Nairobi – Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, a 56-year-old university lecturer chosen by lawmakers on Monday as Somalia’s new president, is something of an unknown quantity.
“We don’t know much about him at all,” a western diplomat told AFP as voting in the presidential poll drew to a close.
“He comes from Somali civil society and he has links to Al Islah, the equivalent of the Muslim brotherhood. It’s only in the past two days that we’ve been hearing a lot about him,” the diplomat said.
In academic and NGO circles Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, the co-founder of the Somali Institute of Management and Administrative Development (SIMAD), is said to be a respected and influential figure who specialises in education.
In the streets of Mogadishu news of his election was met with residents firing into the air to express their joy.
SIMAD was set up to ensure that war-ravaged Somalia got its fair share of managers and administrators.
Born in 1955 in Jalalaqsi in the central Hiran region, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud is, like the outgoing president Sharif Sheikh Ahmed whom he beat in Monday’s poll, from the powerful Hawiye, the majority clan in Mogadishu.
According to the website of the political party he set up last year, the new president has two decades of experience behind him, both in education and in conflict resolution.
Few people if indeed any in the international community that has been backing the political transition in Somalia, guessed Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, who studied at Somalia’s national university before the civil war started in 1991 and then at Bhopal University in India, would win the top job.
A lot of unknowns
He did stints with the UN children’s agency Unicef in the first years after the 1991 ouster of Mohamed Siad Barre.
In 2009 he co-authored a report for the UN Development Programme in which he underlined the importance of the huge but politically fragmented Somali diaspora, arguing that it should play a more “systematic” role in peace building in Somalia.
Unlike many Somali political figures, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud is not part of the diaspora.
The new president has never served as a minister, nor, up until the past few days, as an MP. In his party’s manifesto he said he wanted to “build a society free from the demons of clan politics, from fear and from internal conflicts”.
Laura Hammond, a Britsh academic who worked with SIMAD, said Hassan Sheikh Mohamud had managed to hold talks with the extremist Shabaab, who, even after they chased other groups out of the areas they control, allowed SIMAD to remain.
“I think he will be a moderate,” Hammond told AFP Monday evening, just before the official announcement of his election.
Hassan Sheikh Mohamud’s party describes him as the architect of Somali civil society.
Others say it is too difficult to get an accurate idea of the new president and predict his political programme or form an idea of how capable he is of getting Somalia back on track.
“There are quite a lot of unknowns, starting with who is this new president who appeared from nowhere a few days ago and who has no political experience,” the western diplomat told AFP.