The Big Cheese: Why President Farmaajo holds so much hope for Somalia
Why is there so much excitement around the former prime minister’s surprise appointment as Somalia’s new president?
On 8 February, the protracted Somalia elections finally came to an end to widespread celebrations and surprise as Mohamed Abdullahi Farmaajo was appointed as the new president.
The former prime minister was one of 21 candidates vying to be Somalia’s 9th president in a process involving 329 newly-elected lawmakers. The decision went to a second round of voting in which Farmaajo received 184 votes to the incumbent Hassan Sheikh Mohamud’s 97, prompting to the latter to concede peacefully.
This outcome came as a huge but largely welcome shock to most.
Who is Farmaajo?
The new president – known as Farmaajo, Italian for “cheese”, because of his reported love of the food – first became a well-known figure in Somalia in November 2010. At that time, he had been living and working in the US, where he holds dual citizenship, for 25 years. But he was suddenly plucked out of obscurity in the diaspora by then President Sharif Sheikh Ahmed to become prime minister.
It is what happened in the following seven months that made him perhaps Somalia’s most popular politician in recent times.
Unlike so many of Somalia’s politicians, Farmaajo made an immediate and tangible difference on coming into office. For the first time since 1991, he reduced the cabinet from the customary 31 members down to a core of just 18, dropping redundant departments such as the Ministry of Tourism and Wild Animals. He fought corruption, establishing an Anti-Corruption Commission and increasing transparency around government spending and ministers’ assets. And he ensured salaries were disbursed to government workers and soldiers who hadn’t been paid for months, an accomplishment for which he is still fondly remembered.
Under Farmaajo, large swaths of territory were also recaptured from al-Shabaab. The momentum achieved in this period is believed to have been the cause of the Islamist militants’ withdrawal from the capital Mogadishu, for the first time since their inception, just a month and half after Farmaajo left office.
In 2011, however, the prime minister’s term came to an abrupt end. The president and then Speaker of Parliament Sharif Hassan Sheikh Aden had been embroiled in a bitter power struggle for months, and it was only resolved when the two struck a deal that included an agreement that Farmaajo would step down.
The resignation of the admired prime minister triggered days of demonstrations across Somalia and abroad, with protesters blaming foreign interference for his removal. Farmaajo’s popularity was particularly notable in Mogadishu from which his clansmen, who include former President Siad Barre, had been indiscriminately driven out in the 1990s civil war. His acceptance in the capital served as a reminder of how far Somalia has come.
The biggest mandate
Farmaajo’s popularity amongst the people combined with his mandate – the biggest since 1967 – gives the new president a tremendous opportunity to move Somalia towards stability, democracy and prosperity.
To achieve this, it is imperative that he avoids the mistakes of his predecessors, particularly in four key areas.
Firstly, Farmaajo must take great care in appointing his prime minister. The past four presidents all struggled with this and each went through at least three different PMs, with almost all the partnerships ending in acrimony. In some instances, internal conflicts lasted months, derailing any progress that could have been made. President Farmaajo must appoint somebody he trusts, that shares the same vision, and that will stick with him through his administration.
A second key area will be reconciliation. The brutal civil war that broke out in 1991 led the country to break up into several clan-based territories. Many Somalis never leave their regions.
The new president will need to set in motion a process of national reconciliation. Political grievances must be readdressed; the discriminatory parts of the constitution such as the 4.5 clan-based power sharing formula should be removed; and property should be returned to its rightful owners. By re-cultivating real trust between clans, Farmaajo can ensure a lasting peace.
Thirdly, the new president will have to tackle the insecurity that has long wracked the country. Even after some promising gains, Mogadishu has seen an increase in al-Shabaab attacks, to the extent that the venue of yesterday’s election had to be moved to the heavily fortified Aden Adde Airport.
To improve security, Farmaajo will have to pay special attention to Somalia’s security forces. Soldiers’ morale desperately needs to be built up with adequate training and the timely payment of salaries. This, in turn, could help the army recruit the young educated conscripts it needs to effectively replace the African Union forces (AMISOM) when they eventually leave the country.
Finally, Farmaajo will have to take great care in ensuring his rule is inclusive. The past two administrations were frequently criticised for concentrating power in the hands of the few. Under the new president, Somalis all over the country should be able to claim the government as their own and be proud of it.
As prime minister in 2010, Farmaajo openly expressed a disapproval of the 4.5 power-sharing formula that discriminates against smaller clans. At the time his capacity was limited, but now he has the power to walk the walk and ensure that his government is one that represents all Somalis.
Sakariye Cismaan is a political commentator. Follow him on twitter at @SakariyeCismaan.