Mohamed Abdullahi ‘Farmajo’, Somalia’s unexpected president

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    It was difficult, in the run-up to the Somali
    presidential election, to find anyone to say nice things about
    the process or its chances of success.

    It was fantastically corrupt, with votes being
    bought and sold for tens of thousands of dollars. It was barely
    representative, with 329 hand-picked members of parliament
    given the opportunity to anoint the country’s next leaders. It
    reinforced dangerous clan dynamics and ruling elites. It took
    place against the backdrop of chronic insecurity, forcing MPs
    to huddle under the protection of foreign troops in an aircraft
    hangar at Mogadishu airport as they filled in their precious
    ballots.

    This is all true. This was not democracy as the
    rest of the world knows it. But that doesn’t mean it didn’t
    work.

    I live in the middle of the city, and I can still
    hear people chanting and celebrating on the streets,” said
    Abdihakim Ainte, a political analyst, on the phone from
    Mogadishu, speaking the day after the vote. Celebrations had
    started the night before, and hadn’t stopped. “I grew up here,
    and I’ve never seen this kind of jubilation
    before.”

    In a dramatic, unexpected and popular result,
    Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed on Wednesday defeated 20 other
    presidential candidates, including incumbent Hassan Sheikh
    Mohamud. It was the current president who had spent the most
    cash in an effort to buy his way to victory; and the
    challenger, Mohamed, who had spoken out loudest against this
    corruption.

    The outgoing president had been pumping huge money
    into buying MPs. He was so relentless and desperate in buying
    the votes, he was trying to actually buy all the MPs, and the
    process itself. But MPs took the money, and they turned the
    table on him,” said Ainte.

    It seems the MPs took the money but still voted
    with their conscience…Only in Somalia,” tweeted Rageh Omaar,
    the veteran British foreign correspondent of Somali
    origin.

    Universally known by his nickname Farmajo – from
    the Italian formaggio, after his father’s love of cheese
    – the new president has spent much of his life in Buffalo, New
    York, where he worked in local government. He holds a US
    passport.

    He is no stranger to the top echelons of power in
    Somalia, however. Between 2010 and 2011, he served as prime
    minister for just under a year, successfully shrinking a
    bloated cabinet and setting up a reliable payment system for
    the army before being ousted in a power struggle. As a result,
    he earned a reputation as an effective, no-nonsense
    administrator, and remains popular with the army, a vital
    constituency.

    Despite the flawed process, Somalia’s election
    delivered a well-liked president who professes himself
    committed to reform and good governance.

    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,” said Farmajo, speaking to reporters
    just after his victory.

    But even with the best will in the world, Farmajo
    faces a nearly impossible job. Somalia remains desperately
    poor, and desperately insecure – in 2016, it was the most
    violent country in Africa, both in the number of incidents and
    in total fatalities. Islamist militant group al-Shabaab
    continues to wreak havoc, while the government is almost
    totally reliant for its authority on thousands of African
    peacekeepers. Large swathes of territory, especially Somaliland
    and Puntland in the north, operate as de facto independent
    states. Corruption is endemic at all levels of government, and
    seems to be getting worse as wealthy middle eastern powers
    jockey for influence in Mogadishu.

    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,
    speaking to the Guardian. “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.”

    It’s not lost on Mogadishu residents that outgoing
    president Mohamud came into office four years ago on similar
    promises of change and reform. “When Hassan Sheikh Mohamud
    came, he was also welcomed with celebrations – although not to
    this level. There is a reason why people celebrate one
    president over another. It’s the hope that there will be an
    improvement. I understand that Somali complexities are deeper
    than that, that there is an institutional failure, a weak
    security apparatus on the ground, and the politics are a mess.
    But you still need that guy at the top who will guide things in
    the right direction,” said Ainte.

    Hassan Sheikh Mohamud turned out
    not to be that guy. But Somalia’s elections, for all the
    obvious flaws, should be lauded for ensuring that there, change
    at the very top is possible. Now it is President Farmajo’s turn
    to live up to his lofty campaign promises.
    DM

    Photo: Newly elected Somali President
    Mohamed Abdullahi ‘Farmajo’ Mohamed (C) after the votes where
    counted in the presidential election held at the international
    airport in Mogadishu, Somalia, 08 February 2017. Members of the
    upper and lower houses voted with 21 candidates for president.
    The war torn country is holding its first presidential
    elections in a quarter century. EPA/SAID YUSUF
    WARSAME

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