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Hassan Sheikh Mohamud regains power in Somalia, clears political deadlock

The return of the former president from 2012 to 2017 ends institutional paralysis and facilitates a new US military deployment
Hassan Sheikh Mohamud

PHOTO/HASSAN SHEIK MOHAMUD  -   Somalia's new President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud after the vote during a meeting with the commanders of the Somali Armed Forces and the Somali Police

Somalia met its next leader on Sunday. Former president from 2012 to 2017, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, regained the presidency after defeating incumbent Abdullahi Mohamed, known as Farmajo, by a landslide in the third and final round of elections. Mohamud thus became the first president to win re-election and, in the process, gained revenge for the last elections held five years ago, in which Farmajo ousted the incoming president.

Mohamud takes office five years later against a critical backdrop. Rampant inflation, a period of drought, massive famine and the structural weakness of the state, relentlessly battered by pressing internal division and the widespread dominance of the jihadist group Al Shabab, have shattered Somalia's present and mortgaged its future. The challenges he faces, however, are not much different from those he faced 10 years ago when he first entered the presidential palace.

The new president is overdue. The election should have been held more than a year ago, in February 2021, when former president Farmajo's term expired. But he held on to office thanks to a parliamentary manoeuvre that extended his stay in power and the federal government's term of office by two years, a controversial move that a month later led to a gunfight between soldiers supporting and opposing the president over what they saw as a coup against legality.

Farmajo Mohamud
PHOTO/HASSAN SHEIK MOHAMUD  -   Former President Abdullahi Mohamed alias Farmajo (left) officially hands over power to President-elect Hassan Sheikh Mohamud (right), Mogadishu, 17 May 2022

The presidential legacy of Abdullahi Mohamed alias Farmajo, a bureaucrat who renounced his US citizenship and had previously served as prime minister, has also been marked by massive human rights violations through arbitrary arrests and executions, repression of dissent and persecution of the media. His strong nationalism combined with his deeply centralist form of government in a federal state strained relations both externally with neighbouring Kenya and internally.

Deep disagreements with his prime minister, Mohamed Hussein Roble, whom he dismissed in December, played a key role in the final stages of his presidency. Roble, a Swedish-trained civil engineer and virtual political neophyte, went against his boss's directives on several key issues and directly rivalled Farmajo, whom he even accused of having sabotaged the elections after stripping the head of government of his prerogatives to organise the elections.

Continued pressure from the international community over Somalia's political paralysis, crystallised by the appearance on the scene of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which threatened to suspend the multi-million dollar aid programme if a new administration was not in place by 17 May, finally prompted the holding of the unorthodox elections, whose indirect voting system has little or nothing to do with the usual processes. It is clan-based and privileges the majority, facilitating vote rigging along the way.

Members of the upper and lower houses of parliament chose the new president during a secret ballot held in a tent in a hangar at Mogadishu's Halane military airport. The enclave is protected from terrorist attacks by African Union (AU) peacekeepers. The capital was under a security lockdown, a kind of curfew, in effect from 09.00 local time on Saturday until early Monday morning.

Witnesses heard gunshots in various parts of the capital in celebration when Hassan Sheikh Mohamud's victory was announced, just as they did five years ago with Farmajo's victory. However, there was also an explosion in an area near the polling station, apparently without fatalities. Mohamed and Mohamud knew the result as they sat across from each other, the former conceding defeat and the latter taking the oath of office.

Earlier, Mohamud had to defeat three dozen candidates vying for the presidency. Delegates from the many clans who conduct the vote first elect the 328 legislators who then select the president. Of the total of 36 contenders in the first round, only four made it to the second round. From there it was on to the third round, where a simple majority was enough to elect the winner. 

Mohamud Farmajo
PHOTO/HASSAN SHEIK MOHAMUD  -   Former President Abdullahi Mohamed alias Farmajo (left) walks with President-elect Hassan Sheikh Mohamud (right) minutes before the transfer of power, Mogadishu, 17 May 2022

Mohamud managed to qualify with only 52 points in the first ballot, but took the lead with 110 in the second round and finished off the third round thanks to opposition bigwigs, led by Puntland State President Said Abdullahi Mohamed and Ali Jare, the former prime minister who, like Roble, also rivalled Farmajo during his tenure, who sealed their alliance against the outgoing president to deliver a historic victory in a tightly contested election contest.

Who is Hassan Sheikh Mohamud?

A member of the Hawiye clan, one of Somalia's most important clans, Mohamud has previous experience as a head of state. He was born 66 years ago in the central province of Hiran in a middle-class neighbourhood of the capital. A technical engineering graduate from the Somali National University in 1981, Mohamud rose to prominence as a peace activist in his country after joining UNICEF as an educator and witnessing the massacre of the civil war that ended in 1991.

Leader of the Union for Peace and Development, a conservative nationalist formation with a majority in both houses of parliament, Mohamud is perceived as a moderate Islamist in a country that is almost entirely Islamised. His first term in office was notable for a favourable diplomatic record, which succeeded in restoring bilateral relations with African and Western countries, as well as improving territorial cohesion. But corruption cases during his administration cast a shadow over his legacy.

With a message of unity, the president-elect on Tuesday brought together the presidents of the five of the country's six de jure states, with the exception of Somaliland, which operates de facto as an independent territory, to ease the internal division that has worsened in recent years. A first gesture with which Mohamud tried to reconcile the parties and mark a distance from his predecessor in office. 

Somalia has a new president, but in reality it is the terrorists who hold power in the Horn of Africa. The militants of the Al Shabab terrorist organisation, an Al Qaeda affiliate in the region, now control a large part of the territory and have even come to dominate Mogadishu. Its members also collect taxes, carry out legal proceedings, force minors to join their ranks and, above all, carry out deadly attacks, the most recent of which took place just a few days ago.

Joe Biden
AP/EVAN VUCCI  -   US President Joe Biden during a press conference at the White House
US returns to Somalia

In the midst of the post-election scene, still reeling from Mohamud's victory, US President Joe Biden approved Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin's request for the deployment of hundreds of Special Operations Forces troops to Somalia. The Pentagon's request also included a permit to land up to a dozen suspected Al Shabab leaders based in the Horn of Africa.

CNN puts the number of military personnel assigned to the mission at 500. It is, therefore, the largest deployment of troops undertaken during the Biden Administration, the objective of which is to combat the latent terrorist threat in Somalia, which in turn has serious implications for regional security. Thus, Biden reverses the decision taken by Trump during his last weeks as occupant of the White House. The former president then withdrew some 700 troops from the African country.

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby clarified that the US troops will not be directly involved on the ground, but will only carry out assistance and advisory work to reduce the jihadist threat posed by the nearly 10,000 members of Al Shabab as much as possible. Until now, political chaos has prevented Washington from making a move. With the arrival of Hassan Sheikh Mohamud things seem to have started to change.