Ex-Premier’s Win in War-Weary Somalia Fuels Hopes for Change

  • ‘Farmajo’ surprise winner in vote marred by graft allegations
  • Country emerging from decades of civil war, battling militants

Former Somali Prime Minister Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed was elected president in a vote that the United Nations said showed progress for the war-torn Horn of Africa country but was also marred by corruption.

Popularly known as Farmajo and a dual U.S.-Somali citizen, Mohamed was the nation’s premier from late 2010 until mid-2011. He will take the helm of a country that descended into conflict among a myriad of clan militias in the late 1980s and has battled al-Qaeda-backed militants for the past decade. The capital, Mogadishu, erupted in celebratory gunfire late Wednesday after Mohamed’s victory and swearing-in.

“Farmajo was a popular prime minister due to his anti-corruption efforts,” said Emma Gordon, an analyst with Bath, England-based Verisk Maplecroft. “His victory therefore carries a significant expectation, particularly among the country’s youth, that he will be able to reform the political system.”

Somalia’s civil war and subsequent insurgency have destroyed much of its political and economic institutions, according to the World Bank, with income per capita of $435 making it the world’s fifth-poorest country. The $6-billion economy is forecast to grow 2.5 percent this year, from an estimated 3.7 percent in 2016, the International Monetary Fund said Wednesday. The country has the world’s worst ranking in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index.

Four Delays

Originally set for Oct. 30, the presidential vote was delayed four times as clan elders jockeyed for lawmaker posts and the auditor-general alleged that as much as $1.3 million changed hands for some individual seats. Leaders were chosen by delegates rather than universal suffrage because of the difficulties in securing polling stations.

The spokesman for UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said Wednesday that the electoral process had been “subject to serious allegations of fraud and corruption, some of them clearly substantiated.” The UN has urged the electoral bodies to “sanction those parties who have engaged in such malpractices,” Stephane Dujarric said in an e-mailed statement.

“We also need to look at the progress this process represents,” in filling an upper house and improving representation for women, he said. “This holds promise for the political future.”

Mohamed, who was born in 1962, won an election that pitted him against more than 20 candidates, including incumbent Hassan Sheikh Mohamoud and former President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed. Mohamoud, who had ruled since 2012, conceded defeat after coming second to Mohamed in a run-off vote.

Violence Threat

The selection took place against the threat of violence by Islamist militant group al-Shabaab, whose fighters have in the past stormed hotels and targeted government buildings in Mogadishu. Somalia’s army is fighting alongside an African Union force to defeat the insurrection. While they have recovered much of the country’s south from the Islamists, Kenya and Uganda have signaled plans to withdraw troops.

Al-Shabaab is “deeply embedded in southern Somalia, and it will take more than a change in president to dislodge the group,” analyst Gordon said in an e-mailed response to questions. Nonetheless, “Farmajo’s anti-corruption agenda will support these efforts, as it should strengthen the national army and allow for more efficient disbursement of foreign support,” she said.

The UN comments on corruption highlight one of Somalia’s major challenges, according to Gordon. “The people are expecting reform and progress under their new president, but the system beneath him remains unchanged,” she said.

“This is a milestone for Somalia’s history,” Mohamed said after his swearing-in at Mogadishu’s airport. “I will work hard for the good of the people and in the interest of this country. I will contribute to the welfare of this war-weary nation.”

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.