Q&A: An ambitious attempt to be Somalia’s first female president

There are a few exceptions but Somali women hardly get into politics or hold top public office in what remains a deeply conservative society. Fowzia Yusuf, one of those, speaks to Al Jazeera on seeking another first.

An election banner of Somali presidential candidate and former Foreign Minister Fawzia Yusuf Adam is seen in Mogadishu, Somalia May 12, 2022
An election banner for Somali presidential candidate and former Foreign Minister Fowzia Yusuf Adam is seen in Mogadishu, Somalia May 12, 2022 [File: Feisal Omar/Reuters]

This Sunday, Somalia is expected to hold its highly anticipated and long-delayed presidential election as 39 presidential candidates jostle for the country’s top position.

Some of the contenders include the incumbent, two former presidents, the immediate former prime minister and the president of the regional state of Puntland, joined the race.

Also in the race is Somalia’s only female presidential candidate, Fowzia Yusuf Adam. She is a legislator and a well-known women’s rights advocate who made history as the country’s first female deputy prime minister and female foreign affairs minister.

Somali lawmaker and presidential candidate Fawzia Yusuf H. Adam sits in her office in Mogadishu
Somali lawmaker and presidential candidate Fowzia Yusuf H Adam sits in her office in Mogadishu, Somalia Saturday, July 17, 2021 [Farah Abdi Warsameh/AP Photo]

The exercise was scheduled to happen more than a year ago but could not, due to a protracted political crisis and raging insecurity being spearheaded by al-Qaeda-linked armed group, al-Shabab.

It is now happening against the backdrop of a May 17 deadline by donors like the International Monetary Fund for the Horn of Africa nation to put in place a government or lose funding.

But no votes will be cast by the Somali people. In the country’s unique electoral system, each clan respectively elects their members of parliament and thus makes the country hold its indirect presidential election.

In all, parliament has 329 members, with 54 of those in the Senate. The Senate members represent the five regional states and are elected by provincial legislators while the other lawmakers are elected by delegates appointed by clan elders and members of civil society. They jointly elect the president who leads the country for four years.

There are a few exceptions but Somali women hardly get into politics or hold top public office, given cultural restrictions in what remains a deeply conservative society.

But Fawzia, the country’s first-ever female deputy prime minister and foreign affairs minister between November 2012 to January 2017, wants to prove that wrong. She is competing with 38 men.

Al Jazeera spoke to Fowzia Yusuf.

Al Jazeera: What encouraged you to join the Somalia presidential race?

Yusuf: The reason is that, since I was deputy prime minister, acting prime minister and even foreign [affairs] minister, I thought I could do more If I went for the top job. I realised that I couldn’t make any tangible achievement unless I aim for the top job.

I was also encouraged by the endless war in Somalia and the lack of good public services to the people.

I also realised the hardship Somali women, children and refugees face. I am so motivated that other countries have progressed well, and we are still struggling with war, yet we have enough natural resources to prosper.

Al Jazeera: What are your plans for your presidency?

Yusuf: If allowed to lead Somalia, I will strengthen the rule of law, complete the draft constitution and strictly follow it. I will implement true reconciliation across the country. Rebuilding the Somali national army and timely providing their rights and need for peace and security is the key to stability.

My utmost priority is to revive the country’s economy by developing the Infrastructural and industrial sector since Somalia has Africa’s longest coast sea. My country has economic resources, including agriculture, fishing and livestock. I will modernise them to fight poverty and create employment for the public so that they can pay taxes.

Abandoning the clan-based system for a proper democratic process is also my ambition.

Regarding public services, I will provide free healthcare and education to the public across the country. Above all, the fight against corruption and prioritising women’s and children’s needs will be the hearts of everything in my administration.

Al Jazeera: What do you think has gone wrong with Somalia?

Yusuf: Usually, civil war happens in many parts of the world, but the main problem in Somalia is that there was no true reconciliation in the country after the civil war, and that gave the terrorist organisation a chance to do what they wanted. The absence of an actual democratic process has significantly contributed to the instability in Somalia.

Al Jazeera: Currently, drought and climate change issues are affecting Somalia. How do you plan to resolve this?

Yusuf: My understanding is that deforestation is the main reason for Somalia’s drought and climate change. I will develop a strict policy to address environmental destruction if given a chance. Cloud seeding is a modern way of addressing the drought and is one of my strategies in places. I will modernise the agricultural and livestock sector to provide enough food for the people.

Al Jazeera: What about addressing the matter of insecurity, which has been the primary challenge in Somalia?

Yusuf: I believe we can try to negotiate with al-Shabab and understand what they want. Resolving FARC rebels in Colombia and the war in Afghanistan through negotiation has worked.

Al Jazeera: You are contesting as the only woman in the race; what makes you different from other candidates? Do you think you will make it given the number of men in the race and the societal resistance to having women lead?

Yusuf: Yes, I will make it, and Somali women have potential if given a chance. I believe Somalia will be a peaceful and stable country under women’s leadership.

I am different because I dared to do it. I am the leader of a political organisation and realise that nobody can stop the women if they are willing to do [anything]. I want to be a role model for Somali women.

Al Jazeera: What are the challenges Somali women face in getting into leadership?

Yusuf: The challenges are many; cultural challenges surround the women. Women are the leaders in many countries worldwide, including Tanzania; therefore, cultural and religious discrimination against women only happens in Somalia.

For this country to prosper, we must get women in leadership.

Source: Al Jazeera