MOGADISHU, Somalia — Abdow Omar, who runs a business that imports flour and sugar, receives a call every month from the Somali militant group Al Shabab reminding him it’s time to pay them taxes – or risk paying them his losing your business or even your life.
After more than 16 years, the Shabab, an al Qaeda-affiliated terrorist group, now has a firm grip on much of Somalia – extorting taxes, judging court cases, forcibly recruiting minors into its armed forces and carrying out suicide bombings.
The country is poised to get its next leader on Sunday in an election delayed by almost two years. No fewer than 38 candidates, including one woman, registered to run against and unseat the incumbent president. But many residents, watching the power struggles and the government’s paralysis, wonder if a new government will make any difference.
“While the government is preoccupied with itself, we suffer,” Mr Omar said. “The Shabab are like a mafia group. You must either obey them or shut down your business. There is no freedom.”
Somalia, a nation of 16 million people strategically located on the Horn of Africa, has suffered decades of civil war, weak governance and terrorism. Its central government was bolstered by United Nations peacekeeping forces and Western aid, including billions of dollars in humanitarian and security aid from the United States, which was trying to keep the country from becoming a safe haven for international terrorism.
Now inflation is rising and food prices are soaring due to a biting drought and the loss of wheat imports from Ukraine.
The country does not have a one-person, one-vote voting system. Instead, more than 325 MPs elected by clan representatives will choose the next president.
Al Shabab took advantage of the political instability and bitter divisions among the security forces to grow its tentacles. In the weeks and months leading up to the vote, the group killed civilians, including in beach side restaurants, launched 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 at how the deteriorating political, security and humanitarian situation would impact the few years of stability the nation enjoyed after the kick-off against Al Shabab nullified in 2011 from the capital.
“These were five lost years in which we lost the cohesion of the country,” said Hussein Sheikh-Ali, former national security adviser to President Mohamed and chairman of the Hiraal Institute, a research center in Mogadishu.
Observers say the protracted political battles, particularly over the elections, have eroded the government’s ability to deliver vital services. Critics and opposition figures have accused President Mohamed of trying to stay in power at all costs, pressuring the electoral commission, installing leaders in regional states who would help influence the election, and trying to infiltrate parliament with his own supporters to fill. When he signed a law last year that extended his rule by two years, fighting erupted on the streets of the capital, forcing him to change course.
As the lawmakers’ election began, observers said it was fraught with corruption and irregularities.
Abdi Ismail Samatar, a first-time senator who is also a professor at the University of Minnesota and researches democracy in Africa, said this election could be ranked as “the worst” in Somalia’s history.
“I don’t think I ever imagined how corrupt and self-serving it is,” Mr. Samatar said. Though no one tried to bribe him, he said, “I saw right in front of my face in the hallway people getting money for being elected speaker.”
Larry E. André, Jr., the US ambassador to Somalia, said that the majority of the seats had been chosen, “sold” or “auctioned” by regional leaders and that the chaotic elections had pushed the country to the “cliff edge”. ”
The United States imposed visa sanctions in both February and March on Somali officials and others accused of undermining the general election. The parliamentary vote eventually ended in late April, producing new speakers and alternate speakers, mostly allied with groups opposed to President Mohamed.
Due to the indirect nature of the vote, the presidential candidates in Mogadishu do not shake hands with citizens or campaign in the streets. Instead, they meet with lawmakers and clan elders in glittering hotels and compound guarded by dozens of soldiers and blast walls. Some candidates have put up election posters along the capital’s main thoroughfares, promising good governance, justice and peace.
But few in this seaside town believe they’ll deliver on their promises.
“Everyone wears a suit, 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, an economics major, agreed, saying those running for office cannot relate to the daily difficulties faced by ordinary Somalis. Security forces, she said, often block roads unannounced to create safe corridors for politicians, making it impossible for her and many others to get to classes, do business or visit relatives.
“You never make people feel that the government comes from the people and is meant to serve the people,” she said.
Some Somalis have now turned to the Shabab for benefits that would normally be provided by a functioning state. Many in Mogadishu regularly travel to areas dozens of kilometers north of the city to have their cases heard in the Shabab-run mobile courts.
One of them is Ali Ahmed, a minority businessman whose childhood home in Mogadishu was occupied for years by members of a powerful tribe. After taking his case to a Shabab-led court, he said two weeks later the court ruled that the squatters should vacate his home – and they did.
“It’s sad, but nobody goes to the government to seek justice,” he said. “Even government judges will secretly advise you to go to Al Shabab.”
Some officials acknowledge the government’s own shortcomings. Al Shabab was able to expand its tax base because “elected officials were too busy making politics 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 percent 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 of south-central Somalia, where aid agencies cannot reach them, crops fail and the Shabab levies taxes on their livestock, according to interviews with officials and displaced people. The UN estimates that nearly 900,000 people live in inaccessible areas administered by Al Shabab.
To find food and water, families travel hundreds of miles, sometimes on foot, to cities 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 to save other descendants.
Mohammed Ali Hussein, the deputy governor of Gedo, said the lack of security is preventing officials from rescuing people in Shabab-dominated areas, even if family members pinpoint an exact location.
Dealing with the Shabab threat will be one of 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 head of state, he said, must also draft a new constitution, reform the economy, deal with climate change, open dialogue with the breakaway region of Somaliland and unite a polarized nation.
“Governance in Somalia has become too confrontational in recent years. It was like pulling teeth,” said Mr. Elmi. “People are now ready for a new dawn.”
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