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On The Road: Somalia Gears up for Presidential Election

After some delays in the process, Somalia's recently-appointed parliamentarians are expected to elect a new president on September 10.
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Front-runners: President of the Transitional Federal Government Sharif Sheikh Ahmed (left) and Prime Minister Abdiweli Mohamed Ali (right) at the London Conference on Somalia in February 2012. Photograph by UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

After more than 12 years of transitional government, Somalia has been forced to wait a few extra weeks before the election of its new president.

According to the end of the transition roadmap, a new president and government should have been elected by August 20, but this was pushed back to September 10 following delays in the process.

Despite the fact that the transition has not run completely smoothly so far, with accusations of intimidation and corruption arising around the selection of parliamentarians for example, expectations are high within and outside Somalia for what could prove to be a significant turning point for the country.

Picking parliamentarians

On August 18, around 200 parliamentarians were appointed by the Technical Selection Committee, a 135-strong body made up of 30 traditional elders from Somalia’s four main clans – Darod, Dir, Hawiye and Rahanweyn – and 15 from minority clans.

The committee assessed parliamentary candidates against criteria such as citizenship, having a school diploma, and not being linked to warlords or atrocities committed during the civil war. On this basis, the committee rejected 70 candidates, some of whom appealed to the Supreme Court.

Speaking to Think Africa Press, Omar Nor, a journalist at the Mogadishu-based media network Shabelle, described these glitches in the process as “technical problems” and said that delays were “due to the fact that the appointment of some MPs was disputed”.

Two days before the deadline for the presidential election, only 202 of the 275 MPs to eventually make up the lower house of parliament had been chosen. Halimo Yarey, co-chair of the selection committee, explained “the rest of the list is still pending because of inter-clan arguments and other reasons related to a lack of fulfilment of the conditions". By August 25, 228 MPs had been appointed and they voted to elect former labour minister Mohamed Osman Jawari as speaker of parliament.

Although the broader Somali population do not take part in the voting directly, many regional and international bodies believe the elections represent a significant step towards the democratic rule. To mark the official end of transition, the African Union, Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), United Nations, and some of the countries most active in Somalia including the UK and US, released a join statement that read: "Whilst parliament remains a selected rather than elected body, it is essential that it cuts its ties with the past of self-interest and warlordism, and is populated by a new generation of Somali politicians, including the proper representation of Somali women.”

The presidential candidates

Despite international hopes for a “new generation of Somalia politicians”, the two favourites for the presidency are experienced political veterans.

Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed is the outgoing transitional president and former leader of the Union of the Islamic Courts, a religious and political entity that managed to establish a degree of order and rule of law in the country between 2004 and 2006 before being overthrown in a US-backed Ethiopian invasion. The rebel group al-Shabaab emerged out of the dispersed remnants of the organisation.

In 2009, Sheikh Ahmed became the president of the transitional federal government, which has been heavily criticised for corruption. In July 2012, a report by the UN Monitoring Group for Somalia and Eritrea claimed that seven out of ten dollars donated to Somalia by the international community went missing through corruption. "Systematic embezzlement, pure and simple misappropriation of funds and theft, of public money have become government systems," it read.

Questioned by Al-Jazeera, Sheikh Ahmed answered: “This country didn't have any resources and the job ahead was enormous. We only reached where we are thanks to our own effort. Some of us have sacrificed our life and our money. People that talk about corruption don’t have a good agenda.”

Sheikh Ahmed’s main rival for the presidency is outgoing prime minister Abdiweli Mohamed Ali. Ali is seen as the figure closest to the international community and was one of the most prominent Somali speakers during the London Conference of Somalia in February 2012. He is credited with strengthening Somalia’s ties to Turkey, which have won praise. He moved to the US in the 1980s, and holds a PhD in economics from George Mason University.

Former political bigwigs are also in the running, such as Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo, who was prime minister from October 2010 to June 2011. Farmajo resigned from his post as part of the June 2011 Kampala Accords, but still retains some popularity. Mohamed Farah, a Somali analyst at the United Nation Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, told Think Africa Press that the former prime minister is popular among Somalis and is seen as someone that gets things done. “He successfully put some measures into the parliamentary agenda and managed to get them approved, such as the planning of the government income and expenditure, the better management of the salaries of the militaries and government personnel, and the renovation of the seaport and airport,” says Farah.

Apart from the front-runners, some new faces are also competing including returning members of the diaspora such as Yusuf Garad Omar, former head of BBC Somali service, and Ahmed Ismail Samatar, former Dean of the Institute for Global Citizenship and professor of International Studies at Macalester College in Minnesota, US.

A turning point?

The presidential elections – which come after 12 years of provisional government and after over 20 years since Somalia last had a functioning central government – could be a turning point for the country and a step towards democracy. Indeed, despite the lack of direct public involvement in the elections, Shabelle reporter Nor says that there is plenty of enthusiasm in the streets of Mogadishu and that people seem to feel part of what he calls a “historic move”.

Farah also says he has noticed something changing in the country, and that despite this once again being an indirect election, the attitude towards it is much different than in the past.

“The coming government is going to be different from the last one because Somali people now have the ambition and the willingness to rebuild their country” he says. “I visited Somalia in July and had the impression that the spirit of the people was totally different from my last visit of 2010.”

Amendment note 7/9/2012: When first published the article stated that Mohamed Farah’s comments on Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo referred to current prime minister Abdiweli Mohamed Ali rather than the former prime minister. This has now been corrected. A sentence on Mohamed Ali’s role in improving relations with Turkey has also been added.

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