Surprise in Somalia! The perplexity of an analyst

Today, on February 8, 2017, the most corrupt and least democratic polls I’ve ever witnessed unexpectedly delivered victory to the least corrupt and most popular presidential candidate in the race: Farmajo. How did that happen?


Farmaajohd12 (1)


Nobody had expected this. Yesterday the New York Times published an analysis of the Somali electoral process as ‘a milestone in corruption’, and most analysts in and of Somalia could only agree with this. From the first step, where clan elders appointed delegates to elect MPs, rumours had been rife about large sums of money being exchanged for votes. The Auditor General of Somalia on 19 November (VOA interview) confirmed that candidate MPs were buying votes for sums between 5,000 and 30,000 dollars.

Only 14000 clan delegates participated in the election of the Lower House members, and senators were suggested by state presidents and elected by the state assemblies. One can say that only the clan elites of Somalia participated in these elections. Besides vote-buying, there were numerous instances of intimidation, fake (appointed) contenders, and blatant interference by the President’s office in the work of the electoral teams, to eliminate rivals and appoint allies.

The two contenders most likely to win the elections were the sitting president and his predecessor; both had embarked on trips to Gulf States, Turkey and regional powerbrokers, reportedly coming back with sacks of money to buy votes (anti- or pro-Muslim Brotherhood, anti- or pro-Salafist, anti- or pro- Ethiopia etc). It is ‘known’ (but not proven) that in 2012 Hassan Sheikh Mohamud paid 75.000 USD per MP vote to win the election, and it was supposed that prices had increased in the meanwhile.

Among the other 22 presidential candidates was Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo, #4 on the list of most experts, after the current prime minister Sharmarke. Not being Hawiye like the two ‘front-runners’, not even being Majerteen like Sharmarke, and not disposing over unlimited cash reserves and generous foreign backers, he was given little chance. Farmajo was candidate for the presidency in 2012, and was defeated in the first round of voting. That he was fourth on the list came through his popularity.

Farmajo’s popularity stems from his brief stint as prime minister, from November 2010 to June 2011. He appointed a cabinet of newcomers and set about reforming the state, paying Somali security forces and having them biometrically registered, boosting the constitutional process, putting tighter financial and accounting controls on the ministries, and so on. His reforms were approved by parliament and massively supported by the population. When he was sacrificed as part of a deal between the President and the Speaker of Parliament and had to tend his resignation, there were demonstrations and riots all over Somalia and by diaspora in cities throughout the West. He then set up a political party but was defeated in the elections a year later, in a process marked by massive vote-buying.

How then could he win four years later?



Assuming that the ex-presidents Hassan Sheikh Mohamud and Sheikh Sharif did indeed dole out large amounts of cash, and/or promises of future positions, to MPs and those behind them, why did 184 of the 329 members of the Upper and Lower Houses vote for Farmajo instead?

That is was at all possible was because of the strict ban on telephones or other recording instruments with which deals could be made or enforced in the election hall, and maybe because of the last-minute change of venue, from the police academy to a hall in the perimeter of Mogadishu International Airport. This allowed parliamentarians to vote freely. The UN, the Election Integrity Committee and the donor community should be commended for that. I heard one Somali say that ‘the international community won the elections’ and it is true that, obligatory neutrality notwithstanding, Farmajo was the favoured candidate because of his reformist and anti-corruption policies, and the statesmanship he had shown when stepping down at the pinnacle of his popularity. Being a US citizen and having long worked in New York State’s local government, the US probably had no issue with him.

This still fails to explain why 56% of the MPs voted for Farmajo, vs only 30% for Hassan Sheikh and only very few for Sheikh Sharif or Sharmarke. Of course it’s quite possible that many MPs never gave or accepted bribes and voted for the person they thought best. This may be particularly true of the 24% of women members of parliament, most of whom are not players in Somali power politics. It’s also true, however, that more than 50% of the members of parliament were newcomers, meaning that clan elders had given a chance to a new generation of political leaders (and to women).

The explanation must therefore be sought in the clan elders, who selected caucuses of delegates (51 per parliamentary seat) that were somehow representative of the clans; these delegates then elected MPs that represented contemporary tendencies in Somali society, and these MPs have now elected Farmajo. Either they were insensitive to bribes, or they pocketed them and later found out that they could vote freely for the candidate of their choice, thanks to the secret ballot.

Voila. But the point is: nobody had foreseen this. Not in Somalia – Somalis who expressed hope that Farmajo would win the elections were seen as naïve – and certainly not among foreign experts like myself.



This must be a lesson about democracy, about how the popular will can impose itself on political processes that do not take it into consideration, but also do not actively bar it from expressing itself. For, unless some unexpected news emerges that Farmajo actually bought those votes, we can assume that his election was an expression of the popular will. His election victory was met by outbursts of joy everywhere throughout the country and its diaspora, including in Nairobi’s Eastleigh. My Somali friends are as happy as they’ve ever been.

The election of Trump – my regrets to my American friends that deeply oppose him – was also such an expression of popular will. Until the night of the elections all observers, noting the whole American establishment seemed against him, thought he must lose. Yet 19% of the American people managed to put him in power. And the Brexit was equally unexpected. If this trend continues, we can predict a victory of Macron in France.

It is also a lesson about electoral processes. The secret ballot and efforts to isolate the MPs on election day from any external influences was, as seen above, an essential ingredient of Farmajo’s victory. But the rest of this highly contaminated and very restricted electoral process fell far short from any standards of free and fair elections. Nevertheless, a candidate evidently hostile to and presumably disadvantaged by this system won through it.

I remain puzzled and wondering what, if any, use all the political theory and international expertise has in making sense of the world we’re living in. How can we incorporate the element of surprise, can we achieve peace with a discipline that cannot at all predict but somehow help understand, can the field be opened to, for example, the factor of intuition, and don’t we need to rethink the fundamental principles of democracy? Move away from this technical focus on elections and other institutions?

But, for the time being, let me congratulate the Somali people, and the clan elders and delegates and MPs, on the results of the election. I wish Farmajo all the strength and luck to implement his program of reforms, pray the international community will support him, and hope that the tide has finally turned for the Somali people: that from now onward perspectives will open to achieve peace, prosperity and development in their homeland.


The Rojava Revolution

Syrian Village

A unique experiment in ‘stateless democracy’ and effective armed resistance against ISIS in Northern Syria is led by Kurdish women. Could their innovative model for social organization, which has brought peace, stability and progress to their region over the past three years, provide a way out for the crisis in Syria and other minorities in the Middle East? A personal account of a ‘political tourism’ visit to Rojava.

Continue reading

Art and Soft Power in the Gulf

Article published in Issue #47 of Afkar / Ideas published in October 2015 by the European Institute of the Mediterranean in Barcelona / French version / Spanish version

Ahmad Angawi: Ottoman Map of Mecca (detail), 2012

Ahmad Angawi: Ottoman Map of Mecca (detail), 2012

Art and Soft Power in the Gulf

Recently, there has been much news and debate about how the Gulf States are acquiring the icons of global culture, such as famous paintings, works by star artists, and even whole museums. This is seen as the exercise of ‘soft power’, defined by Joseph Nye as ‘the ability to get what you want through attraction, rather than coercion or payments’. One may wonder then, which objectives direct the Gulf’s investments in art? And, are they being achieved? Continue reading

Lessons (Not) Learnt in Afghanistan

The Remnants of an Army, by Elizabeth Butler (1879 )

The Remnants of an Army, by Elizabeth Butler (1879 ). This photograph depicts the lone survivor of the massacre (and capture/desertion) of 16.000 British Empire troops and civilians as they fled from Kabul in the winter of 1842. What have we learnt since then?

I am posting the pdfs of my visual presentations for the course ‘Lessons (Not) Learnt in Afghanistan’, given at the Paris School of International Affairs in Feb-March 2015, here. My presentations serve as visual aid and to recap the main points about a given subject; so these documents do not contain all the course material and may be, at times, even confusing out of the class context. So handle with care! Continue reading

Trip to Najran: Reflections on Saudi Cultural Heritage Policies

Prof K and the South Arabian mystery

Photo taken in the ruins of the city of Al Ukhdood (ancient Najran) by Abdelkarim Qassem

One of the premises of the ‘Searching for Ancient Arabia’ research project is the cultural diversity of the Arabian Peninsula; one of the research hypotheses being that this pluralism—well evident in ancient history—was smothered by subsequent narratives and historical developments, but that it could be a great asset for the future development of the Gulf region, particularly in artistic and cultural terms. Continue reading

Making an exhibition with my students at the Paris School of International Affairs

This year (2014) I asked my students to write their papers as catalogue contributions to an exhibition I made in Paris to coincide with the end of the term.

Here one can find the links to their papers and images of the exhibition, which I made with the help of the Window, an art space in the center of Paris run by a good friend of mine and those that contributed to the crowd funding project I ran – especially my father!

Most of my students: from left to right Alexandre Nawath, Sarah Smail, Anna-Katharina Kraft, Emma Ghariani (hidden), Lily Matras, Kristina Keenan, Kata Pali, Leo Teste, Joice Barbaresco (partially hidden), Mariam Kandil, Lucile Gasber and Malika Touddimte

Most of my students: from left to right Alexandre Hawath, Sarah Smail, Anna-Katharina Kraft, Emma Ghariani (hidden), Lily Matras, Kristina Keenan, Kata Pali, Leo Teste, Joice Barbaresco (partially hidden), Mariam Kandil, Lucile Gasber and Malika Touddimte

Continue reading

‘Searching for Ancient Arabia’ – further information about the research project

A workshop will be held for all those interested in participating in this research project at the Downtown Campus (off Hamdan Street) of NYU Abu Dhabi on Tuesday 25 February, from 18:00 to 20:30.

For details about the workshop and registration see the bottom of this page.

Introduction to the research subject

Stone Altar from Marib (5th - 4th Century BC) and Bronze Statuette of the warrior Ma'dikarib, South Arabia, 6th century BC
Stone Altar from Marib (5th – 4th Century BC) and Bronze Statuette of the warrior Ma’dikarib, South Arabia (6th century BC). These and all other photos and maps/diagrams on this page are reproduced from the book “Arabia and the Arabs from the Bronze Age to the Coming of Islam’ by Robert Hoyland, 2001. See below for ordering information

“Only a small proportion of the lore of the Arabs has come down to you. Had it reached you in its entirety, much scientific and literary knowledge would have been yours”

Continue reading

Searching for Ancient Arabia

I’m about to start a FIND fellowship at New York University Abu Dhabi called ‘Searching for Ancient Arabia’ and I’m looking for artists, curators, critics and scholars to participate in this research project.Ancient Arabia 1

Continue reading