The president of Somalia’s U.N.-backed government resigned Monday amid deepening international pressure, a move that could usher in more chaos as a strengthening Islamic insurgency scrambles for power.
Within hours of Abdullahi Yusuf‘s resignation, mortars shells slammed into the pockmarked streets near the presidential palace in the capital, Mogadishu, where the government maintains only a token presence.
“Most of the country is not in our hands,” Yusuf said in a speech before parliament in Baidoa — one of the only towns controlled by Somalia’s government, which has been sidelined by Islamic insurgents with alleged ties to al-Qaida.
In the address broadcast nationwide on the radio, Yusuf said he could not unite Somalia’s bickering leadership and that the country was “paralyzed.”
“After seeing all these things, I have finally quit,” said Yusuf, who was president for four years. Meanwhile, troops from neighboring Ethiopia are scheduled to pull out this week, leaving a massive power vaccum after two years of propping up the weak Somali government.
The parliament speaker will stand as acting president until parliament elects a new leader within 30 days. There have been no announcements of who might be under consideration, but many believe Yusuf’s absence will allow moderate Islamist leaders into the government, which Yusuf had largely rejected.
Yusuf is the latest leader to have failed to pacify Somalia during two decades of turmoil. The Horn of African country has been beset by anarchy, violence and an insurgency that has killed thousands of civilians and sent hundreds of thousands fleeing for their lives.
There have been more than a dozen attempts to form an effective government since 1991. Meanwhile, all public institutions have crumbled and the once-beautiful seaside capital is now a gun-blasted shantytown.
The most aggressive Islamic insurgency group, al-Shabab, has made dramatic territory gains in recent months, and insurgents now control most of the country. In a statement Monday, al-Shabab said Yusuf was resigning “with shame.” The statement said it was too early to tell if Yusuf’s replacement would be an improvement.
The United States accuses al-Shabab of harboring the al-Qaida-linked terrorists who blew up the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. Many of the insurgency’s senior figures are Islamic radicals; some are on the State Department’s list of wanted terrorists.
The U.N. envoy to Somalia, Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, who has been trying to salvage an ineffective peace deal in the country, lauded Yusuf’s resignation and said “a new page of Somalia history is now open.”
The United Nations has brokered peace deals between the government and an opposition faction, but they have failed to quell the political and violent chaos. Al-Shabab has refused to participate in the talks.
Yusuf, who like many of Somalia’s leaders is a former warlord, has been accused of being an obstacle to peace. Earlier this month, he tried to fire his prime minister, but was rebuffed by parliament. Neighboring countries, including Kenya, have threatened to impose sanctions on Yusuf and his family.
“I am happy that the Somali president has resigned,” Prime Minister Nur Hassan Hussein said. “I wish him to become Somali elder and play a role in the common endeavor to restore peace and order in Somalia.”
Thousands of civilians have been killed or maimed by mortar shells, machine-gun crossfire and grenades in near-daily fighting in this arid country. The U.N. says Somalia has 300,000 acutely malnourished children, but attacks and kidnappings of aid workers have shut down many humanitarian projects.
The lawlessness also has allowed piracy to flourish off the coast.
Rights groups have accused all sides in the conflict — Islamic insurgents, the government and Ethiopian troops — of committing war crimes and other serious abuses for indiscriminately firing on civilian neighborhoods.
Ethiopia‘s planned withdrawal of troops would end their unpopular presence and leave the administration more vulnerable to insurgents. The Ethiopians entered Somalia two years ago with the tacit approval of the United States to drive out an earlier group of Islamic insurgents.
Somalia has been ravaged by violence and anarchy since warlords overthrew dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991 and then turned on one another. The current transitional government was formed with U.N. help in 2004.
Yusuf, a former Somali army colonel in the 1960s, was jailed by Barre when he refused to cooperate in a coup d’etat in 1969. Although Yusuf is a member of one of Somalia’s four biggest clans, the Darod, he was unpopular in Mogadishu because of his ties to Ethiopia — one of Somalia’s traditional enemies.