Votes are counted in the first round of the presidential election in Mogadishu, Somalia Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2017. Voting started Wednesday in Somalia’s groundbreaking presidential election as members of the upper and lower houses of the legislature cast ballots in the first round with 21 candidates for president, amid a security lockdown that has closed the capital’s international airport and cleared major streets. (Farah Abdi Warsameh/Associated Press)
MOGADISHU, Somalia — A former prime minister who holds dual Somali-U.S. citizenship was declared Somalia’s new president Wednesday, immediately taking the oath of office as the long-chaotic country moved toward its first fully functioning central government in a quarter-century.
Incumbent President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud conceded defeat after two rounds of voting, and former prime minister Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo was declared the new leader.
“History was made, we have taken this path to democracy, and now I want to congratulate Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo,” Mohamud said.
Thousands of cheering Somalis quickly poured into the streets in jubilation, chanting the new president’s name. Cheering soldiers fired into the air. “Somalia will be another Somalia soon,” said Ahmed Ali, a police officer celebrating in the crowd.
The election took place under heavy security amid threats from extremist group al-Shabab, with a security lockdown closing the capital’s international airport and clearing major streets.
Mohamud held a slight lead over Farmajo, 88 votes to 72, after the first round of 21 candidates, but Farmajo held a clear lead after the second round among the three candidates remaining.
“This victory represents the interest of the Somali people. This victory belongs to Somali people, and this is the beginning of the era of the unity, the democracy of Somalia and the beginning of the fight against corruption,” Farmajo said after taking the oath of office.
Farmajo, who holds degrees from the State University of New York in Buffalo, was prime minister for eight months before leaving the post in 2011. He had lived in the United States since 1985, when he was sent there with Somalia’s foreign affairs ministry.
Somalia began to fall apart in 1991, when warlords ousted dictator Siad Barre and then turned on each other. Years of conflict and al-Shabab attacks, along with famine, left this Horn of Africa country of about 12 million people largely shattered.
Fears of al-Shabab attacks limited Wednesday’s election to the lawmakers instead of the population at large. Members of the upper and lower houses of the legislature dropped their ballots into clear boxes at the heavily guarded election venue, a former air force base in Mogadishu.
Across Mogadishu, Somalis had gathered around TV screens at cafes and homes, eagerly watching the vote. “We need an honest leader who can help us move forward,” said Ahmed Hassan, a 26-year-old university student.
Somalia’s instability landed it among the seven Muslim-majority countries affected by President Donald Trump’s executive order on immigration, even though its government has been an increasingly important partner for the U.S. military on counterterrorism efforts, including drone strikes against al-Shabab leaders.
The new president, Farmajo, can travel to the United States on his U.S. passport.
In a sign of the dangers that remain in Mogadishu, two mortar rounds fired by suspected extremists late Tuesday hit near the election venue. There were no public statements by al-Shabab on Wednesday.
While the international community pushed Somalia to hold the election as a symbol of strength, including the U.S. pouring in hundreds of millions of dollars in recent years for political and economic recovery, the vote was marred by reports of widespread corruption.
The legislators voting — 275 members of the lower legislative house and 54 senators — were selected by the country’s powerful, intricate network of clans. Weeks ago, a joint statement by the United Nations, the U.S., European Union and others warned of “egregious cases of abuse of the electoral process.”
Examples included violence, intimidation and men taking seats that had been reserved for female candidates, the joint statement said.
With reports of votes being sold for up to $30,000 apiece, “This is probably the most expensive election, per vote, in history,” the Mogadishu-based anti-corruption group Marqaati said in a report released Tuesday.