Somalia names new prime minister as crisis deepens

NAIROBI, Kenya — Somalia's embattled president named a respected humanitarian official as prime minister Thursday in a bid to shore up his failing government and address what the United Nations says is Africa's worst refugee crisis.

The nomination of Nur Hussan Hussein, a longtime official with the Somali Red Crescent Society, came three weeks after the former prime minister resigned under heavy criticism over the government's inability to establish control over the country in the face of a year-long, Islamist-led insurgency.

Hussein's appointment, which is expected to be approved by the parliament within days, was hailed by the United States and its Western allies, which helped to push the inexperienced former prime minister, Ali Mohammed Gedi, out of his job. Diplomats had been lobbying President Abdullahi Yusuf to name someone who could win wider support in Somalia's deeply clan-oriented society.

Like Gedi, Hussein is a member of the Abgal clan, and his appointment figures to pacify that influential group. Since 1991 he's been based in neighboring Kenya as secretary-general of the Somali Red Crescent Society, a relief agency under the umbrella of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

The previous prime minister had fought bitterly with Yusuf. His close ties with neighboring Ethiopia — whose military ousted the Islamist regime last year and still has several thousand troops in Somalia — also fueled the insurgency.

Observers said Hussein, who's in his 70s, is unscarred by Somalia's recent political wars.

"Given his background as a bureaucrat it means he can reach out to a broader base of Somali people than the previous prime minister. It provides an opportunity to start again," said a senior Western envoy in Nairobi, the capital of Somalia's neighbor, Kenya. The diplomat requested anonymity, citing diplomatic protocol. Diplomats who follow Somalia are based in Nairobi because of the danger of living in Mogadishu, Somalia's capital.

Somalia hasn't had a functioning government since 1991, but the current emergency is considered the gravest in decades. More than 1 million people have fled their homes as clashes escalate between Somali government forces and insurgents in Mogadishu, where entire neighborhoods have been deserted.

United Nations officials have begun to describe Somalia's crisis as worse than the one in Sudan's Darfur region, where a four-year war has forced 2.5 million from their homes but a relatively robust humanitarian relief operation is in full swing.

Very few aid agencies work in Somalia, however, because of the chronic insecurity.

"My first job will be to give urgent aid to the hundreds of thousands of internally displaced Somali people in the capital and in the whole country," Hussein said in a radio address from Baidoa, the relatively peaceful trading town where the parliament meets.

There were immediate signs that unifying the country would be difficult. In northern Mogadishu, where his Abgal clan is strong, hundreds of people rallied in support of Hussein's nomination.

It was a different story in the southern part of the city, home to the rival Habergedir clan. The Habergedirs backed the Islamist regime and their neighborhoods have been the scene of some of the worst recent fighting. Somali government officials believe that southern neighborhoods continue to support and shelter pro-Islamist fighters.

One Habergedir member of parliament suggested that Hussein's appointment wouldn't quell the insurgency.

"It was our turn to get the post," said the lawmaker, who requested anonymity. "But the president has given no attention to our demands and rights. So we will never support the new prime minister."

(McClatchy Special correspondent Ahmed Ali Sheik contributed to this report from Mogadishu.)