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Somalia: Newly-elected President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud's Tough First Week

Hassan Sheikh Mohamud's appointment has been well-received, but he has already had to deal with allegations of election-rigging and an assassination attempt.
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Should allegations of bribery leave outgoing president, Sharif Sheikh Ahmed (pictured) feeling aggrieved? Photo courtesy of UN.

London, UK and Mogadishu, Somalia:

Somalia welcomed its new president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, in an official ceremony last Sunday. On September 10, Sheikh Mohamud, 56, an academic and civil rights activist, won the run-off ballot in the newly-formed Somali parliament by a margin of 190 votes to 79. Few expected him to succeed against two candidates widely tipped to win - the outgoing president, Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, and prime minister, Abdiweli Mohamed Ali. Many hope it will mark a first step towards rebuilding Somalia after more than two decades of political instability. 

Yet the first week of his tenure has not been without difficulties. “People were really surprised, because the former president was considered the most likely to win,” Shabelle Media Network reporter Omaar Nur told Think Africa Press. In the first round of voting, he registered significantly fewer votes than Sheikh Ahmed. The landslide victory in the run-off has provoked serious allegations of corruption and he has already had to deal with an assassination attempt by the terrorist group, al-Shabaab.

Personal qualities

In many ways, Hasan Sheikh Mohamud offered something different. First, his status as a political novice left him without the baggage attached to previous, turbulent years. Indeed, his first foray into politics was when he founded the Peace and Development Party in 2011.

“People wanted a change. The parliamentarians wanted to make this change, so they elected Sheikh Mohamud,” Nur explained.

Second, he is not part of a returning diaspora but a man who has built his reputation through a number of projects aimed at improving the country. After obtaining an MBA from Bhopal University, India, Sheikh Mohamud went back to Somalia and started working in the country’s education system. He worked for UNICEF between 1993 and 1995 in southern and central Somalia, and then founded one of the first private primary schools in the country. In 1999, he helped to establish the Mogadishu Simad University, where he served as a dean for the next ten years.

Both he and his predecessor, Sheikh Ahmed, belong to the Hawiye clan but his reputation as a moderate and academic leave many with hope that he can be the statesman to foster unity across the clans.

Allegations of corruption

The incumbent president was gracious in defeat, and voiced his satisfaction with the election:

"It is a great pleasure for me to witness a fair election in Mogadishu after 42 years," Sheikh Ahmed said. Yet the allegations of corruption reveal a flawed democratic process - the MPs who took part in the vote were themselves not democratically elected. It is claimed that bribes of up to $50,000 were offered in exchange for votes. 

Reactions in Mogadishu

The accusations of bribery have been denied by officials and those unaware of it seem happy with the choice of candidate; others have simply rejoiced in the democratic process itself. 

“I'm very glad that Somali parliamentarians elected an educated person and that the president comes from civil society and he’s aware of people’s needs in this country,” Fartun Haji Max'ed, 23, told Think Africa Press.

Mohamed Ali Ahmed, 45, commented: “I'm so happy to see this democratic election occurring in the Somali capital. It was a fair election, and I hope the new leader will lead the country towards peace and prosperity.”

Some have expressed more caution. Recognising the difficult task ahead of Sheikh Mohamud, Badrudiin Moalim Nor, 30 noted: “I'm sorry for him, because it will not be easy for him to take over from the previous government.”

Obstacles remain

One of the most compelling challenges the new president needs to tackle is the issue of security, particularly the threat posed by the Islamist rebel group al-Shabaab. Despite being removed from the capital last year by a mixture of AU and government forces, the group maintains a controlling presence in much of south-central Somalia.

Just two days after the election, the new president was the target of an al-Shabaab attack at the hotel where he was meeting the Kenyan foreign minister, Sam Ongeri. They both escaped unharmed, but at least eight people were killed.

According to Nur, the attack was not a personal attack on Sheikh Mohamud as an individual, but rather an attack on whoever happened to assume the presidency. “Al-Shabaab had already promised to kill any new leader because they say he’s a traitor for the Somali people,” said Nur. “An al-Shabaab spokesperson said on twitter they were behind the attack and that they will continue carrying out attacks in Mogadishu until the African Union withdraws from the country,” he added.

In his inaugural address on September 16, Hasan Sheikh Mohamud showed he is aware of the troubles he faces: "We want our first, second and third priority to be security." The realisation of this rhetoric will become one of the hallmarks of his tenure. 

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I'm sure I'm not alone in having some hope in Mohamud's presidency, if only for the fact that he came in as an outsider, and as such may be an easier figure for Somali's to unite behind. It is easier to believe in, and work for, change if there is a new guy leading you forward...Al-Shabaab however clearly showed their capacity in the recent assassination attempt. It was most fortunate that Mohamud escaped unharmed, it is hard to estimate the damage to the fragile Somali government if he had been killed only a few days after the election.While the military campaign against al-Shabaab need to continue, I don't think I see enough of discussions of how to defeat them politically. How can their support base and recruitment venues be eroded?