Somali lawmakers on Sunday elected former leader Hassan Sheikh Mohammed as the country’s next president, after the troubled Horn of Africa country held long-overdue elections.
Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, Somalia’s president from 2012 to 2017, won an election in the capital Mogadishu when authorities imposed a security blockade to prevent deadly rebel attacks.
After a marathon poll of 36 candidates broadcast live on state television, parliamentary officials tallied more than 165 votes for former President Mohammed, more than needed to defeat incumbent Mohammed Abdullahi Mohammed.
Supporters of Somalia’s new leader defied the curfew and flooded the streets of Mogadishu, cheering and shooting as it became clear that Mohammed had won the vote.
After Mohammed’s term ended without elections in February 2021, many Somalis hoped the vote would draw a line amid a political crisis that has lasted more than a year.
The president — known as Farmayo because of his appetite for Italian cheese — conceded defeat, and Mohammed was immediately sworn in.
The new leader struck a conciliatory tone in his acceptance speech at the Mogadishu airport compound, which is patrolled by African Union (AU) peacekeepers.
“The president does deserve credit for standing by my side,” Mohammed said, referring to the former leader who sat with him as the votes were counted.
“We have to move on, we don’t need resentment. There is no retaliation,” the new president said.
Mohammed, 66, is the leader of the Peace and Development Alliance party, which has majorities in both houses.
A member of the Hawiye family, one of Somalia’s largest families, Mohammed is seen by some as a conciliatory politician. He is also known for his work as a civic leader and education facilitator, including as one of the founders of SIMAD University in Mogadishu.
Mohammed promised during his campaign that his government would be inclusive, acknowledging the mistakes of his predecessor, which faced multiple corruption charges and was seen as indifferent to the concerns of rival groups.
He has now inherited several challenges from his predecessor, including a devastating drought that could throw millions of people into starvation.
The United Nations has warned of a humanitarian catastrophe unless action is taken early, and emergency workers fear a repeat of the devastating 2011 famine that killed 260,000 people, half of them children under the age of six.
Mohammed also needs to repair the damage caused by months of political chaos and infighting at the executive level and between the central government and state authorities.
“It’s been a really lost year for Somalia,” said Omar Mahmood, an analyst at the International Crisis Group (ICG) think tank.
“This long-awaited election is divided. Reconciliation is the most pressing challenge,” Mahmoud told AFP.
“The lesser of two evils”
While holding elections only on Sunday was somewhat successful, many Somalis are skeptical of any real improvement.
They complain that most of the 36 candidates are old faces recycled from the past who have done little to stop war and corruption. In any case, Somalis and analysts said, the vote was more influenced by currency changing hands than by political platform.
“Hassan Sheikh is not good, but he is the lesser of two evils. We hope that Somalia will be better,” said Harimanur, a mother of four in Mogadishu.
“We hope that this time Hassan Sheikh Mohamud will improve and become a better leader. We hope that Somalia will be peaceful, although it may take time,” said student Mohamed Ismail.
Somalia has not held one-person-one-vote elections in 50 years. Instead, the polls follow a complex indirect model in which state legislatures and tribal representatives select lawmakers for the state legislature, who then choose the president. The third round of voting was decided by 328 lawmakers, with a simple majority sufficient to select a winner.
Analysts had predicted that incumbent President Mohammed would face a tough campaign amid widespread criticism from Somalis and foreign donors for trying to extend his term last year.
Somalia’s international partners have repeatedly warned that election delays due to political infighting are a dangerous distraction from the fight against al-Shabaab fighters who have been trying to topple the government for more than a decade.
Mohammed came to power in 2017 as a symbol of the Somali diaspora eager to see the country prosper after years of turmoil, leaving a more turbulent country than before he took office, with rising al-Shabaab attacks.
Two suicide bombings in central Somalia killed 48 people in March, while an attack on an AU base earlier this month killed 10 Burundian peacekeepers. The attack was the deadliest attack on AU forces in the country since 2015.
In his concession speech, Mohammed said his successor faced a “tremendous task” and pledged to stand in solidarity with him.
“Let’s pray for the new president, it’s a very tedious task,” he said. “We will stand in solidarity with him.”
Since the fall of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991, Somalia has experienced conflict and clan fighting without a strong central government. The government has little control outside the capital, and AU contingents guard the Iraqi-style “green zone”.