MOGADISHU, Somalia — Every month, Abdow Omar, who runs a flour and sugar import business, receives a call from the Somali militant group Al Shabab reminding him that it is time to pay them taxes, or risk losing his business, or even his lifetime.
After more than 16 years, the Shabab, an al Qaeda-linked terrorist group, now has a firm grip on much of Somalia: extorting taxes, prosecuting court cases, forcibly recruiting minors into its forces and carrying out suicide bombings. .
The country is about 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 to unseat the sitting president. But many residents, looking at the infighting and paralysis of the government, wonder if a new administration will make any difference.
“While the government is busy with itself, we suffer,” said Omar. “The Shabab are like a mafia group. 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 decades of civil war, weak government and terrorism. Its central government has been bolstered by United Nations 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.
Now, inflation is rising, and food prices are rising sharply due to a severe drought and the loss of Ukraine’s wheat imports.
The country does not have a one person, one vote electoral system. Instead, more than 325 legislators, who were chosen by representatives of the clans, will choose the next president.
Al Shabab exploited political instability and bitter divisions among security forces to grow its tentacles. In the weeks and months leading up to the vote, the group killed civilians, including at beachside restaurants, mounted a major offensive on an African Union base, killing at least 10 Burundian peacekeepers, and dispatched suicide bombers. to get into the cars of government officials.
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 a few years of stability. that the nation achieved after Al Shabab was expelled. outside 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 over elections, have undermined the government’s ability to deliver key services, observers say. Critics and opposition figures have 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 elections, and trying to pack parliament with his own supporters. Last year, when he signed a law extending his rule for two years, clashes broke out in the streets of the capital, forcing him to change course.
When the election for lawmakers began, observers said it was riddled 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 classified as “the worst” in Somalia’s history.
“I don’t think he would have ever imagined how corrupt and selfish he is,” Samatar said. Although no one tried to bribe him, he said, “I saw people who received money in the presidential election right in front of me in the hallway.”
Larry E. André, Jr., the US ambassador to Somalia, said that most of the seats had been selected by regional leaders, “sold” or “auctioned off”, and that the messy elections had brought the country to ” edge of the cliff”. ”
The United States imposed visa sanctions in both February and March on Somali officials and others accused of undermining parliamentary elections. The parliamentary vote finally concluded at the end of April, producing new speakers and vice presidents, mostly aligned with groups opposed to President Mohamed.
Due to the indirect nature of voting, presidential candidates in Mogadishu do not shake hands with citizens or campaign in the streets. Instead, they meet with lawmakers and clan elders in glitzy hotels and compounds guarded by dozens of soldiers and armored walls. Some candidates have placed electoral posters on the main roads of the capital, promising good government, justice and peace.
But few in this seaside town believe they will keep their promises.
“Everyone wears a suit, carries a briefcase and promises to be as 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 student, agreed, saying those running for office can’t relate to the daily trials ordinary Somalis face. Security forces, she said, often block roads unannounced to create safe corridors for politicians, preventing her and many others from going to class, doing business or visiting her relatives.
“They never make people feel like the government comes from the people and is supposed to serve the people,” he said.
Some Somalis have now turned to the Shabab for services that would normally be delivered by a functioning state. Many in Mogadishu regularly travel to areas tens of miles north of the city to have their cases heard in the Shabab-operated mobile courts.
One of them 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 presenting his case to a court run by Shabab, he said, two weeks later the court ruled that the occupants should vacate his house, which 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 expand its tax base because “elected officials were too busy doing politics instead of political work,” said a government official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
The elections come as parts of Somalia face the worst drought in four decades. Some 6 million people, or about 40 percent of the population, face extreme food shortages, according to the World Food Programme, with nearly 760,000 people displaced.
Many of those affected by the drought live in Shabab-controlled areas in south-central Somalia, where aid organizations cannot reach them, crops are failing and Shabab demands taxes on their livestock, according to interviews with officials and people. displaced. The UN estimates that almost 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 such as 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 descendants.
Mohammed Ali Hussein, deputy governor of Gedo, said a lack of security prevented officials from rescuing people in Shabab-dominated areas, even when family members pinpointed an exact location.
Dealing with the Shabab threat 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, also needs to introduce a new constitution, reform the economy, deal with climate change, open a dialogue with breakaway Somaliland and unite a polarized nation.
“Governance in Somalia has become too contentious in recent years. It was like pulling a tooth,” Elmi said. “People are now ready for a new dawn.”