced and about 16,000 civilians have been killed in the last three years.
There are estimates that more than 3 million people are on the verge of starvation and the unsafe security conditions make it nearly impossible for aid organizations to operate. The United Nations has called the country "the worst humanitarian crisis in Africa."
The daunting task of pulling Somalia together is not lost on the new president.
"The surest way to get stability in Somalia is to resolve the differences through negotiation," he said, hoping that among the various warring factions in the country there is "common ground ... a widespread feeling for peace and stability, hunger for reconciliation."
Al Qaeda, Al Shabaab Threat
His biggest threat comes from the Islamist group Al Shabaab, which launched an intense insurgency after the Ethiopian invasion three years ago. The group's leadership has sworn allegiance to al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden and is now in control of most of Southern Somalia.
Initially, Al Shabaab declared war on Sheikh Sharif's government-in-waiting. But meetings were held in Mogadishu during the weekend to start negotiating an agreement, according to the new president and a spokesman for Al Shabaab.
"I went back to Somalia… to consult with them and to woo those who have, until now, been against peace to come into the fold," the president said. "I haven't directly met with Shabaab, but I have sent some people, emissaries, to talk to them, to stop the bloodshed and to put down their arms."
Abu Massor, who refers to himself as the spokesman for Al Shabaab, told ABC News through a translator that nearly all the leadership has agreed to accept the new president if he meets the group's conditions. The three most important of those conditions are that the country be ruled under traditional Shariah; that foreign forces, including the African Union and the U.N. peacekeeping troops, not be allowed on Somali soil; and that Al Shabaab members have significant roles in the new government.
"If he recognizes our presence on the ground, and he is going to accept Shariah law to be applied in the country, we are going to accept him," Massor said.
The president has not said whether he will meet Al Shabaab's demands, which could complicate his desire for better relations with the United States.
But forming a government that includes individuals who refuse to renounce their allegiance to al Qaeda and other extremist groups will not be acceptable to either Ethiopia or the United States. Al Shabaab is likely facing its own demands from Sheikh Sharif, who is walking a fine line between forming a government acceptable to Somali people of all clans and to the international community.
"He has to reach out to his own constituency and he has a lot of constituents to please, including the United States and Ethiopia," Davidson's Menkhaus said. "He also has to reach out to other factions for the government to work. It can be done but only if Al Shabaab adjusts its position to address the legitimate security concerns."
"If they don't, Somalia is going to plunge into new levels of trouble."
Kirit Radia contributed to the reporting of this story.