The Cable

Catch Up on The Presidential Debates: Somalia Edition

Not to worry: Even Trump came up, tangentially.


Thought you were done with presidential debates? Well, Somalia’s bringing them back. The war-torn East African country broadcast its first ever presidential debate Monday.

The field of candidates for Wednesday’s election is so crowded — there are 23 in all — that they had to be split in two groups. In the first debate, only 3 of the 11 candidates made an appearance. Incumbent and frontrunner President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud didn’t even bother to show up for the second debate.

The candidates who did come debated the well-worn themes of security and immigration. Sound familiar?

Candidate Bashir Rage, a former warlord, pledged to help Somalis sent home or stranded at airports after Trump’s executive order banning U.S. travel from Somalia and six other Muslim-majority countries.

Meanwhile, Mohamud Ahmed Nur Tarsan, former mayor of Mogadishu mayor, vowed to bring warring clans together, fight corruption and extinguish Islamic extremism, according to Reuters.

Tackling those challenges is a tall order for the world’s least developed nation. In 2016, Somalia was ranked the most corrupt country in the world by Transparency International.

On the security front, Somalia’s U.N.-backed government has battled Islamic extremist group al-Shabaab for over a decade. Al-Shabaab still controls significant swaths of rural land in central and southern Somalia and poses a steep threat to the government in Mogadishu. (It’s also spread its tendrils beyond Somalia’s borders, carrying out deadly terror attacks in neighboring Kenya and Djibouti).

The situation is so dire that authorities have scrapped plans for a country-wide vote over fears of al-Shabaab attacks. Instead, 125 clan elders selected over 14,000 people across the country to vote for members of parliament, who will in turn elect the president. Mogadishu is on complete lock-down in anticipation of the election.

While the incumbent president is favored to win, he’s not a shoe-in: his Peace and Development party enjoys support from only about a third of Somalia’s 300 MP’s. In recent weeks, he’s sought to shore up his political support by pledging large-scale reforms to the army and preparing a popular vote election in 2020. Somalia’s last full democratic elections were in 1969.

Photo credit: MOHAMED ABDIWAHAB/AFP/Getty Images

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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