MOGADISHU, Somalia — Every month, Abdow Omar, who runs a business importing flour and sugar, gets a call from Somali militant group Al Shabab reminding him that it is time to pay them taxes — or risk losing his business or even his life.
After more than 16 years, Al Shabab, a terrorist group linked to Al Qaeda, now has a firm grip on much of Somalia — extorting taxes, judging court cases, forcibly recruiting minors into its forces, and carrying out suicide bombings.
As lawmakers voted Sunday to select Somalia’s next leader, in an election delayed for almost two years, 35 candidates, including one woman, vied to unseat the incumbent president. By Sunday evening, as the election went to a third round, the opponents had been winnowed to two, President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed and Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, a former president.
Earlier in the day, as the first round was being tallied, several loud explosions could be heard near the lawmakers’ fortified compound, which also houses embassies, United Nations offices, and the city’s international airport. But the voting continued undisturbed.
As they awaited results, many residents, observing the government’s infighting and paralysis, were asking whether a new administration will make a difference at all.
“While the government is busy with itself, we are suffering,” said Omar, who pays the militants about $4,000 a year. “The Shabab are like a mafia group. You either have to obey them or close your business. There’s no freedom.”
Somalia, a nation of 16 million people strategically located in the Horn of Africa, has suffered for decades from civil war, weak governance, and terrorism. Its central government has been bolstered by African Union peacekeepers and Western aid, including billions of dollars in humanitarian aid and security assistance from the United States, which sought to keep the country from becoming a safe haven for international terrorism.
Now, inflation is climbing, and food prices are sharply on the rise because of a biting drought and the loss of wheat imports from Ukraine.
The country does not have a one-person, one-vote electoral system. Instead, 328 lawmakers, who were chosen by clan representatives, were selecting the next president.
Those hoping to succeed Mohamed — a former US citizen and bureaucrat who has served for five years — accuse him of trying to stay in power illegally, cracking down on the opposition and journalists, fomenting a rift with neighboring Kenya, and undercutting the power-sharing model that buttressed the country’s federal system.
Al Shabab exploited the political instability, and the bitter divisions among security forces, to grow its tentacles. In the weeks and months before the vote, the group killed civilians, including at beachside restaurants, mounted a major offensive on an African Union base — killing at least 10 peacekeepers from Burundi — and dispatched suicide bombers to jump on the cars of government officials.
In interviews with more than two dozen Somali citizens, lawmakers, analysts, diplomats, and aid workers before Sunday’s vote, many expressed concern at how the deteriorating political, security, and humanitarian situation has reversed the few years of stability the nation achieved after Al Shabab was kicked out of the capital in 2011.
“These were five lost years, ones in which we lost the cohesion of the country,” said Hussein Sheikh-Ali, a former national security adviser to Mohamed and chair of the Hiraal Institute, a research center in Mogadishu.
The protracted political battles, particularly over the elections, undermined the government’s ability to deliver key services, observers say. Critics and opposition figures have accused Mohamed of trying to cling to power at all costs, exerting pressure on the electoral commission, installing leaders in regional states who would help sway the election, and trying to fill the parliament with his own supporters using the intelligence agency. Last year, when he signed a law extending his tenure by two years, fighting broke out in the capital’s streets, forcing him to change course.
Even 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 ranked as “the worst” in Somalia’s history.
“I don’t think I could have ever imagined how corrupt and self-serving it is,” Samatar said. While no one attempted to bribe him, he said, “I saw people being given money in the election for the speakership right in front of my face in the hallway.”
Larry André Jr., the US ambassador to Somalia, said the majority of the seats had been selected by regional leaders, “sold” or “auctioned,” and the messy election had pushed the country to the “cliff’s edge.”
The United States imposed visa sanctions in both February and March on Somali officials and others accused of undermining the parliamentary elections. The parliamentary vote finally concluded in late April, producing new speakers and deputy speakers mostly aligned with groups opposed to Mohamed.
Because of the indirect nature of the vote, presidential candidates in Mogadishu did not shake hands with citizens or campaign in the streets. Instead, they met with lawmakers and clan elders in glitzy hotels and compounds guarded by dozens of soldiers and blast walls. Some aspirants put up election billboards along major roads in the capital, promising good governance, justice, and peace.
Some Somalis have now turned to Al Shabab to get services that would normally be delivered by a functioning state. Many in Mogadishu regularly travel to areas dozens of miles north of the city to get their cases heard at Al 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 he presented his case to an Al Shabab-run court, he said, two weeks later the court ruled that the occupiers should vacate his house — and they did.
“It’s sad, but no one goes to the government to get justice,” he said. “Even government judges will secretly advise you to go to Al Shabab.”
Dealing with the threat of Al Shabab will be among 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, needs also to deliver 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 became too confrontational over the past few years. It was like pulling teeth,” Elmi said. “People are now ready for a new dawn.”