Somalia elects next president, but terrorists hold real power

MOGADISHU, Somalia – Every month, Abdow Omar, who runs a flour and sugar import business, gets a call from the Somali militant group Al Shabab reminding him it’s time to pay taxes – or risk losing his business, or even even your life.

After more than 16 years, the Shabab, a terrorist group linked to al Qaeda, now has a firm grip on much of Somalia – extorting taxes, adjudicating lawsuits, forcibly recruiting minors into its forces and carrying out suicide bombings.

The country is poised to have its next leader on Sunday, in an election that has been delayed for nearly two years. No fewer than 38 candidates, including one woman, have registered to run for and remove the current president. But many residents, watching the infighting and government paralysis, are wondering whether a new administration will make any difference.

“While the government is busy with itself, we are suffering,” said Omar. “The Shabab is like a mafia group. Either you have to obey them or close your business. There is no freedom.”

Somalia, a nation of 16 million people strategically located in the Horn of Africa, has suffered for decades from civil war, weak governance and terrorism. Its central government was bolstered by United Nations peacekeepers and Western aid, including billions of dollars in humanitarian aid and security assistance from the United States, which sought to prevent the country from becoming a safe haven for international terrorism.

Now, inflation is rising and food prices are on the rise because of a biting drought and the loss of wheat imports from Ukraine.

The country does not have a one-person, one-vote electoral system. Instead, more than 325 lawmakers, who were chosen by clan representatives, will choose the next president.

Al Shabab has exploited political instability and bitter divisions among security forces to develop its tentacles. In the weeks and months before the vote, the group killed civilians, including in seaside restaurants, mounted a major offensive on an African Union base – killing at least 10 Burundian peacekeepers – and dispatched suicide bombers to jump on government officials’ cars.

In interviews with more than two dozen Somali citizens, lawmakers, analysts, diplomats and aid workers ahead of Sunday’s vote, many expressed concern about how the deteriorating political, security and humanitarian situation has reversed the few years of stability the nation has achieved. after Al Shabab was expelled. of the capital in 2011.

“It was five lost years in which we lost the cohesion of the country,” said Hussein Sheikh-Ali, a former national security adviser to President Mohamed and president of the Hiraal Institute, a research center in Mogadishu.

Protracted political battles, particularly during elections, have undermined the government’s ability to provide essential services, observers say. Critics and opposition figures accused President Mohamed of trying to cling to power at all costs, putting pressure on the electoral commission, installing leaders in regional states who would help influence the election and trying to fill parliament with his own supporters. Last year, when he signed a law extending his rule for two years, clashes erupted in the capital’s streets, forcing him to change course.

As the election of lawmakers began, observers said it was fraught with corruption and irregularities.

Abdi Ismail Samatar, a first-time senator and also a professor at the University of Minnesota who researches democracy in Africa, said this election could rank as “the worst” in Somali history.

“I don’t think I could ever imagine how corrupt and selfish it is,” said Samatar. Although no one tried to bribe him, he said, “I saw people getting money in the election for president right in front of me down the hall.”

Larry E. André Jr., the US ambassador to Somalia, said most seats were chosen by regional leaders, “sold” or “auctioned”, and the messy election brought the country “to the edge of a precipice”. ”

The United States imposed visa sanctions in February and March on Somali officials and others accused of hampering parliamentary elections. Parliamentary voting finally concluded in late April, producing new speakers and vice-presidents mostly aligned with groups opposed to President Mohamed.

Due to the indirect nature of the vote, presidential candidates in Mogadishu are not greeting citizens or campaigning in the streets. Instead, they are meeting with legislators and clan elders in flashy hotels and complexes guarded by dozens of soldiers and protective walls. Some aspirants put up election posters along the capital’s main roads, promising good governance, justice and peace.

But few in this seaside town believe they would keep their promises.

“Everyone wears a suit, carries a briefcase and promises to be sweet as honey,” said Jamila Adan, a political science student at City University. “But we don’t believe them.”

Her friend Anisa Abdullahi, a business expert, concurred, saying candidates for office cannot identify with the daily tribulations ordinary Somalis face. Security forces, she said, often block roads without warning to create safe corridors for politicians, making it impossible for her and many others to attend classes, do business or visit relatives.

“They never make people feel that the government comes from the people and must serve the people,” she said.

Some Somalis have now turned to Shabab for services that would normally be provided by a functioning state. Many in Mogadishu regularly travel to areas tens of kilometers north of the city to have their cases heard in mobile courts operated by the Shabab.

One is Ali Ahmed, a businessman from a minority tribe whose family home in Mogadishu was occupied for years by members of a powerful tribe. After he presented his case to a Shabab-run court, he said, two weeks later the court ruled that the occupants should vacate his home – and they did.

“It’s sad, but nobody goes to the government to get justice,” he said. “Even government judges will secretly advise you to go to Al Shabab.”

Some officials admit the government’s own shortcomings. Al Shabab was able to broaden its tax base because “elected officials were too busy politicizing rather than doing political work,” said a government official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

The election comes as parts of Somalia face the worst drought in four decades. About 6 million people, or about 40% of the population, are facing extreme food shortages, according to the World Food Program, with nearly 760,000 people displaced.

Many of those affected by the drought live in Shabab-controlled areas in south-central Somalia, where humanitarian organizations are unable to reach them, crops are failing and the Shabab is demanding taxes on its livestock, according to interviews with officials and displaced people. The UN estimates that nearly 900,000 people reside in inaccessible areas administered by Al Shabab.

To find food and water, families travel hundreds of kilometers, sometimes on foot, to cities and towns like Mogadishu and Doolow in the southern Gedo region. Some parents said they buried their children along the way, while others left a weak child behind to save other children.

Mohammed Ali Hussein, deputy governor of Gedo, said a lack of security had prevented authorities from rescuing people in Shabab-held areas, even as family members pinpoint an exact location.

Dealing with the Shabab threat will be among the first challenges for Somalia’s next government, said Afyare Abdi Elmi, executive director of the Heritage Institute for Policy Studies in Mogadishu.

But the next leader, he said, also needs to introduce a new constitution, reform the economy, tackle climate change, open dialogue with the breakaway region of Somaliland and unite a polarized nation.

“Governance in Somalia has become very conflicted in recent years. It was like pulling teeth,” said Elmi. “People are now ready for a new dawn.”

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