The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Expectations run high for Somalia’s new president

Somalia's former president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, third from left, with newly elected President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo after votes were counted on Feb. 8. (Said Yusuf Warsame/European Pressphoto Agency)
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Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo, a former prime minister and U.S. dual citizen, won Somalia's long-postponed presidential election Wednesday. Voting took place at the international airport under heavy security. Somali citizens were not able to directly participate in the vote due to threats from extremist group al-Shabab, but Farmajo's victory was widely seen as a reflection of popular support.

Legislators appointed by the country's powerful clan leaders cast the actual ballots and ultimately unseated the favorite, incumbent president Hassan Sheikh Mohamud. Farmajo, 55, is known for his anti-corruption work during eight months he served as prime minister six years ago. When he was asked to step down in 2011, hundreds of people took to the streets of the capital, Mogadishu, demanding that he stay on.

“This victory represents the interest of the Somali people. This victory belongs to Somali people, and this is the beginning of the era of the unity, the democracy of Somalia and the beginning of the fight against corruption,” Farmajo said after taking the oath of office.

Farmajo will now face off against endemic official corruption and al-Shabab's continued control of large swaths of the countryside. Transparency International has consistently listed Somalia as the most corrupt country in the world. Farmajo's win was celebrated in Somalia's streets, but analysts expressed wariness that he could mold a functioning government out of what is often considered a “failed state.”

The election itself did little to instill confidence. A joint statement by the United Nations, the United States, European Union and others warned of “egregious cases of abuse of the electoral process” in the weeks leading up to the vote. And a Mogadishu-based nonprofit organization, Marqaati, released a report this week alleging that some presidential candidates paid $50,000 to $100,000 to legislators to sway their allegiance.

Meanwhile, the constant threat of violence meant people in Somalia will have to wait again to cast ballots themselves. Throughout the presidency of Farmajo's predecessor, Somalia was plagued by high-profile attacks, particularly those targeting lawmakers and officials in Mogadishu. In an interview with The Washington Post last year, Mohamud called al-Shabab militants “resurgent,” admitting that his own fledgling security forces had failed to step up against the al-Qaeda-backed group.

But the continued presence of extremists is not simply a product of the Somali government’s weakness. An African Union mission in Somalia, launched in 2011, was able to force al-Shabab from some of the urban centers it once controlled, but the mission has largely failed to eradicate members of the group who still hover between cities.

The United States has since spent more than $2 billion on Somalia, and European nations have given large sums as well. But large amounts of money have been lost to corruption — so much so that the government has proven unable to pay its soldiers or police. Security forces thus have little impetus to work and some even defect to al-Shabab. Farmajo is perhaps most famous for reinstating soldiers' salaries during his time as prime minister.

“People were equally excited for Mohamud when he was elected,” said Kenneth Menkhaus, a professor at Davidson College and an expert on politics in the Horn of Africa. “But as a matter of political survival, he was co-opted by a system that relies on dealmaking and corruption. Progress in Somalia is contingent on reducing that corruption.”

Formajo will face the mammoth task of uniting a country composed of disparate so-called “federal member states,” each of which has a distinct clan composition. In several of those states, strongmen have emerged who are seen locally as more important and more powerful than the president. Formajo's success may rely on building a broad alliance of clans without succumbing to horse-trading of government funds.

The United States and Europe have conveyed their support to the central government while also recognizing that the best way to secure Somalia in the long term might be to empower regional fighting forces that maintain control over their own portion of the country. For its part, the United States has devoted considerable resources to training a Somali special forces unit and has continued its campaign of airstrikes and drone strikes on al-Shabab.

While U.S. military officials say that campaign has been successful, its killing of several al-Shabab leaders in recent years hasn’t paralyzed the group as some had once expected.

Farmajo was born in Somalia and grew up in Mogadishu as the son of a government official. In 1982, he joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and was posted to Washington, D.C., three years later. While in the United States, he spoke out against his government and subsequently was granted asylum out of fear for his safety.

Except for his stint as prime minister, he has lived in the United States since. He was politically active enough in the diaspora to be asked by former president Sharif Sheikh Ahmed to come back and serve.

At the time, Farmajo was working for the New York State Department of Transportation in Buffalo, the city where he got his bachelor's degree. After his eight months in office, he went back to his old life, and lived just outside the city until returning to Somalia again last year to begin campaigning.

On Wednesday, the Buffalo News ran the headline: “Grand Island man elected president of Somalia.” The article quoted former Erie County Executive Joel Giambra, apparently a close friend of Farmajo's, as saying: “This is an opportunity for our new president to collaborate with a new world leader who happens to be from Grand Island.”

Somalia was one of seven Muslim-majority countries whose citizens were barred from entering the United States for 90 days by a now-suspended Trump administration executive order. As a head of state, Farmajo would be exempted from the ban should it be reinstated.

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