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No cheesy Somali choice
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 16 - 02 - 2017

Mohamed Abdullah Mohamed “Farmajo”, born in the Somali capital Mogadishu in 1962, is no outlandish choice of a president for a country sometimes derogatively branded a “failed state”. He hails from a professional middle-class family originally from the Gedo region of southern Somalia.

He is called “Farmajo,” the Italian word for cheese, because of his reputed penchant for it. Italy was the former colonial ruler of Somalia, and some elderly Somalis still speak Italian. However, Farmajo is a Somali politician who has been dragging the country's political establishment onto nationalist ground.

“Somalis are fed up with foreign interference in their country's domestic affairs,” Somali commentator Hibaq Osman told Al-Ahram Weekly.

“We are resentful of the political and military interference of Ethiopians and Kenyans in Somali politics under the guise of the African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM), ostensibly a peace-keeping mission operated by the African Union with approval from the United Nations. Ethiopia will be the biggest loser by Farmajo's being inaugurated president of Somalia, and I am very optimistic,” she added.

The new Somali president holds dual nationality, both Somali and American, and he was Somalia's ambassador to the US between 1985 and 1989. At least 16 of the original presidential candidates also have dual citizenship. Nine hold US passports, four UK and three Canadian, according to a leading Somali radio station.

“This is no problem in Somalia. The president is constitutionally entitled to hold dual nationality,” Osman commented.

The outgoing president's chances of re-election were next to nil, as former president Hassan Sheikh Mahmoud was widely viewed as weak and incompetent. The new president, by contrast, is no novice, and in October 2010 he was appointed prime minister of Somalia.

Mahmoud was derided by many Somalis as a lackey of regional powers, both African and Arab. There have also been suspicions that certain Arab countries tilted the recent vote in Farmajo's favour.

“History has been made. We have taken the path to democracy, and now I want to congratulate Mohamed Abdullah Mohamed Farmajo,” Mahmoud said in his concession speech.

Meanwhile, Mahmoud's term in office has left a complex legacy behind it. Most Somalis resent the alleged human rights violations of AMISOM troops, some of whom have been accused of rape and murder.

The Somali president is elected by the lower and the upper houses of the country's parliament, and the election hall, a converted aircraft hangar packed with MPs, was situated at the Mogadishu International Airport Complex. This is guarded by the African Union peacekeeping forces and is surrounded by high concrete barriers to protect it from attack.

While many Somalis feel left behind, they do not seek easy solutions. They chose their new president for a reason, since for many of them he represents national unity and is no believer in tribalism or clannish machinations.

He understands that Somalis have their eyes set on building a sovereign Somali nation. Farmajo has said he wants to build an economy that works for everyone, and not just for the wealthy few. The Somali people also yearn for opportunities that go hand-in-hand with the regional and global economy.

Several of the other presidential candidates had left prestigious jobs abroad in order to contest the elections, including former Somali ambassador to Kenya Mohamed Ali Nur, known as “Ameeriko” because of his association with the US and with business interests in neighbouring Kenya.

Grim as the politics of Somalia have been, Somalis are determined to propel their country into the economic orbits of East Africa and the Middle East. The Arab countries, Turkey, Iran, India and China have all been taking a keen interest in the country's development, as its strategic location straddling the Indian Ocean, the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Aden, coupled with its proximity to war-torn Yemen, makes it particularly important.

Somalia oversees the shipping lanes that transport oil from the Arab Gulf nations through the Bab Al-Mandab Straits and the Red Sea to the Suez Canal and into the Mediterranean.

A secular Somalia, Internet-savvy and revitalised, implies overcoming the resistance of more conservative Somalis to social change and the interference of outsiders. While 24 candidates filed notices with the country's Elections Commission to run for president, three withdrew on 7 February.

The fractious state of Somali politics still leaves the country prone to interference from outsiders. Farmajo knows that much of any future turmoil, however, will be home-grown.

The Harakat Al-Shabaab Al-Mujahideen, known as Al-Shabaab, is a jihadist Islamist organisation based in Somalia with connections to the Somali Diaspora in Europe and North America as well as neighbouring Horn of Africa nations. The president-elect has said he is willing to talk to Al-Shabaab and all other Somali political groups.

Ethiopia, Somalia's traditional rival, is the country most likely to suffer the consequences of the election of Farmajo as president. The vote for Farmajo reflects the growing anti-Ethiopian sentiment in Somalia, though the new president is unlikely to incur Ethiopia's wrath.

He is a diplomat by nature and an amiable character. However, if he does defy Ethiopia's dictates, he will have the support of his people.

Wealthy Gulf Arab nations such as Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia are thought to have bribed Somali parliamentarians, and not just before the recent elections. Somalia is ranked among the most corrupt countries in the world, and unconfirmed reports have said that votes were being sold for up to $30,000 before the elections.

Somalia's immediate neighbourhood is also combustible, even as Somalia itself is strategically important for international trade and cannot be overlooked by the powers that be in the international arena.

The fall of the regime of former president Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991 was a watershed year in modern Somali history. “But to me personally the landmark year was 2008. Between 31 May and 9 June that year, representatives of Somalia's federal government and the Alliance for the Re-liberation of Somalia started quarrelling, and all hell was let loose,” Osman noted.

There are an estimated 1.5 million internally displaced Somalis (IDP) in Somalia today, along with many others abroad. “Kenya has just closed down Africa and the world's largest refugee camp in north-eastern Kenya, namely Dadaab hosting some 329,811 people,” Osman added.

IDP settlements are concentrated in south-central Somalia (893,000), followed by the northern autonomous region of Puntland (129,000) and the self-styled independent state of Somaliland (84,000). An estimated 60 per cent of the IDPs are children.

Farmajo knows that lifting Somalia out of its present abyss will not only necessitate working closely with Washington, but also liaising with its Arab and African neighbours. Perhaps the most likely flashpoint is one which a decade ago would have been least expected to cause trouble, with AMISOM itself looking increasingly like another powder keg.

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