A Washington D.C. taxi driver from Somalia reflected the mixture of relief and trepidation among his countrymen back home and other observers the day after the country’s latest momentous election last week. “My heart is smiling,” he told me after I’d greeted him with some of the few words of Somali that I know. But our conversation soon turned, naturally, to the hurdles yet to come for a strategic but struggling coastal sliver along the Horn of Africa.
The surprise victory of former Prime Minister Mohamed Abdullahi “Farmajo” Mohamed over incumbent President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud on Feb. 8 by a 184-97 vote margin marked the third consecutive peaceful election of a president for Somalia since the country began emerging from decades of war. Although, for security reasons, it was members of parliament selecting the president in a secret ballot rather than the general election hoped for last year, the result is a remarkable feat. Just over a decade ago, the country was considered a failed state, stuck in an abyss of sectarianism, factionalism, government corruption and war that all provided a ripe environment for transnational terrorist groups.
“Somalia remains a hopeful yet closely watched experiment for regional and international players.”
Slowly and with intense international aid and guidance as well as recent investment from Gulf countries such as Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Turkey, Somalia is trying to climb out of that abyss. Emerging from more than two decades of war, it still easily fits the description of fragile. But the peaceful, congratulatory images of Farmajo flanked by his most recent two predecessors, Mohamud and Ahmed Shaikh Sharif, after the election was another sign that Somalia is emerging from the rubble.
Somalia remains a hopeful yet closely watched experiment for regional and international players, in part because of the massive challenge of rebuilding the country and the society at every level all at once. Amid rampant government corruption, societal divisions and continuing small-scale attacks by the al-Shabab extremist group, the government and its international backers are trying to restore basic services such as schools, health clinics and infrastructure.
The African Union, with United Nations support, operates a peacekeeping mission of about 22,000 troops, AMISOM, to maintain stability and curb al-Shabab. Mohamud, in remarks at the U.S. Institute of Peace in April 2016, said that, although that force has pushed al-Shabab to the margins of the country, further improvements in security will require international support for building Somalia’s own police and armed forces.
Farmajo is a dual U.S. and Somali citizen who was a diplomat for his country in the U.S. when chaos broke out in Somalia in the 1980s. He stayed in the U.S. and went on to work in policy and managerial positions for the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority and New York state’s Department of Transportation. The 54-year-old Farmajo brings with him an understanding of the intricacies of government and bureaucracy that will serve him as he manages a country that needs strong governmental institutions.
With the swearing in of Stephen Schwartz last year as the new U.S. ambassador to Somalia, the two governments have an opportunity to strengthen formal relations to nurture a nation that can become a trusted and stable partner for the United States and the region. The U.S. recognized Somalia’s government in January 2013 for the first time since 1991. Certainly the fate of Somalia is in the hands of its own people, but they need the support of the international community, which at least now has another reason to be hopeful that the country is moving in the right direction.