The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Somalia’s election standoff intensifies, raising risk of political violence

Somali Prime Minister Mohamed Hussein Roble attends an election negotiation in Mogadishu on May 27. (Feisal Omar/Reuters)

MOGADISHU, Somalia — Somalia’s nearly year-long constitutional crisis escalated toward outright conflict Monday as the president attempted to sideline his main rival, the country’s prime minister, by suspending his powers.

Critics of the president, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, say he is using unconstitutional means to stay in power well past his term’s end of almost a year ago.

Analysts have warned that a protracted political crisis distracts from the growing threat of al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Shabab, which controls most of southern Somalia’s rural areas and launches regular attacks on Somali cities and in neighboring Kenya. The political standoff over a disputed election process veered into violence on the streets of Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, earlier this year.

Mohamed’s office did not respond to repeated requests for comment regarding the political impasse. In a statement, Mohamed said that the prime minister, Mohamed Hussein Roble, had acquired land fraudulently and that the purpose of suspending him was to allow for an investigation.

Roble’s office said he would not abide by Mohamed’s decree, calling it an “outrageous statement,” and said the deployment of soldiers to his office was a “failed attempt to militarily take over.”

“When the political elite are focused on each other, attention turns away from the battle against al-Shabab,” said Omar Mahmood, senior Somalia analyst at the International Crisis Group. “Security forces that might otherwise be directed towards al-Shabab instead are turning inwards, providing greater latitude for the group to operate.”

The U.S. Embassy in Mogadishu issued a statement calling on the country’s leaders to “take immediate steps to de-escalate tensions.” The United States is Somalia’s biggest unilateral donor and has plowed billions of dollars into security and state-building initiatives over the past decade.

Somalia was meant to hold elections at the parliamentary and presidential levels starting last year, but the process, which involves an indirect selection of candidates by elders from the country’s clan-based social structure, has been widely decried by Mohamed’s opposition as rigged. A coalition of candidates including former presidents has boycotted the vote.

When Mohamed — popularly known by his nickname “Farmajo” — won the last election, in 2017, many in the country had hoped the former New York state bureaucrat who held dual Somali and American citizenship would usher in a one-person, one-vote election system. Disputes over the process, difficulty creating a biometric system to register individual voters, and pandemic-related restrictions ended up derailing those aspirations.

“Farmajo was seen as a reformer who would prioritize security and building state institutions in Somalia,” said Mahad Wasuge, director of the think tank Somali Public Agenda. Instead, the election process this year is just as “complex and imperfect” as when Mohamed took office, Wasuge said.

Even the indirect election may take months more to get underway as the impasse between Mohamed and his opponents hardens. The opposition’s claims that the process is compromised have been bolstered by recent statements from pro-Mohamed politicians who have openly acknowledged the politicization of the election.

In one widely shared video, the vice president of Hirshabelle state told reporters that his administration would bypass traditional elders and handpick the winners of the state’s elections.

One would-be regional election candidate and a traditional elder involved in the candidate selection process told The Washington Post in interviews that they doubted the independence of the country’s electoral body.

Mohamed Osman Jawari, 76, a two-time speaker of the lower chamber of the Somali Parliament, said in an interview that when he had approached the president of the country’s South-West state to declare his intention to run, he was told that clan leaders would be instructed to quash his candidacy.

When he submitted his papers at the State Election Implementation Team, which is meant to be an independent body organizing the elections, his application was refused.

“The chairperson of SEIT told us that he is unable to accept my application without the approval of the regional president,” Jawari said.

Ahmed Aden Safina, SEIT’s spokesman, said the body remains independent and that regional presidents may oversee the approval of candidates but not interfere with the process. He said Jawari’s complaint is being reviewed.

Before Mohamed’s move on Monday, the U.S. State Department issued a statement reiterating that it was “deeply concerned by the continuing delays and by the procedural irregularities that have undermined the credibility of the [election] process.”

Bearak reported from Nairobi.