Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed’s victory prompts celebrations and the hope that he can get to grips with Somalia’s multiple challenges
Celebrations have erupted on the streets of Somalia after parliamentarians elected a new president, with crowds chanting songs and firing automatic weapons into the night sky.
The election of Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, a 55-year-old former prime minister and dual US-Somali national with a reputation for independence and competence, has raised the hopes of millions of people in the poor and violent east African state.
“I am really happy. I prayed hard. Now we have a good president. I hope he will take care of our country,” said Khadra Mohamud Ahmed, 42, from Mogadishu.
Critics said the election – the most extensive and expensive democratic exercise in Somalia for decades – has entrenched divides between the country’s many traditional clans and encouraged graft. But others described it as a “way station” to political stability and full democracy.
Michael Keating, the UN special representative for Somalia, described the poll as a “political process with electoral features”, and “pretty brave to do”.
“There are a lot of problems [in Somalia] of course, but it is not a place falling apart, it is a place coming together,” he told the Guardian.
The new president will have to deal with multiple challenges: the threat posed by extremist groups in Somalia, a looming famine, weak institutions, feuding factions and rampant unemployment in a country where more than 70% of the population is under the age of 30.
Somalia was also among seven Muslim-majority states named in Donald Trump’s contentious executive order suspending immigration to the US last week.
“Today is a new beginning for Somalia. It is the start of the war against terrorists. It is the beginning of the war against corruption,” Mohamed told reporters shortly after his victory became clear.
His win capped a controversial, protracted and sometimes chaotic process.
The selection of a new president began months ago, with 14,000 elders and prominent regional figures choosing 275 MPs and 54 senators. These then decided whether to back Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, elected in 2012, for a second term, or pick one of 21 rivals.
Mohamed, the winner on Wednesday, bolstered his credentials as a Somali nationalist during the campaign with criticism of neighbouring countries’ alleged attempts to influence the election and a promise to combat Islamic militants.
His solid record during his brief tenure as prime minister between 2010 and 2011 reinforced an image of a relatively progressive technocrat. After resigning the post, Mohamed moved to Buffalo in upstate New York, where he worked as a state transportation department official and where his family still live.
Critics say Mohamed, who is better known as Farmajo, is inexperienced and worry his fiercely independent views could rile neighbouring countries such as Ethiopia and Kenya. Both nations are major contributors to a regional peacekeeping force in Somalia
The new president is expected to pick his prime minister – who will be from a different clan to conform to the country’s power-sharing formula.
“Though the election doesn’t solve Somalia’s many challenges, it’s an expression of some political progress …and does highlight a vibrant electoral and political engagement,” said Ahmed Soliman, an east Africa expert at Chatham House.
“What we are seeing is the selection of a president to take the country forward … If you look at the region, and countries such as Sudan, Ethiopia, Djibouti or Eritrea, there is a clear contrast. The election is impressive in the context.”
During the day, streets in the capital were deserted with many residents following the voting on television. Ali Abdi Haji, a 23-year-old student, said he had never experienced an election.
“Today is great day for me and for people in Somalia. All I can do today is just watch TV and pray for the country so we can have a good leader who is committed to make this country peaceful and democratic,” said Haji, who watched the broadcast with his family in their home in the Hodan district of Mogadishu.
Many had been worried by the threat of extremist violence.
Al-Shabaab, the Islamic militant movement that has fought for power in Somalia since 2009 and is affiliated with al-Qaida, has been slowly driven out of its key strongholds in a campaign by regional and Somali troops but still launches frequent attacks in Mogadishu and elsewhere.
An attack on a military base 10 miles (15km) south of Mogadishu on Tuesday was repulsed while several mortar bombs in Mogadishu on the same day caused no casualties. On Wednesday morning, a faction aligned with ISIS stormed a hotel in the semi-autonomous Putland region further north up the coast, killing four guards.
The threat from al-Shabaab forced the government and its western backers to scrap a plan to give each adult a vote. Officials decided that the challenge of securing polling stations across the country of 11 million people was insurmountable.
Keating, the UN official, said reports that al-Shabaab had allowed the poll to go ahead were wrong. “They are not shrugging their shoulders and ignoring the election. That is rubbish,” he said. “Al-Shabaab have tried repeatedly to disrupt it. They have targeted MPs and electoral sites. They do not like this. It goes against everything they stand for.”
The biggest problem may be allegations of systematic corruption. Rival presidential candidates have accused each other of buying the loyalty of lawmakers, and local anti-corruption campaigners say tens of thousands of dollars have been handed to individuals to secure support in the vote.
“This is probably the most expensive election, per vote, in history,” the Mogadishu-based anti-corruption group Marqaati said in a report released on Tuesday.
Hasan Abdurahman Mohamed, 56, a university lecturer in Mogadishu, described being shown a cheque for $10,000 (£8,000) by one new MP who asked him to lobby other MPs in favour of a particular candidate.
Hours before voting was due to start, the chairman of the presidential election committee, Abdirahman Beyle, told MPs they would not be allowed to enter the voting hall with their mobile phones. Beyle said the measure was to prevent politicians taking pictures of their ballot papers to prove to those who had given them money that they had voted as instructed.
Western donors admit the vote was far from perfect, but that it marked a modest step forward from 2012 when just 135 elders picked the lawmakers, who chose the president.
They also point to the levels of female participation: almost a quarter of elected MPs are women.
But Fadumo Dayib, a Somali politician who briefly campaigned as a presidential candidate last year, said female MPs would “not stand a chance” if they tried to assert themselves.
“They could have had women associations as voters. Instead the vote was given to clan elders who just selected the women to represent their interests. If [the women] do not do what they are told they will be ostracised … The international community could have asked for much, much more. It has lost a great opportunity,” Dayib said.
Dayib did however welcome the election of Farmajo.
“History in the making. Lawmakers have clearly chosen the choice of the people. They’ve saved #Somalia! It is a new dawn, a new beginning!,” she tweetedwhen the results were announced.
This election, which has been largely paid for by the US and EU states, has provoked fierce interest from rival Middle Eastern powers keen to extend their influence in a strategically important part of the world. The United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia have all been accused of funding the campaigns of specific candidates and thus indirectly fuelling corruption.
The US and other international powers have pressed Somalia to move ahead with elections as an important symbol of recovery.
A win for the incumbent would not have pleased western powers. British parliamentarians reported last year that “there is a tangible sense amongst western donors that President Mohamud’s government has not been the fresh start that Somalia needed”.
Mohamud, who got 97 votes to the winner’s 184, accepted the result and urged “all Somalis to support the new president and work with him and his government”.
In Nairobi, the capital of Somalia’s powerful neighbour Kenya, members of the Somali diaspora also celebrated. In the neighbourhood of Eastleigh, known as little Mogadishu due to its huge Somali community, a group of businessmen invited fellow Somalis to dinner as the election results were announced.
“We are ... celebrating. We watched for the whole election process today. We are very happy. I hope I will be able to return to my country because the new president just declared he will bring back peace,” said Khalid Abdullahi, 27, a Somali refugee who lives in Nairobi.
Author: Jason Burke