Air traffic over Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital, was halted today (8 Feb) as MPs and senators gathered at the airport to elect former Prime Minister Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo as the country’s new president.
The outgoing president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, congratulated the winner, though many challenges lie ahead for the new leader. President Farmajo will have to try to unite a war-torn country that is still very much divided, while facing an ongoing Islamic insurgency and corruption crisis, as well as the threat of famine.
Last month, the UN warned that Somalia was heading for its second famine in six years, with people already dying from hunger in the north of the country, which is in the grip of an intense drought, induced by two consecutive seasons of poor rainfall.
The election was seen as a milestone on the way to a stable democracy. Because of security concerns and the threat of an attack from the militant Islamist Al-Shabaab group, it was held in a heavily guarded hangar at the airport.
Considering all of this, the final outcome of the US’s contentious travel ban, which includes residents of Somalia, there are more pressing concerns for the new president, who holds both Somali and American citizenship.
Although closely watched by international observers, little is expected to change for the small community of Somali Christians after these elections. Former President Mohamud, shortly after his inauguration in 2012, stated that his government would be dedicated to creating a Somalia “at peace with itself and with its neighbours, a Somalia that values kindness, respect and human rights”. However, since then the position of the Christian minority in the country has not improved. On the contrary, on the Open Doors 2017 World Watch List of the 50 countries where life for Christians is the most difficult, Somalia is ranked 2nd behind North Korea.
In 7th position in 2016, its rise to 2nd can be ascribed to an increase in violent incidents, which have two root causes. First of all, Christians in rural Somalia are being targeted by jihadists and tribal leaders with impunity. Secondly, all over the country, families, communities and authorities target Christians – particularly converts from a Muslim background. The estimated number of Somali Christians is very low, consisting of Protestants (0.01%), Independents (0.04%), Anglicans (<0.01%), Catholics (<0.01%), Orthodox (0.28%), according to Open Doors.
Even as a new president takes charge, the country’s constitution leaves little room for changes in the realm of freedom of religion or belief. Article 2 of the constitution indicates that Islam is the religion of the State, that no religion other than Islam can be propagated in the country and that no law which is not compliant with the general principles of Sharia can be enacted. Although Article 17 indicates that every person is free to practise his or her religion, it reiterates that no religion other than Islam can be propagated. And so today only the ruins of ancient church buildings exist in Somalia, serving as reminders of a time when there was a more vibrant Christian community.