A former prime minister who holds dual Somali-U.S. citizenship was elected Somalia’s president on Wednesday, declaring a new “era of unity” as he took on the daunting task of bringing the long-chaotic country its first fully functioning central government in a quarter-century.
Fears of attacks by the Islamic extremist group al-Shabaab dogged the historic vote, which was limited to lawmakers instead of the population at large, with members of the upper and lower houses of parliament casting ballots at a heavily guarded former air force base in the capital of Mogadishu, while a security lockdown closed the international airport.
“This victory belongs to the Somali people,” the newly elected president, Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo, declared after taking the oath of office. “This is the beginning of the era of unity, the democracy of Somalia and the beginning of the fight against corruption.”
“There is a daunting task ahead of me, and I know that,” he said.
Thousands of jubilant Somalis poured into the streets, chanting the new president’s name as cheering soldiers fired into the air. “Somalia will be another Somalia soon,” said Ahmed Ali, a police officer celebrating in the crowd.
Incumbent president Hassan Sheikh Mohamud conceded defeat after two rounds of voting, saying: “History was made. We have taken this path to democracy.”
Mohamud held a slight lead over Farmajo after an initial round of voting Wednesday that included a field of 21 candidates. But Farmajo easily won the second round contested among three candidates, with 184 votes to Mohamud’s 97.
The new president represents a generation of Somalis scattered abroad by conflict who cautiously have begun to return to help their homeland recover. Most of the candidates in the election held dual citizenship.
Farmajo, who is in his mid-50s and holds degrees from the State University of New York in Buffalo, was prime minister for eight months before leaving the post in 2011. While he was in office, al-Shabaab was expelled from Mogadishu, his campaign biography says.
‘Help us move forward’
He had lived in the United States since 1985, when he was sent there with Somalia’s foreign affairs ministry.
Somalia began to fall apart in 1991, when warlords ousted dictator Siad Barre and then turned on each other. Years of conflict and al-Shabaab attacks, along with famine, left the Horn of Africa country of some 12 million people shattered.
Across Mogadishu, Somalis had gathered around TV screens at cafés and homes, eagerly watching the vote. “We need an honest leader who can help us move forward,” said Ahmed Hassan, a 26-year-old university student.
Somalia’s instability landed it among the seven Muslim-majority countries affected by U.S. President Donald Trump’s executive order on immigration, even though its government has been an increasingly important partner for the U.S. military on counterterrorism efforts, including drone strikes against al-Shabaab leaders.
As an American citizen, Farmajo will be able to travel to the United States despite the ban.
In a sign of the dangers that remain in Mogadishu, two mortar rounds fired by suspected extremists late Tuesday hit near the election venue. There were no such attacks reported in the capital on Wednesday and no public statements by al-Shabaab.
The international community pushed Somalia to hold the election as a symbol of strength, with the U.S. pouring in hundreds of millions of dollars in recent years for political and economic recovery. But the election was marred by reports of widespread graft in a country recently ranked as the world’s most corrupt by Transparency International.