MOGADISHU, Somalia (AP) — Security forces in Somalia’s capital fired on hundreds of people protesting the delay of the country’s election on Friday as at least one explosion was reported at the international airport and armored personnel carriers blocked major streets. A protest leader said “some have died.”
The chaos in Mogadishu occurred hours after Somalia’s government and opposition leaders said gunfire erupted overnight near the presidential palace in a sharp escalation of political tensions in a country trying to rebuild after three decades of conflict.
President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed is under pressure as the Feb. 8 election date came and went without resolution of issues related to how the vote is conducted in the Horn of Africa nation. Some Somalis are demanding that he step down.
The unrest is ripe for exploitation by the Somalia-based al-Shabab extremist group, which has threatened to attack the polls.
The Associated Press saw wounded protesters limping or being carried into a local hospital. People went into the streets despite the government banning public gatherings this week. It cited a rise in COVID-19 cases, but critics called it an attempt to block the protest.
Prime Minister Mohamed Hussein Roble said he was “very sorry” about what happened and said peaceful demonstrations are a constitutional right but armed ones are not.
The gunfire began shortly after a former prime minister and presidential candidate, Hassan Ali Khaire, began leading the peaceful march. Khaire asserted that shells fired against the protesters landed inside the airport grounds.
“Some have died and others were wounded,” he said, without giving details.
The U.S. Embassy in a security alert said that “according to unconfirmed reports as many as 20 people may have been killed or injured” in the early morning gunfire. It said the international airport had diverted flights.
As protesters scattered, some angry Somalis warned the president that retaliatory violence could occur.
“If this is what (the president) wants, he will get more of it because this is what we know best,” said one demonstrator, Mohamed Abdi Halane, a militia leader for one of Somalia’s powerful clans.
One clan leader, Mohamed Ali Had, said that “trying to suppress our views was what forced us to oust late dictator Siad Barre, which led to the destruction of the country” three decades ago.
The gunfire followed a confrontation overnight near the presidential palace.
Information Minister Osman Dubbe said “armed militia” attacked a military post but was repulsed. But former Somali president Sharif Sheikh Ahmed asserted that the government had raided the hotel near the palace where he and another former president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, were staying ahead of the protest.
“The attack was ordered by the outgoing president,” Ahmed said. Mohamud accused the president of a “coup.”
The United Nations and others have urged Somali political leaders to solve their differences quickly. The U.N. on Friday said the new clashes “underscore the urgent need,” and a spokesperson said Secretary-General Antonio Guterres was “gravely concerned.”
A successful election means Somalia’s government can move on to address urgent issues like COVID-19, a locust outbreak and hundreds of thousands of people displaced by climate crises like drought.
Despite its insecurity, the Horn of Africa nation has had peaceful changes of leadership every four years since 2000, and it has the distinction of having Africa’s first democratically elected president to peacefully step down, Aden Abdulle Osman in 1967.
But the goal of a direct, one-person-one-vote election in Somalia remains elusive. It was meant to take place this time. Instead, the federal government and states agreed on another “indirect election,” with senators and members of parliament elected by community leaders — delegates of powerful clans — in each member state.
Members of parliament and senators then elect Somalia’s president.
An alliance of opposition leaders, along with civil society groups, have objected, arguing it leaves them no say in the politics of their own country. And the regional states of Jubbaland and Puntland refused to take part.
Somalia’s government had sought new talks on the impasse this week. Friday’s events brought fresh frustration.
“This attack is yet another example of the government’s desperate attempts to suppress the voice of the people who oppose (the) federal government’s failure to hold national elections,” one presidential candidate, Abdinasir Abdille Mohamed, tweeted.
Cara Anna in Nairobi, Kenya, contributed.