A former Somali president who was ousted from power in 2017 returned to the nation’s highest office after defeating the incumbent leader in a drawn-out contest decided by lawmakers in a third round of voting on Sunday night.
Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, who served as Somalia’s president from 2012 to 2017, won the contest in the capital Mogadishu amid a security lockdown imposed by authorities to prevent deadly attacks by militants.
“Victory belongs to the Somali people, and this is the beginning of the era of unity, Somalia’s democracy and the beginning of the fight against corruption,” Mohamud said after winning the vote.
He added that he saw “a daunting task ahead” after regaining authority.
The first round of voting was contested by 36 candidates, four of whom advanced to the second round. As no candidate won at least two-thirds of the 328 ballots, the vote went to a third round where a simple majority was enough to pick the winner.
Members of the upper and lower legislative chambers elected the president in a secret ballot inside a tent in an airport hangar inside the Halane military camp, which is protected by African Union peacekeepers. Mohamud’s election ended a long-delayed electoral process that had heightened political tensions and insecurity concerns after President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed’s term expired in February 2021 without a successor in office.
Mohamed and Mohamud sat side by side on Sunday, calmly watching as the ballots were counted. Celebratory shots were heard in parts of Mogadishu as it became clear that Mohamud had defeated the man who replaced him.
Mohamed conceded defeat and Mohamud was immediately sworn in.
Mohamud, 66, is the leader of the Union for Peace and Development party, which holds the majority of seats in both legislative chambers. He is also known for his work as a civic leader and promoter of education, including his role as one of the founders of SIMAD University in Mogadishu.
Mohamed’s Somali government had a May 17 deadline to hold the vote or risk losing funding from international partners.
Mohamed, who is also known as Farmaajo because of his appetite for Italian cheese, said on Twitter as the vote took place that it was “a great honor to lead” Somalia.
For Mohamed and his supporters, Sunday’s defeat will be disappointing after he came to power in 2017 as a symbol of a Somali diaspora eager to see the country prosper after years of turmoil. Mohamed leaves behind a country even more volatile than he found it, with a reported breach in the security services and a steady drumbeat of al-Shabab attacks.
Analysts had predicted that Mohamed would face an uphill battle to be re-elected. No incumbent president has been elected for two consecutive terms in this Horn of Africa nation, where rival clans battle intensely for political power. However, in winning the vote, Mohamud beat the odds as no former president had ever made a successful return to office.
Mohamud, a member of the Hawiye clan, one of the largest in Somalia, is seen by some as a statesman with a conciliatory approach. Many Somalis hope that Mohamud can unite the country after years of divisive clan tensions, but also that he will firmly take charge of a federal government with little control beyond Mogadishu. Mohamud promised during the campaigns that his government would be inclusive, acknowledging the mistakes of his previous government that faced multiple accusations of corruption and was seen as aloof from the concerns of rival groups.
The new president “will have an opportunity to heal a nation that desperately needs peace and stability,” said Khadra Dualeh, a resident of Mogadishu. “The country does not need celebrations; we did it for Farmaajo. Enough of celebration. We need to pray, get sober and plan how to rebuild the country.”
Al-Shabab, which has links to al-Qaida, has made territorial gains against the federal government in recent months, reversing gains by African Union peacekeepers who once pushed militants into remote areas of the country.
But al-Shabab is threatening Mogadishu with repeated raids on hotels and other public areas. Despite the closure, explosions were heard near the airport area as lawmakers gathered to elect the president.
To prevent extremist violence from disrupting the elections, Somali police have placed Mogadishu, the scene of regular attacks by the Islamic rebel group al-Shabab, under a lockdown that began at 9:00 pm on Saturday. Most residents will remain indoors until the lockdown is lifted Monday morning.
The goal of a one person, one vote direct election in Somalia, a country of some 16 million people, remains elusive in large part because of widespread extremist violence. The authorities had planned a direct election this time, but instead the federal government and the states agreed to another “indirect election,” through legislators chosen by community leaders, delegates from powerful clans, in each member state.
Despite its persistent insecurity, Somalia has had peaceful leadership changes every four years or so since 2000, and has the distinction of having Africa’s first democratically elected president to resign peacefully, Aden Abdulle Osman in 1967.
Mohamed’s four-year term expired in February 2021, but he remained in office after the lower house of parliament approved a two-year extension of his term and that of the federal government, drawing fury from leaders of the Senate and criticism from the international community.
The delay in the elections triggered an exchange of fire in April 2021 between soldiers loyal to the government and others angry at what they saw as an illegal extension of the president’s mandate.
Somalia began to unravel in 1991, when warlords overthrew dictator Siad Barre and then turned on each other. Years of conflict and attacks by al-Shabab, along with famine, have ravaged the country that has a long and strategic coastline along the Indian Ocean.
AP reporter Rodney Muhumuza in Kampala, Uganda, contributed.