MOGADISHU (Reuters) - Yusuf Garaad left his comfortable home and job as head of the BBC Somali Service in London to run for the presidency of Somalia when the Horn of Africa nation embraced a plan to shed its image as the archetypal failed state.
He is one of several new faces who have returned home to try and lead the country out of two decades of lawlessness and violence at the hands of gun-toting militias, fanatical Islamist militants and rapacious pirates.
“I watched for so long from afar, not doing anything but reporting and pretending it was not up to me to do something,” Garaad told Reuters in his villa in the capital Mogadishu.
Since the outbreak of civil conflict in 1991 there has been no central government control over most of the country, but now there is opportunity to close that long chapter in a regionally brokered and U.N.-backed roadmap.
As part of that process, a speaker of a reformed parliament and a new president should have been elected before August 20.
In spite of heavy cajoling by donors, that deadline has been missed, though Western diplomats hope the delay will be just a few weeks. The bigger question is whether the new government can represent a break from the string of ineffective interim administrations of recent years.
Garaad and other newcomer contenders for the presidency are up against a determined phalanx of old-guard politicians. The top leaders of the existing transitional federal government (TFG) are all competing to be president.
So while the end of the interim administration is being touted as a new dawn in Somali politics, there are fears the new government will look much like previous ones, with the same security problems, corruption and fractious clan politics.
“If the current TFG leadership succeeds in manipulating the outcome, the end of the transition will be in some ways a distinction without a difference,” said Ken Menkhaus, a Somalia expert and professor of political science at Davidson College.
By Monday, a new slimmed-down parliament is expected to convene, though not all members will have been appointed. About 220 of the 275 parliamentarians have so far been selected.
“I think the probability is that essentially the same cast of characters will be reflected by the new parliament, and many of the challenges that the TFG has faced ... will continue to plague the new government,” the International Crisis Group’s Horn of Africa project director, EJ Hogendoorn, told Reuters.
Many say the current administration has failed to deliver lasting security gains and basic services or improve living standards, yet President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, a former rebel leader in power since 2009, as well as the prime minister and parliament’s speaker, are all bidding for the presidency.
They also face allegations of massive corruption outlined in a report in July by the United Nations’ Somalia monitoring group which found that $7 in every $10 received by the TFG from 2009-2010 never made it into state coffers.
Ahmed, in an interview with Reuters, rejected the report’s allegations as “fabricated” and “a lie”.
In war-scarred Mogadishu, where street lights, walls and cars carry billboards, banners and posters of the presidential hopefuls, many citizens worry the current leaders have hijacked the reform process to maintain a grip on power.
“This current government has been awful. They haven’t given people their rights,” said Fartoun, a fully veiled 21-year-old shopping in the open-air Hamarweyn souk where thousands of men and women jostled to buy gifts for the Muslim holiday of Eid.
“We don’t want him (President Ahmed) back because he doesn’t help; he just takes all the money and leaves nothing for his people,” she said, near a billboard that purports to show the choice facing Somalia. One half of a human figure carries a dove, surrounded by fruit. The other half, a skeleton, is surrounded by bombs and images of destruction.
Nick Birnback, chief of public information at the U.N. Political Office for Somalia, says parliament’s convening with a majority of lawmakers is an important step forward for the nation. “But it is just that ... A lot of hard work remains in the days ahead.”
It is easy to be pessimistic about Somalia.
The United Nations, which is loudly supporting the “transition to transformation”, has accused “spoilers” of trying to disrupt the process.
Augustine Mahiga, the U.N. Special Representative for Somalia, has not accused anyone directly of using intimidation and bribery, but he says some in the process have “a vested interest in maintaining the status quo”.
Tribal elders from Somalia’s complex clan structures have been nominating legislators who must have no history of violence, and at least a secondary education. A third of them must be women.
The lawmakers are vetted by a committee that includes members chosen by the top three leaders including the president.
There have been reports that some on the committee have received threats over their work.
One of the presidential contenders, Abdulrahim Abdulshakur, who was once Somalia’s representative at the Arab League, says the whole electoral process is flawed.
“It’s a process where the referee and the players are the same. It’s useless to watch the game,” he said. “Somalia is at a crossroads ... The new leader will determine whether Somalia is going forward or backwards,” he added.
There are some reasons to be hopeful.
Mogadishu, once synonymous with chaos and violence - the infamous shooting down of two Black Hawk helicopters and lynching of U.S. troops happened here in 1993 - is trying to shed its war-torn skin.
Until last year, Islamist al Shabaab militants in the capital dug tunnels and used abandoned, pockmarked homes as hideouts to fight African and Somali government troops manning the frontlines that carved up the coastal city.
They withdrew last August, forced to regroup elsewhere mostly due to sustained pressure from U.N.-backed troops of the African Union mission (AMISOM).
Twelve months on, Mogadishu buzzes with energy, reflected in the renovation of bullet-riddled houses and crowded markets.
Though its alleyways are still a patchwork of potholes, main thoroughfares, lined by shops decorated with colorful graffiti, are paved. Alongside rickety station wagons, dubbed Islamic tanks because they were the favored transport of al Shabaab fighters, gleaming four-by-fours race through the streets.
Hotel guests can dine on fresh lobster hauled from the Indian Ocean, but first must clear checkpoints and body searches while goats pick through garbage-strewn streets.
U.N. and donor officials believe sustained international support can push Somalia in the right direction, away from clan power struggles and the political chaos that allowed the emergence of militant Islamists.
“There will be a period after the transition, if it’s seen to have been credible, in which I think there will be greater renewed international interest in Somalia,” a Nairobi-based diplomatic source told Reuters.
But the source warned: “If these new institutions that emerge are seen to be tainted by a badly flawed process ... that’s going to make it much more difficult.”
That could reignite clan rivalries that al Shabaab might use as a rallying call to revive the battle against AMISOM and government forces, which remain ill-equipped and badly paid.
“The indication is the hard-line wing of al Shabaab has reorganized in south and central Somalia in an effort to take advantage of clan grievances,” Hogendoorn said.
While AMISOM has advanced significantly beyond Mogadishu, and Kenyan and Ethiopian troops continue to drive out the rebels from parts of southern and central Somalia, the central government exerts little control beyond the capital.
Hogendoorn says the problem is that the territorial gains made by AMISOM and its allies have created areas of political vacuum that are not being effectively occupied and administered by the federal government, but by allied militias.
“As in the past, (al Shabaab) will play the clan card to create support and appeal to the losers of the political process,” he said.
Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, a popular former prime minister who goes by the name Farmaajo and is now campaigning for the presidency, says he remains hopeful the new parliament will vote for a new kind of leadership.
“There’s a definition of insanity that says it’s if you do the same thing over and over again and expect a different result. They need to lead the change that the country needs.”
Writing by Yara Bayoumy; Editing by Richard Lough, Pascal Fletcher and Will Waterman