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Through My Lens: Thanks to refugees, Somalia on the cusp of political change


A presidential election takes place in Somalia May 15, when more than 270 members of the Somali parliament who were voted into office last week will choose the new president by indirect elections.

Abdi Nor Iftin is a Somali-American writer, radio journalist and public speaker. He lives in Yarmouth.

More than half of these members of parliament are former refugees who dared to return to Somalia despite the constant threats against their lives.

During the swearing-in ceremony, many members of the new parliament were giving press conferences in multiple languages: Somali, English, Arabic – even Swedish – showing resistance and resilience. I have never been so hopeful for my country of origin. I can see the same idea that helped end apartheid in South Africa and the civil war in Sierra Leone emerge in Somalia: the idea of an emerging democracy.

Somali elections are still based on a clan system. Some clan members are forbidden from running for president, including mine – The Rahanweyn, a pastoral clan that herds or shepherds their animals (often cows and camels). They don’t have permanent houses; they move around the wilderness with their animals until sunset. Because they were not used to getting involved in politics and urban social activities, the clans in power don’t believe pastoralists have the skills to run a nation. But instead of protesting, I still want some sort of government to take hold in Somalia. Then, I believe I can fight for an inclusive government.

Somali-Mainers, in the meantime, think this election is one of the best chances we have ever had. The country shows small signs of progress toward democracy, despite daily bombings from Alshabab and injustices in the system. Mogadishu has campaign signs and billboards that show presidential candidates and their slogans: “Democracy is the only way” reads one sign, “Unity and oneness” reads another.  Presidential candidates are able to engage in live television debates to speak directly to the people.

Almost all presidential candidates have foreign passports; many of them are European and copy the debate styles, topics and issues of the countries where they lived. The incumbent president is a former U.S. citizen and a refugee who lived in Buffalo, New York, for many years. He was elected five years ago on promises of equality for all and democratic leadership. The prime minister is a Norwegian citizen. Every one of these candidates was a refugee at some point in their lives; they fled Somalia in the early 1990s, became naturalized citizens elsewhere and moved back to Somalia recently. Now, as they hit the campaign trail, they are quoting philosophers not known in Somalia: Socrates, John Locke, Immanuel Kant and other European and American philosophers, but people seem to love these philosophers’ ideas.

Building a just and democratic society in Somalia has a long way to go. We have to take it one step at a time. For the time being, the priority is a stable and peaceful Somalia. A place I can go back to for a summer vacation and enjoy the beautiful warm beaches.

To build a stable country, we learned that it takes those of us who are in the diaspora to come together. Somali-Mainers are watching this election closely. Our new country, the United States, is giving us the space and platform to start the difficult conversation surrounding equality, justice and belonging. Somali-Mainers are learning as part of the ongoing movements in the United States to also apply those same ideas to the new Somalia.

The experiences we had while living outside Somalia seem to work for our home country at this critical time. History shows us that elections are the riskiest moments in fragile states such as Somalia, where the tradition of peaceful political transition is not entrenched. What we are hoping for May 15 is a fair and transparent election that ends in a handshake that goes down in history like the early 1990s, when South Africa’s Nelson Mandela and Frederick de Klerk were elected.



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