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Africa

Somalia's surprise choice for president

The new president of Somalia, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, is largely unknown abroad. The academic and peace activist has a tough task ahead.

If the name of the party of the new Somali president is any indication of what lies ahead, then it would seem that parliamentarians made a good choice with their election of Hassan Sheikh Mohamud.  In April 2011 he founded the Party for Peace and Development (PDP), and there's nothing the country needs more after two decades of clan-based conflict.

Hardly anyone had Mohamud on their list of likely winners when the members of the newly- elected parliament held their secret vote on Monday. Mohamud was born in 1955 in central Somalia. 

Former President Sharif Sheikh Ahmed. Photo: REUTERS/Omar Faruk

Former Somali president Sharif Sheikh Ahmed

After completing his university studies, he went to India for further technical training. When he returned in the late 1980s, it was not to enter politics but to work in the education sector. On behalf of UNESCO and UNICEF he travelled the length and breadth of the country, an experience which can only be of benefit for his new job as president.

Jabril Abdulle is the director of the Center for Research and Dialogue (CRD) in Mogadishu. He's worked with Mohamud for ten years and holds him in great respect. "He may not be well known internationally, but in Somalia he has a profound knowledge of the intricate political situation," Abdulle says.

That Mohamud is little known outside Somalia should be regarded as a major point in his favor, says Laura Hammond from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London, a reference to the highly negative view abroad of Somalia's notoriously corrupt politicians. The election of Mohamud, with an overwhelming 190 votes in favor to 79 against, represents a clear vote for a new beginning and a rejection of the clientele system of former president Sharif Ahmed. 

A woman stands holding the Somali flag (Photo: PHIL MOORE/AFP/Getty Images)

Many Somalis see the surprise choice of president as a sign of hope

 "Somalis are really encouraged  by the developments and surprised that the new parliament has the courage to stand up and push for change," Hammond told DW. 

Mohamud's success will depend on "how he will put together his cabinet and select the prime minister", says CRD Director Jibril Abdulle. "That will be a first indication of how he wants to govern the country."

Mogadishu, not Minneapolis

The fact that Mohamud spent recent years not in the diaspora in the United States, Kenya or Great Britain but in war-torn Somalia, will boost his acceptance level, not least because he endured the difficult months under the al-Shabab terror regime together with his fellow Somalis. But no matter how qualified a politician may be in Somalia, it's clan membership that counts. As a member of the Abgal sub-clan, Mohamud is a Hawiye, as was his predecessor Sharif Ahmed.  "That will be some consolation for Ahmed's followers and could ease the transition," says Laura Hammond.

Mohamud has already demonstrated the negotiating skills which will be required to put together a new government. He helped get rid of the so-called "green line" drawn up to divide north and south Mogadishu after the 1992 war. And the radical al-Shabab Islamists allowed him to keep open the Somali Institute of Management and Administration (SIMAD), the country's first such center of higher education. It has some 4,000 registered students.

In June 2010 Mohamud reportedly took part in a conference entitled "50 years of Somali independence - what went wrong". The insights derived from such a discussion put him far ahead of many other Somali politicians. And as an active user of social media sites such as Facebook, his message has a good chance of reaching young Somalis who make up a large percentage of the population.

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