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Somalis Optimistic About New President


New Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed celebrates winning the election and taking office in Mogadishu, Somalia, Feb. 8, 2017.

More than any other president in Somalia's troubled history, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed enters office on a wave of support, goodwill and optimism.

Thousands of cheering people took to the streets of Mogadishu late Wednesday after Mohamed — best known by his nickname, Farmajo — was elected by the Somali parliament in a near-landslide. Dodging roadblocks and celebratory gunfire, supporters chanted Farmajo's name and honked car horns to welcome the new president.

Similar celebrations erupted in cities across Somalia, as well as the Kenyan towns of Garissa and Eastleigh, both of which have Somali-majority populations.

By all indications, the celebrations were a reflection of genuine popular support for Farmajo, 55, a dual U.S.-Somali citizen who previously served eight months as Somalia's prime minister in 2010 and 2011.

Ahmed Abdullahi Sheikh Ahmed was one of the people cheering in Mogadishu.

“This has not happened before; Farmajo is supported by the youth and mothers, we are happy,” he told VOA's Somali service.

“We were happy with his work during the short time he was here,” said Idey Sharif Hassan, who celebrated in the Wadajir district of Mogadishu. “He was silenced then, but now he is back in our hands as president.”

Farmajo will need Somalis' support as he tries to stabilize a country that has not known internal peace since the 1980s and is dealing with two ongoing crises — a severe drought that has shrunk food supplies, and a revitalized insurgency from the al-Qaida-linked militant group al-Shabab, which is fighting to turn Somalia into a strict Islamic state.

In late January, 28 people were killed when a Shabab suicide bomber attacked the Dayah hotel in Mogadishu. The group said it also killed more than 50 soldiers when it assaulted a Kenyan military base in southern Somalia. Kenya acknowledged the attack but denied reports of a high death toll.

International Crisis Group Horn of Africa analyst Rashid Abdi is optimistic about Farmajo's election.

"There are feelings that if there is anyone who can do something about security, then it must be him because of his very good relationship with the security services," he told VOA. "We saw how immediately, [when] the news came through that he had won, how the security forces joined local people to welcome that victory, and that support is probably also quite critical for him to succeed in stabilizing Somalia."

'Humble and effective'

Farmajo first won popular backing six and a half years ago, during his stint as prime minister under former president Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed.

Before being tapped for that role, Farmajo was an obscure, distant figure in Somali politics. He was born and raised in Mogadishu, in a family that was involved with Somalia's liberation movement in the 1950s. But he has spent much of his adult life in the United States, where he first went as a Somali embassy officer in the mid-1980s.

After the collapse of the Somali government in 1991, Farmajo studied at the University of Buffalo and settled in that northern U.S. city, where he raised a family and worked for the New York state government.

He maintained contacts among Somali politicians, though, and was Ahmed's surprise pick as prime minister in October 2010.

Farmajo lasted in the job only eight months, forced out by political friction. During that time, however, he earned a reputation for being competent, patriotic and not corrupt — qualities that many Somalis see as rare in their political sphere.

He named a small cabinet of only 18 ministers, reorganized the military, and made sure that soldiers and government workers got paid on time. During his stay in office, al-Shabab lost significant ground in Mogadishu after controlling most of the city for the prior two years.

Husein Abdikarm Ginidish, a Somali political analyst in North Carolina who knows Farmajo, said Somalis like him because he is open to people's opinions.

"He is a moderate politician, humble and effective," Ginidish said. "And the fact that this is a guy who listens both to his critics and his friends' advice; I think that made him popular among the grassroots."

Campaigning for president this year, Farmajo won renewed support by advocating that police, intelligence and soldiers fighting al-Shabab get their salaries on a regular basis. Somali media reports say soldiers have not been paid for six months, sapping their morale.

He also promised to fight against corruption in the aid-dependent nation and pledged that the government's meager revenue from taxes collected at the Mogadishu airport and seaport would not be spent on extravagant or unnecessary trips abroad.

Abundant support

Unlike 2010, Farmajo enters office as a known quantity, and he has the backing of established Somali politicians. In round two of Wednesday's presidential election, he won 184 votes, more than outgoing President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud and former president Ahmed combined.

Mohamud conceded defeat and urged Somalis to strongly support the new president. Farmajo was immediately sworn into office, marking the second consecutive election that Somalia has experienced a peaceful transfer of power.

Addressing the nation through state media Wednesday night, the new president said he plans to create a government that depends on public cooperation.

"My plan is to create a government that connects the ordinary people to their leaders," he said. "A civil government that works with the collaboration of its people on all sides, including security and the economy."

For protection, the government remains partially reliant on AMISOM, the African Union peacekeeping force comprised of troops from Uganda, Burundi, Kenya, Ethiopia and Djibouti. The new president has said he favors building up the national army so it will be ready to fight al-Shabab when AMISOM's mandate expires next year.

Analyst Abdi said analysts fear a push to assert Somalia's autonomy could create tensions with Ethiopia and Kenya, in particular.

"If I were to advise him, I will tell him to go slow in relation with these two neighboring countries and to build new bridges. I think they ultimately have collective interest, strategic interest, working together to stabilize Somalia," said Abdi.

Mohamed Olad Hassan and Harun Maruf contributed reporting from Washington. Mohamed Yusuf and staffers with VOA's Swahili service contributed reporting from Nairobi

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