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Somalia’s president suspends prime minister over corruption allegations

Somalia's Prime Minister Mohamed Hussein Roble in London on July 29.TOLGA AKMEN/AFP via Getty Images

Somalia’s president suspended the country’s prime minister and marine forces commander Monday, a sharp escalation in a political dispute that threatens to further destabilize the troubled nation on the Horn of Africa.

President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed suspended Prime Minister Mohamed Hussein Roble over allegations of corruption and misuse of public land. Mohamed’s office had earlier accused Roble of “posing a serious threat to the electoral process” and carrying out activities that violated his mandate.

Roble refused to accept the order and accused Mohamed of deploying troops to attack his office and those of the Cabinet to prevent them from carrying out their duties. The moves, he said in a televised address, were “a blatant attempt to overthrow the government, the constitution, and the laws of the land.”

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On Monday, foreign governments and international observers expressed concern that the dispute could set off yet another cycle of violence in a nation battered by decades of fighting.

The simmering political impasse blew into open violence in the streets in April after Mohamed signed a law extending his term in office by two years. Opponents of Mohamed, a former US citizen and bureaucrat, along with his Western allies denounced the move, with many Somalis worrying that it could reverse the modest democratic gains the country has achieved after decades of civil war.

The showdown eventually led Mohamed to ask Parliament to nullify the extension and request that Roble help organize the delayed elections.

Calling Mohamed “the former president,” the premier Monday instructed armed forces to report directly to his office and promised to take action against anyone who defied those orders. He also said Mohamed, whose mandate technically lapsed in February, intended to disrupt the elections so “he can illegally remain in office.”

Somalia is driven by clan politics and the rift between the president and the prime minister — who are from different clans — threatens to blow, analysts say, into full-on violence not just among their supporters but also among their clansmen inside the Somali military. On Monday evening, armed forces loyal to the opposition amassed in certain neighborhoods in the capital, Mogadishu, witnesses said, while Somali military forces fortified the roads leading to the presidential palace.

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The process of organizing the elections has not been smooth, with legislative elections facing delays, irregularities, and multiple corruption allegations from candidates and observers. So far, only 26 of the 275 lawmakers for the lower house of Parliament have been elected, with 53 of 54 seats in the upper house filled.

Somalia’s electoral process is decidedly complex, with traditional elders choosing special delegates who select lawmakers, who then choose the country’s president. Mohamed has said he wants to move to a more traditional one-person, one-vote process, but his critics say he is driven by a desire to hold onto power.

While the Somali Constitution gives the president the power to appoint a premier, the power to dismiss or give a vote of no confidence in the prime minister and his Cabinet lies with Parliament.

Abdirahman Yusuf Omar, a deputy minister of information loyal to the prime minister, called the president’s decision an “indirect coup.”

Writing on Facebook, Omar said the deployment of security forces around the prime minister’s office would not prevent Roble from carrying out his duties.

The political battle comes as more than 90 percent of the country faces drought conditions, according to the United Nations, with almost 4 million people estimated to be at risk of acute food insecurity.

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Somalia is also confronting increasing threats from the al-Shabab terrorist group, the negative economic impact of COVID-19, and clashes between rival forces in various parts of the country that have left dozens dead and thousands displaced from their homes.

On Monday, Mogadishu residents said there was a heavy presence of troops in the streets, with many worrying that the political feud could turn bloody yet again.

On Sunday, the United States, Britain, and other Western countries said they were concerned about the delay in the elections and urged political leaders to attend a Monday meeting convened by the prime minister to resolve disputes and speed up the electoral process.

But before the meeting, Mohamed’s office Sunday accused the prime minister of “posing a serious threat to the electoral process” and for carrying out activities that violated his mandate.

The prime minister is also facing an investigation on corruption charges.

The commander of the Somali navy, Brigadier General Abdihamid Mohamed Dirir, recently publicly accused top government officials, including Roble, of planning to grab public land belonging to the coast guard near Mogadishu’s port.

In a statement released by the presidency, Mohamed accused Roble of not only misappropriating the land owned but also of exerting pressure on the defense minister “which amounts to tampering” with the investigation.

Pending the conclusion of the inquiry, “the duty and powers of the prime minister remain suspended,” Mohamed said.

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The president also suspended Dirir, saying the move was crucial for completing the investigation against the prime minister.