One of Hassan Sheikh Mohamud’s inaugural acts as president of Somalia was to survive an assassination attempt. After winning a decisive vote among parliamentarians last Monday, Mohamud took the helm of the long-suffering state. On Wednesday, a wave of explosions and gunfire struck the hotel in Mogadishu where he was meeting with Sam Ongeri, the foreign minister of neighboring Kenya. While the dignitaries survived, eight others were killed.
Mohamud’s rough first days on the job were emblematic of the challenges ahead. He’ll have to patch together a nation after two decades of institutional collapse and political paralysis — a feat neither his predecessors nor interventionist global diplomats could manage.
Mohamud has a slim advantage over them: as a moderate Islamist with a background in education, he represents actual change. He should use this unusual mandate to build a more legitimate and inclusive political order — and all the more urgently because the system that brought him to power bypassed the ordinary Somalis who are now welcoming him.
On Election Day, Abdihakim Aynte, a Somali columnist and researcher affiliated with the Institute for Peace and Security Studies in Addis Ababa, described the jubilant mood in Mogadishu to me by phone. Bullets were ringing outside, for once fired in joy, not anger. “The streets are filled with people chanting new slogans,” he said. “ ‘Somalia has been liberated! The new president is here.’ ”
And in good time. Sheik Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, the president of the departing transitional federal government, which is known as the T.F.G., had offered both overt and oblique support to organized crime, including pirates in the Gulf of Aden. He was sluggish in pursuing domestic terrorists, notably Al Shabab (which now claims responsibility for the recent attack on Mohamud). The United Nations recently condemned the T.F.G., for “chaotic and opaque” accounting practices — that is, for stealing 7 out of every 10 dollars the T.F.G. received from donors and citizens in 2009 and 2010. According to the leaked U.N. report, “Nothing gets done in this government without someone asking the question ‘Maxaa igu jiraa?’ (‘What’s in it for me?’)”
Mohamud, by contrast, is a political outsider who comes from the comparatively taint-free academy. He was the dean of SIMAD University in Mogadishu and is a veteran of the ministry of education from the late 1980s. As a frequent radio commentator, he harped not solely on security but also on human development concerns, particularly on improving education for the vast youth population, which is vulnerable to the influence of groups like Al Shabab. His appointment is genuinely surprising: Unlike favored candidates from within the T.F.G., Mohamud only became a member of Parliament last month.
Other moderates have ridden forth over the years to try stabilizing the nation’s violent clan politics. Most failed. (After a short stint as prime minister in 2011, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed is back to his previous job in Buffalo, New York, working for the U.S. Department of Transportation.) But unlike other would-be saviors, Mohamud spent much of the grinding, 20-year war period in Somalia, earning much credibility with the country’s civil society.
The main task facing him now is to give government a better reputation in a country that has repeatedly been burned by authority figures. With a four-year term to work with, Mohamud’s government offers Somalia a chance to build legitimacy for state institutions, which the unreliable T.F.G. never could do.
He must begin by selecting a cabinet that favors corruption-free outsiders and making clear that Somalia’s institutional life should no longer be dominated by the clan structure that has torn the country apart. Appointing a diversity of leadership, especially outside of his Hawiye clan, would send a pointed message.
Mohamud will also need to fight for more representative democracy. Ironically, his insurgent presidency is the result of elite dealings. He was elected by a tiny fraction of the Somali population. There was no popular vote, just the decision of 190 out of 275 parliamentarians, themselves elected by 135 traditional elders.
What’s more, the timeline for this election had been set out at a February summit meeting of global heads of state in London. And all of these events unfolded against the backdrop of a yearlong military invasion led by the African Union and backed by the United States and Britain. In other words, to some, Mohamud’s Western-welcomed rule will smack of foreign paternalism.
A spokesman for Al Shabab said that a rejection of such meddling was one rationale for the group’s attack on Mohamud last Wednesday. The Somalis I know have no kind words for what they see as illegitimate interference.
Last September, K’naan Warsame, the Somali pop artist best known for the 2010 World Cup theme song “Wavin’ Flag,” was equal parts fatalistic and furious about it. “We’ve had 12 transitional governments since the 1990s, all formed in Kenya, outside the country,” he told me. He likened a new batch of T.F.G. leaders to food poisoning. “When this government comes into the belly of Somalia, Somalia will vomit.”
But this week, in a sign of Somalis’ general excitement, Warsame tweeted his approval of Mohamud with no trace of skepticism:
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