An Irregular Election and a Glimmer of Hope in Somalia

The establishment and exercise of democracy can be messy under the best of circumstances so this week’s election in Somalia, a country rendered dysfunctional by over 20 years of civil war, was bound to raise eyebrows. However flawed the process, the significance of Somalis taking the first step toward creating a successful state must not be overlooked.

For most of the last 25 years warlords battled each other and the country’s central government controlled just a few swatches of territory in this arid land. The images evoked by the 2001 film “Black Hawk Down” remain fixed in the minds of most Americans – and justifiably so. After a series of tentative governing arrangements, the U.S. finally recognized Somalia’s government in 2013. Even now, the country’s fragile stability continues to be threatened by al-Shabab militants associated with al Qaeda.

The new president is Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo, who served a short stint as prime minister in 2010-11. The sobriquet “Farmajo,” is derived from the Italian word for cheese. (Somalia was once an Italian colony and he is said to have developed a love for cheese from his father.)  The voting process that led to the selection of “Mr. Cheese” on February 7 can be described as irregular as best. A direct, one-person, one-vote election was seen as too risky with al-Shabab menacing communities throughout the country. Indeed, the group lobbed mortars around the capital of Mogadishu on the eve of the voting.

To start, 135 clan elders chose roughly 14,000 delegates who, in turn, elected 275 members of the Lower House and 54 Member of the Upper House. These parliamentarians then selected the president.  The vote was supposed to have taken place in October but was repeatedly delayed. Corruption and intimidation were rampant. In fact, the best that can be said is that the corruption was transparent.  In an interview with the Voice of America, Somalia’s auditor general, Nur Jimale Farah, said some of the parliamentary seats were bought by the highest bidder.

“Some votes were bought with $5,000, some with $10,000, and some with $20,000 or $30,000. But not all seats are equal,” he explained. “Some are influential seats and have a lot of candidates competing for them.”

Out of a field of two dozen presidential candidates, incumbent Hassan Sheikh Mohamud easily won the first round of voting.  His war chest, like those of other candidates, was said to have been filled by foreigners who had one stake or another in the outcome. The country is not without resources. Foreign interests have long been eyeing investments in its oil and gas capabilities. Located on the Indian Ocean, Somalia could develop as a regional trading and petrochemical hub.

Perhaps tapping growing resentment about corruption by the country’s leaders, “Farmajo” began garnering support from other candidates and won the second round of balloting 184-97. This catapulted him to victory in the final round.

As is the case with so many emerging democracies in Africa, the country’s daunting problems stand in stark contrast to the ordinary nature of the leader people have chosen. Mohamed, who is 54, had a stint working in a cubicle in the New York State Department of Transportation in Buffalo.  In his brief tenure as prime minister in 2010 before being ousted in a power struggle, he is credited for setting up a payroll system for soldiers.

For now, “Farmajo,” has been returned to power peacefully as the incumbent president readily accepted defeat saying, “History was made, we have taken this path to democracy, and now I want to congratulate Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo.” Media accounts describe an outburst of hope that the country has a chance to begin establishing a stable, democratic country. In the streets of Mogadishu, supporters sang and danced, and some waved Somalia flags and blowing horns.

The New York Times quoted one Somali analyst who summed up the situation saying, “The least corrupt and most-well-liked candidate won Somalia’s most corrupt and least democratic election.”

At least it is a start.