Mogadishu – Abdiweli Mohamed Ali Gaas, a former Somali prime minister, was elected president Wednesday of the semi-autonomous Puntland region, an area of Somalia struggling to shed its image as a pirate haven and still threatened by Islamist militants.
An economist by training, Ali was elected by lawmakers by the narrowest of margins, scoring 33 votes in the third round of polling, just one more than incumbent President Abdurahman Mohamed Farole. One vote was spoilt.
The 66 lawmakers who cast their votes were appointed last month by clan elders in the poverty-stricken region, which forms the tip of the Horn of Africa and makes up around a third of Somalia’s territory.
“I am very grateful for the support of my people who trusted me to run Puntland,” Ali, in his late forties, told those assembled at the parliament building.
Incumbent Farole accepted defeat gracefully, wished his rival well and said the election had been “clean and democratic”.
“I’m very proud of the way it has been handled,” he said.
“I fully support the victory of Abdiweli and I expect him to lead the region just as well as we did,” Farole said.
Puntland set up its own government in 1998, but unlike neighbouring Somaliland, it has not declared full independence. The region has struggled to rebuild after years of war, and in addition to battling pockets of Shebab in the mountains has struggled to stamp out pirate bases along its coast.
The vote went into a third round after no candidate succeeded in obtaining a two-thirds majority in the first two rounds.
Kidnapping, piracy and terrorism
International Crisis Group said it was watching the elections closely as Puntland is the first of Somalia’s federal units to attempt the tricky transition from clan-based representation to directly-elected government. The rest of the war-torn Horn of Africa nation has committed to make the same transition by 2016.
“Puntland’s experience shows that donors and other international actors also need to be heedful of local political realities, including support of elites, robustness of institutions and viability of electoral districts,” the think-tank said in a report published ahead of the polls.
The Puntland authorities were taking no chances with security Wednesday. Roads into the capital Garowe have been closed since Tuesday evening and the area round the parliament building is closed even to pedestrians.
In early December a car bomb in Puntland’s main port Bosaso, which lies on the Gulf of Aden, left at least 11 dead.
Al-Qaeda linked Shebab insurgents operate from the rugged Golis mountains southwest of Bosaso, a lawless region under longtime control of warlord, arms dealer and Shebab ally Mohamed Said Atom, who is under UN Security Council sanctions for “kidnapping, piracy and terrorism”.
Shabaab fighters have in the past launched attacks on military bases near Bosaso.
Six out of the 17 people who were initially candidates dropped out, many of them discouraged by a non-refundable inscription fee of 10,000 dollars.
Observers said that the fact all 11 candidates who stayed in the race were from the Majerten, itself a sub-clan of the regionally dominant Darood group, increased the chances of the poll going ahead peacefully.
Elections were originally due to have been held in July, but they were postponed by the government, which at the time said the risk of violence was too great.