Abdullahi Yusuf ended an ignominious four years as Somalia’s president by resigning on Monday, giving fragmented Islamist groups in the war-ravaged country a chance to exert new influence over its future.

Mr Yusuf, a former warlord, was elected as the head of a western-backed interim government in 2004, the latest in more than a dozen attempts to form an effective central administration since the last one collapsed in 1991.

But his divided administration failed to establish authority or pacify its enemies. His time in office was marked by worsening insecurity, humanitarian crises and – in the past two years – an Islamist insurgency and piracy at sea.

In a radio address on Monday, Mr Yusuf said: “As I promised when you elected me on October 14 2004, I would stand down if I failed to fulfil my duty. I have decided to return the responsibility you gave me.”

The speaker of parliament will serve as acting president, with legislators expected to elect a new leader within 30 days.

Mr Yusuf’s resignation changes Somalia’s internal dynamics for hardline and moderate Islamist groups, which have both regained influence since being smashed by Ethiopian troops. Those forces had invaded at the end of 2006 to oust an Islamist alliance that had temporarily usurped the interim government.

Insurgents headed by the al-Shabaab militia, which the US says is linked to al-Qaeda, have seized control of most of south and central Somalia outside Mogadishu in recent months.

If Mr Yusuf’s resignation precipitates the collapse of the interim government – and Ethiopia acts on a pledge to withdraw its troops before the end of the year – then some analysts say al-Shabaab could take total control again. Others, however, say that the hardliners are too fragmented, a point that was endorsed on Sunday and Monday when a newly- militarised Islamist group declared “holy war” on al-Shabaab and killed more than 10 of its fighters.

Mr Yusuf’s resignation offers a route to power for moderate Islamists in the Alliance for the Reliberation of Somalia, which could now secure representation in a reconstituted parliament and government.

One western diplomat said that if the moderate faction of the Alliance for the Reliberation of Somalia were not brought into the fold then it was time to forget about the faltering effort to build governmental institutions in Somalia.

The diplomat added: “The risk is that there is a complete separation between [on one hand] the transitional federal institutions, the alliance and what we talk about in the international community, and [on the other] the reality on the ground, which is a humanitarian cata­strophe, al-Shabaab and pirates.”

Barney Jopson is the FT’s east Africa correspondent.

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