Long-troubled Somalia selects a new president in surprising parliamentary vote

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 10, 2012 

— A trained mechanical engineer and academic who prided himself on living in the world’s most dangerous city for 22 years without the luxury of a security detail has been selected as the new president of Somalia, perhaps the world’s most notoriously troubled nation.

Hassan Sheikh Mohamud won the final round of balloting late Monday evening 190 to 79, supplanting the incumbent, President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed. Mohamud’s bid to unseat the unpopular Ahmed gained steam as other opposition candidates stepped aside and and backed his bid.

The run up to the vote in Parliament was burdened with accusations of vote buying, with the price for a single vote reported to be ranging well into the five figure sums. But Mohamud’s overwhelming victory suggested that diplomatic hopes that secret balloting would soften the effectiveness of fraud may have been justified; Ahmed was seen as the candidate with the most resources for such payoffs.

In Somali fashion, celebratory gunfire erupted in Mogadishu, the Somali capital, after the results were announced. Mohamud was immediately sworn in.

"I ask the whole Somali community to support my government as we open a new chapter for Somalis and the country to restore peace and stability," he said in his brief victory speech. He vowed to work closely with Ahmed, who congratulated his successor in a concession speech.

Mohamud’s candidacy was favored by much of Somalia’s educated elite, but many thought it unlikely that the pragmatic, intellectual outsider could beat Ahmed, whose notoriously corrupt Western-backed government was in charge of organizing the vote.

Even when he launched his campaign under the umbrella of the Peace and Development Party in June, Mohamud knew the system was stacked against him.

"The irony is the international community says you are corrupt and not trustworthy," Mohamud said about Ahmed’s government during an interview with McClatchy in June. "But then (the international community) says you guys are good enough to manage the process."

Mohamud’s election closes an extremely rocky, and at-times confusing, sprint to end Somalia’s political transition period under heavy global pressure for progress following the government’s one-year extension in 2011. A new constitution was written, and then came time for the elections.

Due to the widespread lawlessness across much of the country, popular elections were shelved for the more manageable parliamentary poll. Clan elders were selected through a controversial vetting process. Those elders then voted for members of Parliament, who in turn picked the president.

Throughout the process, accusations of vote buying billowed.

Yet, Mohamud said he still thought that the election was worth contesting.

"I don’t believe all people in the process are corrupt," he said during the interview.

Abdirashid Hashi, of the International Crisis Group, an international organization that studies conflicts, said he was not surprised that Mohamud won.

"He was working on his election bid for almost a year," said Hashi. "He did his homework and presented himself as an alternative to the outgoing president, whom many Somalis felt had to go."

Mohamud candidacy was helped by Somalia’s complex clan-based politics. He and Ahmed are from the same subclan. That allows Somalia to change its leaders without upending the basic underlying clan dynamics in power.

Mohamud has moved about Mogadishu without security for 22 years and has been critical of the international approach to Somalia that he said has produced an inefficient humanitarian aid system. In his interview with McClatchy, he told of how in 2010 he flew to Nairobi to sign a consultancy contract with the United Nations, only to be informed that due to security concerns he could not return back to Mogadishu until the contract ended weeks later.

"It is my home," he said he responded.

He expressed optimism. "Things are changing now. Warlordism is not there like before. But now, money is there, corruption is there," Mohamud said.

The vote on Monday may have been limited to a body of several hundred Somalis, but the proceedings were streamed live online, allowing Somalis flung across the world by years of war to tune in and watch.

McClatchy special correspondents Abdi Ibrahim in Mogadishu and Mohammed Yusuf in Nairobi contributed to this report.

Boswell is a McClatchy special correspondent. His reporting is underwritten in part by a grant from Humanity United, a California-based foundation that focuses on human rights issues.

Email: aboswell@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @alanboswell

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