Somali legislators assembled in a strongly defended airport hangar on Sunday to elect a new president, a vote that is necessary to keep foreign help flowing to the poor country beset by three decades of civil strife.
Former presidents Sharif Sheikh Ahmed and Hassan Sheikh Mohamud were the frontrunners in a crowded field of 35 candidates, according to observers, despite their tenure fails to clamp down corruption or an Islamist militant war.
The United Nations-backed vote has been postponed for over a year due to political wrangling, but it must take place this month to safeguard a $400 million IMF program.
It takes place against a depressingly familiar backdrop of bloodshed caused by al Shabaab insurgent attacks, in-fighting among security personnel, and clan conflicts in the Horn of Africa nation’s worst drought in four decades.
A suicide bomber claimed by al Shabaab injured seven persons during political protests near the Mogadishu airport on Wednesday.
In Galmudug state, rebels from a Sufi Muslim sect fought government soldiers on Friday. On Sunday, Mogadishu was under curfew, with streets quiet and shops closed.
Though holding the process was a success in and of itself, many in the 15 million-strong country were doubtful about true change. They argued that the leading candidates were old faces from the past who had done little to help them, and that such votes were historically dominated by bribes.
After losing support in last month’s legislative vote, incumbent President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, dubbed “Farmaajo” for his alleged fondness of Italian formaggio cheese, was unlikely to be re-elected.
‘NO LIFE IN SOMALIA’
Due to insecurity, Somalia is still unable to organize a direct popular vote, with the government having little influence outside of the city. As officials came, spoke, and listened to traditional music, African Union forces secured the event within an Iraq-style “Green Zone.”
There were expected to be two or three rounds of voting, with a decision likely by late evening.
“The only hope we have is this election,” said medical student Nur Ibrahim.
“There is no life in Somalia. We study and then get bombed by terrorists. If there is no peace, education has no use.”
Analysts think that, in addition to previous presidents Ahmed (2009-2012) and Mohamud (2012-2017), Said Abdulahi Deni, the ruler of the semi-autonomous province of Puntland, has a solid chance.
Only one woman, former foreign minister Fawzia Yusuf Adam, was on the ballot, but she was not anticipated to win much support in the patriarchal country.
In 2009, Ahmed, a former Islamist, took over a Western-backed transitional government, forming the national army and assisting in the expulsion of al Shabaab from Mogadishu, though it resurfaced in the provinces. Mohamud, the other past president, was a professor and peace activist.
“Today, everyone is indoors watching the hottest presidential election in history,” said Farah Ahmed, an elder in Mogadishu, adding that if the unpopular incumbent is re-elected, many more Somalis may flee their nation in despair.