March 5, 2021

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Clashes in Mogadishu throw Somalia’s political crisis into a dangerous new phase

By Max Bearak,

Associated Press

Somalis protest against the government and the delay of the country’s election in the capital Mogadishu on Feb. 19.

NAIROBI — Gun and mortar fire could be heard in central Mogadishu on Friday morning amid a lockdown imposed by the Somali government — a measure ostensibly intended to enforce social distancing but timed to coincide with mass protests called by opposition parties.

Somalia has been in a constitutional crisis for nearly two weeks after an agreed-upon election date, Feb. 8, passed with no voting, leaving President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, widely known as “Farmajo,” without a mandate, his opponents said.

Negotiations on a new date have failed, and Somalia’s fragile and often violent politics have exploded into acrimony. Political chaos could unravel a decade’s work in shoring up the stability of the country’s federal government, which is trying to recover control over the country’s territory and economy from the al-Qaeda-affiliated militant group al-Shabab.

The clashes also come at a delicate moment when security forces fear they could be used for political purposes, especially since the United States withdrew its advisers from the country in a last-minute Trump administration decision last month.

[As U.S. forces leave, Somalia’s elite fighting unit fears becoming a political pawn]

In Friday’s early morning hours, a hotel where two major opposition candidates were staying came under heavy gunfire in what one — Farmajo’s former deputy, Hassan Ali Khaire — called a crude assassination attempt.

Another candidate, former president Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, said the “attack was ordered by outgoing president Mohamed Farmajo.”

Later on Friday, a street protest led by Khaire came under fire, and videos shared by journalists on social media showed him and supporters ducking for cover. Local authorities announced the closure of Mogadishu’s airport.

“I am very sorry for what happened last night and this morning in Mogadishu,” said Mohamed Hussein Roble, the prime minister, in a recorded address. “We tried our best to avoid it. Peaceful demonstrations are a constitutional right, but armed demonstrations are not. Elections will take place, and I say to the people: Do not let the peace you have suffered for be destroyed.”

Roble did not say whether government forces shot at protesters or whether he considered opposition candidates’ security details to be protesters.

Said Yusuf Warsame

EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock

Somali Prime Minister Mohamed Hussein Roble (second from right) walks into parliament in Mogadishu on Feb. 10.

The process of moving toward eventual elections seemed as precarious as ever on Friday, with what was essentially a political stalemate devolving into gunfire in Mogadishu’s streets.

“It’s a moment of great uncertainty. There’s still no consensus on how to move forward and the opposition is getting frustrated. This has resulted in the clashes in Mogadishu this morning, as they moved ahead to organize protests,” said Omar Mahmood, senior analyst for Somalia at the International Crisis Group.

Somalia’s main partners — and funders — in Washington urged an end to the violence and an immediate conclusion to negotiations on a new election.

The outgoing Trump administration ordered the removal of around 700 U.S. security personnel from Somalia by January, who were then repositioned on bases in neighboring Kenya and Djibouti, where they continue to advise and train Somali special forces.

Farmajo, who often spoke fondly of Trump, did not protest the decision. The U.S. government has poured billions into Somalia over the past decade.

“Quickly resolving the current electoral impasse is critical to Somalia’s future,” a statement from the U.S. Embassy in Mogadishu said, soon after the Feb. 8 election date was missed. “It is the responsibility and the duty of national and regional leaders to put aside the search for political advantage and instead act in the interests of the people of Somalia, who deserve the best from their leaders. Now is the time to resolve outstanding issues and finish the job of holding elections.”

The protests in Mogadishu had been called by Abdirahman Abdishakur, an opposition candidate who has repeatedly accused Farmajo of seeking to stay in power indefinitely through the manipulation of the election by colluding with the director of the national intelligence agency. With the election’s date undetermined for now, Abdishakur has been calling for Farmajo to resign.

“They are occupying Somalia without any political mandate,” he said in a phone interview. “He should not believe that he can get away with it. He cannot create such a dangerous precedent. This supposed leader has shown no desire to compromise and now he has lost his legitimacy. So we will mobilize the people.”

Abdirazak Hussein Farah

AFP/Getty Images

Rescue personnel and bystanders gather near debris at the site of a suicide car bombing attack near a security checkpoint in Mogadishu on Feb. 13.

Somalia’s government has pledged to work toward a “one person, one vote” system, but at present its parliament and president are indirectly elected by committees of clan elders convened in each of the country’s federal member states. In a supposedly random process, clan members then select 100 representatives from the public to physically cast votes.

That process is easy to manipulate, analysts and opposition candidates said. Payments to clan elders and their representatives are rife, and states have been essentially gerrymandered, sometimes by force, to the benefit of certain more powerful clans, including Farmajo’s Marehan.

“It’s a veneer of an electoral process. It’s outrageous that this is what’s seen as a step toward democracy,” said Mohamed Mubarak, executive director of the Hiraal Institute, a Somali think tank.

Mubarak said negotiations over a new election date have stalled because of a disagreement over the number of members of parliament for one of Somalia’s regions, Jubbaland.

“Somalia is held to ransom over negotiations over a few members of parliament,” he said. “The way things look now, there will be violence, and Farmajo’s reputation will be ruined. But in the end, the one to concede will not be Farmajo. Meanwhile, al-Shabab will continue to seem a more and more viable alternative to the federal government.”

Abdishakur, the opposition leader who called Friday’s protests, said the United States, United Nations and others who had partnered with Farmajo over the past years and who now continue to call him president were standing in the way of a solution to the crisis.

“We expect the international community to exercise its leverage after having given billions of dollars to this country and this government,” he said. “Why else are you here? Why fuel impunity instead of accountability? He will understand only that he can do whatever he wants. Say out loud that his mandate is over.”

The current position of Somalia’s closest allies — to refer to Farmajo neither as president or former president but rather find neutral language — is likely to be untenable, especially if violence continues to flare, said Mahmood, the analyst.

“For now, the international community is trying to avoid vacuum, but the stakes will continue to get higher and higher the longer the stalemate lasts, and the risks of being associated with Farmajo could delegitimize their standing, the further this goes on,” he said.

Omar Faruk in Mogadishu contributed to this report.