New Somali president survives terrorist attack, faces daunting job

Hassan Sheikh Mohamud was not injured in today's suicide bombings, but the attacks may be representative of some of the many challenges he'll face in leading Somalia.

By , Correspondent

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    A Somali government soldier carries his gun as he patrols outside the Jazeera Palace hotel in Mogadishu Sept. 12. Somalia's Al Shabab rebels carried out a bomb attack on Wednesday that targeted the Mogadishu hotel where the president and Kenya's visiting foreign minister were holding a news conference, the group said.
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On only his second day on the job, Somalia’s newly elected president was given a stark and deadly warning today of what he is up against in perhaps the world’s toughest government position. 

Twin suicide bombers struck a hotel in central Mogadishu where President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud was giving a press conference alongside Kenya’s foreign minister, Sam Ongeri. Neither man was injured, but the attacks are representative of the challenges in leading a country plagued by famine, poverty, corruption, and terrorist violence. But despite these many hurdles, some say Somalia's new leader has the characteristics needed to maintain recently won gains and edge the country toward improvement. 

The political landscape

For Somalia’s new leader, an academic and former aid agency consultant who swept the incumbent aside with 70 percent of the vote, the inventory of pressing tasks truly is daunting.

Recommended: Somalia: A timeline of change in a troubled country

First, his government, when he appoints it, will control less than a fifth of his country. Al Shabab, Somalia’s Al Qaeda-allied Islamist rebel force, while under pressure, still rule other parts of the country under repressive interpretations of Islamic law. The group has launched ever-increasing numbers of hit-and-run or suicide attacks, even in the heart of the capital, and claimed responsibility for today’s attack, which killed eight people, including three Somali soldiers and at least two from the African Union peacekeeping mission protecting the president.

Within hours of Mr. Mohamud winning Monday’s presidential election, the group said he was little more than a puppet of the West, and would be targeted.

But beyond the presence of terrorist groups, more than 2 million of the new president’s citizens need outside help finding enough food each day. Pirates along the Somali coast, Africa’s longest, are excitedly watching the monsoon winds wane as they prepare to set out to sea again.

Mohamud is a government outsider with no power base in the capital, Mogadishu, where artful and hardened politicians have made minor fortunes stealing from state coffers, according to a recent United Nations report.

“The question is not so much whether Mohamud is up to the job, it’s whether anyone at all would be up to it,” says Ahmed Soliman, Somalia researcher for the Chatham House think tank in London.

Strengths of an ‘outsider’

There are positive signs that Mohamud could keep recently accelerating progress in Somalia moving in the right direction, however.   

On paper at least, he has the support of the country’s new 275-member parliament: nearly three-fourths of them chose Mohamud over Sheikh Shariff Ahmed, the incumbent, who entered Monday’s election tarnished with accusations of corruption, including trying to buy parliamentarians’ votes.

Indeed, Mohamud’s presidential victory has been interpreted as a protest against Sheikh Shariff’s inability to stamp out graft among the country’s elite. Over the past eight years of the "transitional government" – which officially ended with Mohamud's victory – corruption has grown.

The new president’s very detachment from Somalia’s political scene could work in his favor. Many ordinary Somalis took to Twitter, Facebook, and local radio stations to voice their seemingly unanimous support for Mohamud as someone they related to as a nonpolitician, and someone less connected to the violence that has plagued the country over the past 20 years. 

High among reasons for his popularity is that he chose not to flee into the diaspora during Somalia’s civil war.

Instead, Mohamud stayed home and built a reputation of deep competence as a civil activist and cofounder of one of Somalia’s leading universities, the Somali Institute of Management and Administrative Development.

Its alumni are power players across Somalia, and from across its clans, and Mohamud may soon be calling on some of them to help form a technocratic, rather than clan-based, government. 

“These are the good points,” Mr. Soliman says. “But he’ll have to work incredibly hard not to be dragged down by the Somali political scene, elements of which will already be working against him because he’s kicked their man out.”

Tackling corruption, moving forward

A recent UN report estimated that $7 of every $10 international aid sent to Somalia’s state institutions between 2009 and 2010 ended up in a politician's pocket.

With no government tax system in place, a commercial marketplace in its infancy, and few natural resources beyond exporting livestock to the Gulf, looting donor cash is an easy way for those with access to get rich quick.

Implicit in congratulatory messages sent to Mohamud by world leaders including Hillary Rodham Clinton, British Prime Minister David Cameron, and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was that tackling corruption must be a top priority.

For ordinary Somalis, however, the new president must focus on resolving immediate problems like hunger and insecurity.

The UN said Tuesday that 2.1 million people in the country still need urgent food aid, down 16 percent from the desperate figures of this time last year, but still a huge number.

Al Shabab is on the defensive after losing a series of key towns to African Union coalition forces, but continues to rule vast tracts of rural south-central Somalia. Where in control, the group governs with a strong arm, but with consistent rules and without corruption, which can make them appealing to some.

“There are very few of them, we think, who would choose Shabab as their leaders if there was an open vote,” says one Western diplomat covering Somalia from neighboring Kenya. “But compared to the complete lack of any administration, services, or contact with the government in Mogadishu, Shabab does fill a vacuum.

“Mohamud is going to have to start showing he’ll provide an alternative to that if he’s to make progress,” the diplomat says.

To do that, Mohamud needs the continued support of the international community, which will remain his future government’s paymaster.

Ms. Clinton said in her statement Tuesday that while “there is more work to be done”, the United States was “committed to helping the new government … deliver results for the Somali people.” 

Many hope Mohamud can ride the enormous goodwill he's garnered from the election for several months.

“We shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves,” cautions Soliman, the think tank analyst, “but Mohamud is a serious candidate who can make serious progress, as long as both international and internal actors give him the chance.”

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