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  February 16, 2017

Can Somalia's New President Help Rebuild the Country?

Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed faces many challenges posed by war lords, the war on terror, and U.S. intervention, says professor Abdi Samatar
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KIM BROWN: Welcome to The Real News Network in Baltimore. I'm Kim Brown.

Somalia's parliament elected Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, as the country's new president on Wednesday. Mohamed is a dual U.S.-Somali citizen. He's also a former prime minister of Somalia, and is generally considered to be one of the country's least corrupt politicians. It was a surprise result, because Mohamed defeated the incumbent, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, who won a plurality of the vote in the first round.

The U.S. and European Union organized the vote in a complicated process that involved tribal elders, who chose members of parliament, who in turn, elected the president in two rounds. Somalia continues to be one of Africa's most troubled countries. It is still going through a civil war, foreign intervention, including from the U.S., and is expected to face a major famine later this year.

And joining us to take a closer look at the situation in Somalia is Abdi Samatar. He is a professor and also the Chair of the Department of Geography, Environment and Society at the University of Minnesota. He is also an author of the recent book titled, "Africa's First Democrats"

Professor, thank you so much for joining us.

ADBI SAMATAR: Pleasure to be with you Kim.

KIM BROWN: So, let's start with the newly elected president. As I mentioned already, he is a dual U.S.-Somali citizen, and has lived in Buffalo, New York, where he worked for the New York State Department of Transportation.

But does his background mean that he is in the pocket of the U.S.? And where does he stand politically, Professor?

ABDI SAMATAR: I don't think he's in the pocket of the United States, as far as I know. He's considered a civic nationalist, despite the fact that he's a dual citizen of the United States and Somalia. He was a good citizen of standing in Buffalo, as a sort of, a member of that administration, that you talked about. So, my sense is that, all will depend on the kind of a team that he's able to assemble around himself.

But as an individual, I actually personally know him; he's an upright human being. He's a decent person. That does not necessarily translate into an effective president or prime minister. But he's an honorable human being.

KIM BROWN: And talk about the election, Professor Samatar, because you mentioned off camera, that you were in Mogadishu during the election. And this was not a typical election. It wasn't done via the popular vote, because of concerns about fraud and violence.

But because this was a fairly indirect election, is the new president representative of the popular will of Somalis?

ABDI SAMATAR: Well, there are two ways to elect a president in our democratic systems; one is through the popular vote, and another one in a party-based system say, like Canada for instance, or the United Kingdom. It's the winning party's leader that becomes the prime minister, or the president. Somalia was this kind of democracy before a dictatorship and the disasters took place. So, it's a legitimate way to appoint a president, or elect a president.

I was in Mogadishu -- in fact I was appointed by parliament -- to head an independent anti-corruption commission, to observe and monitor the election itself. And so Mr. Mohamed is, I think, a representative of the Somali people, as far as the parliament is a representative of the population. My sense is this; the parliament was not elected on a popular vote because of the insecurity in the country. And so, that's where the rubber lies, rather than this election, in fact.

KIM BROWN: So, initial reports in The New York Times, and elsewhere, indicate that he is actually quite popular amongst the people. Is that also your sense?

ABDI SAMATAR: I think it's important to distinguish two things; the Somali people have been brutalized by warlords, the war on terror, Ethiopian invasion, and all kinds of unsavory creatures in our world.

So, they have been hungry for a very long time, to find the kind of government, and leadership of that government, that will look after their interests, that will sort of rebuild the country. So, part of the celebrations that The New York Times and others reported, is premised on that hope.

The second element of that is that this is a relatively new face, although he was a Prime Minister for six months in, I think, about nine years ago, eight years ago. And he's considered relatively a clean person, who's a civic nationalist. And so the people came to the streets to give him a chance.

But there's nothing in his record, that I know of, which will make him claim that he's the most effective, and popular person the country could have elected.

KIM BROWN: So, Professor, give us a brief summary of the situation in Somalia today. It is said that Al-Shabaab, which is affiliated with Al Qaeda, has been driven out of its strongholds, and is losing influence.

So, is that true, first of all? And does that mean that the situation in Somalia is gradually improving?

ABDI SAMATAR: There's no doubt that over the last few years that improvements have taken place. But, Al-Shabaab is an incredibly resilient terrorist organization, and they can almost hit at wherever they choose to hit. Whether it's inside Mogadishu, the capital of the country, or anywhere else. I think the reason why they are so resilient is that -- two failures have taken place in Somalia -- the international community led by the United States and the European Union, have been unable and unwilling, to put resources into the re-establishment of a national security force, that's accountable to the country and its people.

Instead they put hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars every year into something called, The African Union Force. And the African Union Force, although it has made some progress, has not been able to, sort of, challenge much of the country where Al-Shabaab dominates.

KIM BROWN: You know, the U.S. has long been a major presence in Somalia. Ever since President Bill Clinton, when the U.S. had ground troops there, and most recently under President Barack Obama, they have been quite active in bombing Al-Shabaab forces.

So, tell us about U.S. involvement currently. And if you have any ideas as to what the Trump administrations relations towards Somalia, will be.

ABDI SAMATAR: The U.S. has been involved in Somalia for a much, even longer than you have noted, Kim. Somalia, the book that you referred to, that I wrote last year called, "Africa's First Democrats" were the leading democratic country in Africa, for the first 10 years of independence, from '60 to 1970. That regime, which was incredibly democratic, was subverted by the Cold War, in some very strange alliance between the Soviet Union and the United States. So, that sort of U.S. involvement goes back.

Then, of course, President George Bush, Senior, sent our marines and troops in 1992, to avert what was one of the most cruel famines of all time, and then we withdraw after that, with Bill Clinton. But ever since 1996, when the United States embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, were bombed by terrorists, our focus got back into Somalia, and ever since, we have been deeply engaged in ways that I consider not to be to the advantage of the Somali people.

KIM BROWN: Professor, you just referenced a devastating famine that happened in the country's past. And weather experts are predicting a significant famine, expected for Somalia later this year. Can you tell us more about that?

ABDI SAMATAR: You know, Somalia lies in a tropical, sort of highlands, and some desert. So, shortage of rainfall is nothing unusual. Some years the rains come, some years they don't come at the right time. And so, absence of rain can be considered as a natural phenomenon. Famine is a human-made phenomena, and that's because the country, since it doesn't have a national government that covers all of its territories, there are no institutions that can alert the public of the disaster that's impending.

And so, once the rivers begin to dry up, the grass begins to wilt. Animals begin to die, and then the next in line, are the humans. And the international community that has been very active in Somalia over the last number of decades, have never developed a system that will avert that kind of a catastrophe. Because seven years ago, in 2010, something like 250,000 people were killed. Largely because the United States government intervened in such a way as to deny food aid to the country, because it was worried that food might get into the hands Al-Shabaab.

So, these famines are human-made, either in the form that I talked about, the United States, or because of the dereliction of those who are in positions of responsibility, to attend to the needs of their people.

KIM BROWN: Indeed. Well, we have been speaking with Professor Abdi Samatar. He is a professor, also the Chair of the Department of Geography, Environment and Society at the University of Minnesota. He's also author of the book titled, "Africa's First Democrats."

We've been speaking about the election of a brand new president in Somalia, and also getting an overview about the political landscape in that East African nation.

So, Professor, we appreciate your time today. Thank you so much.

ABDI SAMATAR: With pleasure, Kim.

KIM BROWN: And thank you for watching The Real News Network.




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