A former prime minister who holds dual Somali-U.S. citizenship was elected Somalia’s president on Wednesday, declaring a new “era of unity” as he took on the daunting task of bringing the long-chaotic country its first fully functioning central government in a quarter-century.
Fears of attacks by the Islamic extremist al-Shabab dogged the historic vote, which was limited to lawmakers instead of the population at large, with members of the upper and lower houses of parliament casting ballots at a heavily guarded former air force base in the capital, Mogadishu, while a security lockdown closed the international airport.
“This victory belongs to the Somali people,” the newly elected president, Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo, declared after taking the oath of office. “This is the beginning of the era of unity, the democracy of Somalia and the beginning of the fight against corruption.”
The new president represents a generation of Somalis scattered abroad by conflict who cautiously have begun to return to help their homeland recover. Most of the candidates in the election held dual citizenship.
Farmajo, who is in his mid-50s and holds degrees from the State University of New York in Buffalo, was prime minister for eight months before leaving the post in 2011. While he was in office, al-Shabab was expelled from Mogadishu, his campaign biography says. He had lived in the United States since 1985, when he was sent there with Somalia’s foreign affairs ministry.
The international community pushed Somalia to hold the election as a symbol of strength, with the U.S. pouring in hundreds of millions of dollars in recent years for political and economic recovery. But the election was marred by reports of widespread graft in a country recently ranked as the world’s most corrupt by Transparency International.
The legislators voting — 275 members of the lower legislative house and 54 senators — were selected by the country’s powerful, intricate network of clans. Weeks ago, a joint statement by the United Nations, the U.S., the European Union and others warned of “egregious cases of abuse of the electoral process.”
With reports of votes being sold for up to $30,000 apiece, “this is probably the most expensive election, per vote, in history,” the Mogadishu-based anti-corruption group Marqaati said in a report released Tuesday.
Tremendous challenges remain for Somalia and its new president, even beyond graft, al-Shabab attacks and an economy propped up in part by the country’s diaspora of more than 2 million people.
Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of Somali refugees are under pressure to return home as neighboring Kenya’s government seeks to close the world’s largest refugee camp, Dadaab, by the end of May. Human rights groups have warned that Somalia is hardly equipped to support the returnees — especially as the United Nations and others warn that drought is creating a humanitarian crisis for almost 3 million Somalis.