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This Woman Wants to Prove That Somalia Is Serious About Democracy

Fadumo Dayib’s presidential candidacy forces the African nation to reckon with its alienated political populations.

Fadumo Dayib is an accomplished woman. The 42-year-old mother of four spent 12 years as a healthcare and development specialist with organizations such as the European Union and United Nations, tackling problems like forced migration, gender issues, and HIV/AIDS prevention. And as of this September, Dayib, both a doctoral candidate at the University of Helsinki and fellow at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, is also angling to become Somalia’s first female president. In her candidacy, she acts not an isolated individual, but also as the apotheosis of Somalia’s female and diaspora populations’ ballooning political heft.

Although she currently resides in Finland, Dayib was born in Somalia, but fled during the African nation’s atrocious civil war in the 1990s, living in a Kenyan refugee camp for a time before finally making her way to Scandinavia. But like many members of the Somali diaspora, she has remained deeply engaged with her country. And, despite the countless warnings about how dangerous Somalia is for women, Dayib has decided to channel that engagement into political participation at the highest level. Set to return to her native country early this year, she will campaign on a platform of education, minority protection, and youth employment.

For those not up to date on Somali politics, although the country is currently run by a democratic, federal government which replaced a series of transitional governments in 2012, the country actually has yet to hold full elections. (Members of parliament voted in the first president.) The country’s upcoming 2016 elections will be their first (hopefully) free and fair political contest since 1967, when the young Somali Republic elected President Omar Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke. The assassination of Sharmarke two years later precipitated the dictatorial regime of Mohamed Siad Barre, who in turn laid the ground for decades of civil war after his 1991 ouster.

Given this turbulent history, there exists an unsurprising skepticism among many Somalis regarding whether the 2016 elections will actually happen. Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud outlined plans for election logistics, monitoring, and oversight in an internationally sponsored conference in 2013, hellbent on creating a new constitution that would secure a voice for all. But without the buy-in of autonomous regions like Puntland and Somaliland in the north, both of which have their own functional governments, and under continued threat from al-Shabaab, (a dangerous militant religious organization), he may not have the easiest time delivering on these promises.

Image by James Dahl via Flickr

Yet despite the menace to Somalia’s democratic ambitions, diaspora Somalis have rushed to participate in the new government from day one. This is just the latest in a long trend of Somalis abroad backing their kin in the Horn of Africa—every year 1.5 million Somalis around the world remit $1.3 to two billion dollars to their relatives back home, significantly propping up the local economy. And according to Dr. Laura Hammond of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, diaspora returnees have historically been involved in social services, professional and developmental work, and local politics in Somalia. Dayib herself returned in 2006 to work in Bossaso, Puntland, on HIV/AIDS-related programs for UNICEF.

Over the past few years though, Somali women, long discouraged from taking part in social and political affairs, have struggled to overcome longstanding local taboos. Dayib maintains that as women tend to manage family budgets and maintain important, visible roles in society, it’s only right that a Somali woman ought to take a turn at running the government. Somalia proper now has 35 female members of parliament—two women in the president’s cabinet and a female foreign minister. (Although this only comes out to 14 percent of the 275-person parliament, far short of the Somali constitution’s 30 percent female quota.)

However positive this engagement by returnees and women might seem from the outside, it can rub locals the wrong way. Hammond tells of Somalis expressing concern that members of the diaspora were taking the best jobs and most prominent political seats away from Somalis with greater need and more direct, local experience. The diaspora politicians, in return, easily grow frustrated with clan politics and intrigue, as well as the culture shock of being treated as foreign interlopers by their own kin and countrymen. As for the challenges faced by women, Foreign Minister Fawzia Yusuf Adam describes receiving threats on her life everyday from radical Islamists and traditionalists.

But when returnees and women build local coalitions and support bases, evidence shows they become strong, constructive links in Somalia’s political chain. If Dayib can develop successful ties with Somalia’s diverse and complex communities, her administration would be a powerful sign to her fellow diaspora members, Somali women, and the world at large that the nation has developed a robust, united, and progressive democratic front.

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