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Somali elections online: View from Mogadishu

On the 8th of February, although it was a weekday, most residents of Mogadishu had returned to their beds after the fajr prayer, and stayed in bed later than usual: there were no noise and the commotion of bajaj[1], minibuses, and cars was unusually absent from the streets. This morning around 10am, the Somali National TV (SNTV) channel was already broadcasting the empty venue at the airport, which would soon be filled. Discussions were louder on social media than on the actual streets of Mogadishu. This short article describes how social media users have commented on the events around the Somali presidential election, and observations of tensions and celebrations in the streets of Mogadishu and online. It aims to illustrate the ways the Internet provided a space for political discussions between Somalis.

Since the day before the election, all the roads had been blocked, and even airplane traffic had halted on the day of the election. The much anticipated day of the Presidential election finally arrived, and the atmosphere was tense. The electoral process, that had been scheduled to take place in August 2016, had been repeatedly postponed, lasting longer than expected. These two days were like the last kilometres of an exhausting marathon. After the electoral process in the regions ended, the political elite, and their supporters, came back to Mogadishu, where presidential campaigns had started. The period of “kala guurka” – which refers to “transition” as the period right before the election but literally translates as “moving out” had started. Mobility had been slowly reduced for the days prior to the election, as an evening curfew had been imposed on bajaj and other transports from 7 pm onwards.

An election online: “If people on Facebook could vote – Farmaajo would be elected”

Discussions on the latest online polls, prognostics and political humour, took place on Facebook. These discussions tackled issues such as the timing of the elections, rumours and jokes regarding how much was spent on vote buying, the latest plots, the political fate of Hassan Sheikh: will he remain or would this election unleash surprises along the lines of the elections in 2012.

Before the election, the possibility of Hassan Sheikh winning a second term had been regarded as a strong possibility, even if many observers were of the opinion that “if people on Facebook could vote, Farmaajo would be elected”. Online posts and polls seemed to back this interpretation, , where Farmaajo’s supporters turned out to be the most avid polls respondents. Several journalists and politicians for instance carried out online polls on Facebook and Twitter to evaluate preferences, during the debates of presidential candidates since January and more on the day of the Presidential election. For instance, the famous VOA journalist Harun Maruf who has 74,5k followers on Twitter started polls in January 2017. On the 14th of January, he asked his followers in a first poll of several who they would want as the next Somali president. Of the 780 voters, 45% voted for Mohamed Abdullahi Farmaajo, 25% Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, 17% for Hassan Sheikh and 13% for Omar A. Sharmarke 13%[2]. Most polls were in English on Twitter, while most comments tend to be mixed Somali and English on Facebook.

The day of the election: #SomaliaDecides

When the counting started on TV, it was also livestreamed on Facebook – likes and loves flying over the screen. The hashtag #SomaliaDecides was trending both on Facebook and twitter. After all the legislators had voted, the counting started. In the first round, when it was clear that the first ten ballots were for, “Mohamed Cabdullahi Farmaajo” – this sparked surprise. The roll call also raised questions as to whether these votes denoted a trend and when the votes for Hassan Sheikh would start being called out? And it continued, slowly however. The first votes for Hassan Sheikh provoked loud cheering in the room, before the Speaker Jawari asked them to calm down and avoid cheering.

The counting itself was a long process, taking almost two hours, and during the count the mosques sounded the call for prayer. The first round ended as relatively expected, with four veteran politicians who qualified for the next round: the incumbent president Hassan Sheikh Mahamoud gathered 88 votes, former Prime Minister Mohamed Cabdullahi Farmajo with 72 votes, former president of the transitional federal government Sharif Sheikh Hassan had 49 while the former Prime Minister Omar Abdirashid Sharmarke finished with 37 votes.

A picture of the Ethiopian colonel Gebre present at the counting was circulating online. Farmajo’s supporters interpreted his expression as one of surprise and worry, which they put down to Hassan Sheikh gathering less than the expected 120 votes – already sparking enthusiasm among social media users. It was widely assumed that the Ethiopian government supposed Hassan Sheikh, which re-enforced the sentiment of support to Farmaajo who was increasingly associated with rejection of foreign influence.

In the second round, Farmaajo had secured some 180 votes when suddenly loud gun fire started. “Is the fighting already starting? Wasn’t it too early to start celebrations, since the third round had yet to start?” were questions that people were asking themselves. Whether the gunfire was a premonitory signal, or an expression of support to Farmaajo, the next major development which involved Hassan Sheikh taking the stage and withdrawing his candidacy was met with surprise and relief. It was already past 6pm, and it was a relief that we would be spared another long process of voting and counting.

Celebrating – the “ar farmaajo ii geeya” fever

Somalia had decided. At first, only gunshots were heard on the streets. Those gunshots however were not like the mortar shells that dropped the night before. Instead the gun fire were soon followed by celebrations filling the streets, while gun shots were streaking through the black sky like fireworks. The neighbours rushed out and quickly filled the streets that had been deserted just moments earlier. This time the noise in the streets didn’t come from the horns of the drivers, but from young boys and girls, men and women, and soldiers taking to the lit streets: marching, singing, and screaming “Farmaajo”.

This celebration was widely followed online. Pictures of the crowd celebrating in Mogadishu, as well as other cities in Somalia and abroad, started to circulate. As an image of the peaceful transfer of power, a picture of the three final candidates, two former presidents and the final victor, standing together and holding hands, was circulated. Videos too were shared, wherein members of the national army were gathered, expressing their support to the elected president, by making prayers that he succeeds and that God saves the Somali people[3].

The most famous short video, however, was a video of a civilian walking in front of a crowd, singing and repeating “ar Farmaajo ii geeya” (oh bring me to Farmaajo) and the crowd responding “waa laguu geeyna” (you will be brought to him). It soon became a phenomenon, on the internet and outside. It was turned a day later into a song, and the lines rapidly appeared on Matatus in Nairobi or on caps. A wave of hope swept away the tensions that had been accumulating the past ten days prior to the election.

The following day: “Today feels like Eid”

The next day everyone returned to their daily activities, but the atmosphere was still festive. In town, groups of people, men and women, kids and teenagers walked together. For shop owners, customers and bajaj drivers, Farmaajo was never off their lips; “Today it is our Eid: the people won”. Groups of people would walk together, branding the poster of Farmaajo, his portrait on a light blue background and the script “danta, dalka, dadka” – a slogan meaning ([national] interest, the country, the people”. Some added “diinta” (religion) to keep up with the rhyme in “d” to add an important component, or substitute it for “danta” which was not so much remembered.

The civilians demonstrated along with the military. On the way back from the market in the old town, Hamar Weyne, the road usually closed to bajaj was open. Groups of people were walking and chanting. A military car passed, and young boys ran after them, and jumped into the back of the car, sitting next to the soldiers. As we drove further, another military car came around the KM4 junction, and they stopped – a female soldier came out to represent the group of military soldiers in the car, stood up in the middle, shot in the air and returned to her seat. The car drove away. It had become a ritual for every military car to show support to the president by shooting in the air.

The use of social media as a medium to reach out

Social media played a pivotal role in this election. While analysis has focused on alliances, use of bribery and clan loyalty, the use of social media in this election has been important in several ways. The internet created a space in which politicians could reach out to people who they couldn’t have access to otherwise – due to security reasons for instance. Reaching out through social media has been described as critical especially for the new comers in the parliament. These new comers tend to be younger and avid social media users who – at least claim to – represent their social media followers when exercising their voting rights. The day before the elections, one of the legislators, a young man in his late 20s, was asked on SNTV what would influence his decision. He answered that he would do a poll with his Facebook followers, and vote for the candidate who acquired the most online votes. It is important to bear in mind that as discussed earlier, relative to the other candidates Farmaajo had the largest number of active online supporters.

The video of a civilian asking to meet the president had gone viral. Besides the humorous aspect and the excitement, it also captured the aspiration of a population to have an accessible and trustworthy administration – personified in the figure of the president. Soon after the spread of the video, rumours started to go around announcing that the man would meet the president. One day later, on the 9th of February, again HarunMarufpolls surveyed his followers. Some 1044 followers responded to the question “what should the president get done during the first one year of his four-year term”? 50% votes to rebuild/reintegrate the army, 24% on securing Mogadishu fully, 14% on jobs/economic recovery and 12% to implement reconciliation[4].

Farmaajo’s administration may enjoy strong support from the people and the military compared to the previous government. However, this president has generated high expectations, which if not met could easily turn into strong disappointment. This wave of hope may be similar to the one in 2012 when Hassan Sheikh Mahamoud, an educated man from civil society, was elected president. However, he soon became and was perceived as the personification of Somali problems. This has been illustrated by the election that quickly became “everyone but Hassan Sheikh”[5]. The new president’s task isn’t an easy one.

Faduma Abukar Mursal is a PhD candidate at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Halle/Saale (Germany). She may be reached at abukar@eth.mpg.de

Sources

[1] “Bajaj” is the name of the Indian company that manufactures three wheeled vehicles that are popularly used both as a means of public transportation and to transport goods. The 3 wheeled vehicles have become common across the Horn of Africa.

[2] https://twitter.com/HarunMarufPolls/status/820419492887011328, 15.02.2017.

[3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=97X5-FeCPpw, 08.02.2017.

[4] https://twitter.com/HarunMarufPolls/status/829511549907791872, 15.02.2017.

[5] http://www.africa-confidential.com/article-preview/id/11916/MPs_reject_foreigners%27_choice, 18.02.2017.

One Response to “Somali elections online: View from Mogadishu”

  1. Jay Salim

    Its great & very
    Informative!

    Reply

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