In an unusual twist to conflicts verging on war, Somalia’s weak government and powerful Islamist movement opened a verbal diplomatic battle Wednesday over the creation of a new national passport.
Already fraught tensions soared as the transitional administration announced the launch of the new passports and the Islamists, who control Mogadishu and much of southern and central Somalia, said they would not be accepted.
Speaking in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi, Foreign Minister Ismail Mohamud Hurre said the new passport, designed to be computer-readable to comply with tougher international immigration rules, would begin to issued immediately.
“This passport cannot be forged and it is important for all Somalis to apply for this version,” he told a ceremony to mark the launch.
“We are not imposing it but we realised as the legitimate Somali government, there is a need for our citizens to have electronic passports that are accepted by the international community,” Hurre said.
He said the new passports would be issued in Somalia and at the internationally backed government’s embassies throughout the world.
But it was not immediately clear exactly how many Somalis could apply as the government controls only one town in Somalia and has fewer than a dozen diplomatic missions outside the country.
He added that old Somali passports – often described as some of the most forged in the world – would be invalid after six months, drawing the ire of the Islamists in Mogadishu.
“The new passport will not only make travel difficult, but increases tension and mistrust,” said Abdurahim Ali Muddey, the spokesperson for the Supreme Islamic Council of Somalia (SICS).
“It is an unacceptable to Somali people and particularly to the Islamic courts,” he said. “Our airports and other entry points will not accept it.”
The launch of the new passport, coming as the government and the Islamists gird for war that many fear could ignite a regional conflict, is seen by many as a governmental attempt to re-assert its shattered authority.
The Islamists, who seized Mogadishu in June and have since rapidly expanded their territory, said the move should have waited until their differences are decided, politically or militarily, and a national unity government is formed.
“The old Somali passport shall be used until a national unity government that controls all of Somalia is founded,” Muddey said. “No one group has the right to make such an important decision.”
“We are urging the outside world not to accept a travel document aimed at disturbing the peace process,” he added.
Somalia, a Horn of Africa nation of some 10 million, has been wracked by chaos and without a functioning central government since dictator Mohamed Siad Barre was toppled in 1991.
The current two-year-old government is the latest in more than a dozen internationally backed attempts to restore stability to the country but has been wracked by infighting and is now threatened by the Islamists.