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As Somalia slid into civil war almost 26 years ago, a family in Mogadishu sold everything to send a teenage girl to safety overseas. The 18-year-old arrived in northern Europe as a penniless and poorly educated asylum seeker. Now an expert in public health and an award-winning activist, Fadumo Dayib hopes to return to her homeland to end the killing and corruption and help lead Somalia towards prosperity and stability.
Dayib, who has lived in Finland since 1990, is standing in crucial presidential elections in Somalia scheduled for October. It is a move that has brought her daily death threats but also, she says, massive support in the country she left behind.
The poll has been billed by international backers, including the US and the UK, as the country’s first truly democratic election for decades. The reality is less inspiring, and much more complicated. A full election with a vote for all adults is considered impractical for security and institutional reasons, so Somalia’s next president will be selected by members of a bicameral national assembly picked by 14,000 delegates chosen by tribal elders.
At best, analysts say, the election can be described as a “stepping stone” towards universal suffrage, a goal optimists believe will be reached in 2020.
There are 18 candidates for the presidency, including the incumbent, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, a former academic and activist who has been in power since 2012. Dayib is the only woman.
The 44-year-old recognises her chances of winning are zero. “Anyone who is competent and qualified … they are never going to win. If you are not corrupt you will not get into the system. I will never pay one cent to anyone so the likelihood of me winning is non-existent,” Dayib told the Guardian, speaking from her home near Helsinki.
But her campaign has already had an impact: raising her profile, prompting a broader discussion about women in Somalia, and, according to the candidate, showing the country’s 11 million inhabitants that there is an alternative to the existing political elite.
“In 2020 we will have democratic elections and then … we will win,” Dayib said. “A lot of Somalis are in shock because I appeared out of nowhere but managed to challenge all those in power … and [now] everyone inside the country knows who I am.”
After decades of conflict, Somalia was said to have turned a corner in 2012 with a new political settlement and major gains against the insurgency led by the al-Shabaab movement. However, hopes of rapid progress have been dashed and holding any polls at all poses immense difficulties.
Somalia’s infrastructure is in ruins and islands of economic activity are surrounded by vast swaths of deep poverty. Major towns have been partially secured by government forces and 22,000 troops from nearby countries stationed in Somalia, but al-Shabaab has proved resilient. The militants have sworn to disrupt the electoral process and have repeatedly bombed the capital, Mogadishu, in recent months.
“It is going to be a long, slow process for Somalia to overcome its enormous challenges, and its ability to do so is still in doubt. However, the country has one of its best chances in two decades to move toward stability,” wrote Joshua Meservey, an analyst at the conservative US thinktank the Heritage Foundation, in a recent report.
Other observers are sceptical that polls in Somalia will do much to alleviate the country’s deep problems.
“There are so many different actors in Somalia now. There is a need to tick boxes … Have elections concretely improved things on the ground, especially for those most vulnerable to abuse? I don’t know,” said Laetitia Bader, an expert in Somalia at Human Rights Watch, the international campaign group.
Some observers expect the elections to be postponed again, though this could trigger a constitutional crisis and will concern the major western donors who have poured aid into Somalia in recent years but are now looking to reduce their commitment. Officials in Kenya, where many diplomats and aid workers dealing with Somalia are based, talk of a “recalibration of objectives”.
Dayib was born in Kenya, the daughter of Somali parents. Her mother had travelled to the neighbouring country to seek better medical treatment after 11 siblings died of preventable disease. Dayib, the 12th, survived. Expelled from Kenya in 1989, the family tried to remake their lives in Mogadishu. Then came the collapse of the Siad Barre regime and civil war.
In Finland, Dayib studied as a critical care nurse, trained health specialists for the United Nations and gained a doctorate. She also works with the private sector on employment for refugees and won a fellowship to Harvard University to study public administration.
“I hit the ground running and never stopped … I did not want to assimilate and lose my culture or my religion but to integrate. I tried to combine the best from my culture and the best from Finnish culture. I didn’t want to be [in Finland] forever. I knew I was going to go back to Somalia. I tried to learn things that would be of use to my homeland,” Dayib, who is Muslim, said.
Her policy platform includes taking on the clan system and traditions such as female genital mutilation; zero tolerance for corruption; telling neighbouring countries to respect Somalia’s territorial integrity and a dialogue with al-Shabaab if the extremists lay down arms, stop killing Somalis and cut ties to international terrorist organisations.
Though few observers believe it is likely a woman with a progressive agenda will be able to overcome the vast obstacles to taking power in a traditional, conservative country, Dayib, a mother of four, is confident.
The death threats she receives daily are “a compliment”, she said.
“I come from a society where women are almost nothing, not taken seriously, just waved away. Certain men actually feel scared enough to make these threats because they recognise that I have the capability to instigate change.”