MOGADISHU, Somalia — Abdow Omar, who runs a company that imports flour and sugar, is called every month by the Somali militant group Al Shabab to remind him it’s time to pay taxes – whether his business is at risk or even to lose his 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, reviewing lawsuits, forcibly recruiting minors and committing suicide bombings.
The country is about to get its next leader on Sunday in an election that has been postponed for nearly two years. No fewer than 38 candidates, including a woman, signed up to rival and oust the incumbent president. But many residents, observing the government’s infighting and paralysis, question whether a new government will make a difference at all.
“While the government is busy with itself, we suffer,” Omar said. “The Shabab are like a mafia group. You must obey them or close your business. There is no freedom.”
Somalia, a country of 16 million people strategically located in the Horn of Africa, has suffered from civil wars, weak governance and terrorism for decades. The central government has been supported by UN peacekeepers and Western aid, including billions of dollars in humanitarian and security assistance from the United States, which sought to prevent the country from becoming a safe haven for international terrorism.
Inflation is now rising and food prices are rising sharply due to a cutting drought and the cessation of wheat imports from Ukraine.
The country does not have a one-person, one-vote electoral system. Instead, more than 325 legislators, elected by clan representatives, will elect the next president.
Al Shabab took advantage of political instability and bitter divisions among security forces to grow its tentacles. In the weeks and months before the vote, the group killed civilians, including in beachside restaurants, launched a major offensive on an African Union base — killing at least 10 peacekeepers from Burundi — and sent suicide bombers to target the cars of government officials to jump.
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 brought stability to the nation after Al Shabab. was kicked, has reversed from the capital in 2011.
“These were five wasted years, where we lost the country’s cohesion,” said Hussein Sheikh-Ali, former national security adviser to President Mohamed and president of the Hiraal Institute, a research center in Mogadishu.
The protracted political battle, especially over the elections, undermined the government’s ability to deliver important services, observers say. Critics and opposition figures have accused President Mohamed of wanting to stay in power at all costs, putting pressure on the electoral commission, installing leaders in regional states who would influence the elections and filling parliament with his own supporters. Last year, when he signed a law extending his rule for two years, fighting broke out in the streets of the capital, forcing him to change course.
As the election of lawmakers got underway, observers said it was rife with corruption and irregularities.
Abdi Ismail Samatar, a first-time senator who is also a professor at the University of Minnesota who researches democracy in Africa, said this election could be considered “the worst” in Somalia’s history.
“I don’t think I could have ever imagined how corrupt and selfish it is,” said Mr. Samatar. Although no one tried to bribe him, he said, “I saw people getting money in the speaker election right in front of my face in the hallway.”
US ambassador to Somalia, Larry E. André, Jr., said the majority of seats had been elected by regional leaders, “sold” or “auctioned,” and the messy election pushed the country to the “edge of the cliff.” had pushed. †
The United States imposed visa sanctions in February and March on Somali officials and others accused of undermining parliamentary elections. The parliamentary vote eventually ended in late April, yielding new speakers and alternate speakers, largely affiliated with groups opposed to President Mohamed.
Due to the indirect nature of the vote, presidential candidates in Mogadishu do not shake hands with citizens or campaign in the streets. Instead, they meet legislators and clan elders in glitzy hotels and buildings guarded by dozens of soldiers and blast walls. Some aspirants have posted election signs along the capital’s main roads, promising good governance, justice and peace.
But few in this coastal 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 major in business, agreed, saying those running for office cannot identify with the day-to-day tribulations 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 attend class, conduct business or visit relatives.
“They never make people feel that government comes from the people and is supposed to serve the people,” she said.
Some Somalis have now turned to the Shabab to get services that would normally be provided by a functioning state. Many in Mogadishu regularly travel to areas tens of miles north of the city to have their cases heard before Shabab-operated mobile courts.
One of them is Ali Ahmed, a businessman from a minority tribe whose family home in Mogadishu was for many years inhabited by members of a powerful tribe. After taking his case to a Shabab-run court, he said, the court ruled two weeks later that the occupiers had to leave his house – 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 has been able to broaden its tax base because “elected officials were too busy with politics rather than policy work,” said a government official who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
The elections come as parts of Somalia face its worst drought in four decades. According to the World Food Program, about 6 million people, or about 40 percent of the population, face extreme food shortages, with nearly 760,000 people displaced.
Many of those hit by the drought live in Shabab-controlled areas in south-central Somalia, where aid agencies are unable to reach them, crops fail and the Shabab demands taxes on their livestock, according to interviews with officials and IDPs. The UN estimates that nearly 900,000 people live in inaccessible areas controlled by Al Shabab.
To find food and water, families travel hundreds of miles, sometimes on foot, to towns and villages like Mogadishu and Doolow in Gedo’s southern region. Some parents said they buried their children along the way, while others left a weak child to save other offspring.
Mohammed Ali Hussein, the deputy governor of Gedo, said the lack of security prevented officials from rescuing people in Shabab-dominated areas, even when relatives pinpoint an exact location.
Dealing with the threat from the Shabab will be one of the first challenges facing 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, must also draft a new constitution, reform the economy, tackle climate change, open a dialogue with the breakaway region of Somaliland and unite a polarized nation.
“Government in Somalia has become too confrontational in recent years. It was like pulling teeth,” Mr. Elmi said. “People are now ready for a new dawn.”