WASHINGTON / MOGADISHU, SOMALIA - Politicians and analysts warn that clashes in Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital, between the federal government and supporters of opposition presidential candidates could escalate the country’s political crisis into a full-blown conflict.
Tension has been simmering in the city for months over delayed elections. The country’s political leaders remain deadlocked on how to proceed despite months of encouragement and pressure from U.N. officials and Western diplomats.
Late on Thursday and in the early hours of Friday, gun and mortar fire erupted in the city amid a lockdown imposed by the government to prevent opposition supporters from holding a protest.
Soldiers in armored vehicles were deployed in the streets near where the protests were planned. The soldiers also sealed off other major streets in the city.
“Around midnight on Thursday, a heavy gunfire erupted somewhere close to the presidential palace and some mortar shells that landed in other areas in the city followed,” said Ahmed Yusuf, a resident in Mogadishu.
The opposition leaders said the gunfire erupted when government soldiers attacked a hotel where two former presidents who are now opposition presidential candidates, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud and Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, were staying.
Ahmed has accused the current president, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, aka Farmajo, whose constitutional term ended February 8, of being behind the attack.
“The attack was ordered by the outgoing President Mohamed Farmajo,” Ahmed tweeted. “This is the behavior of dictatorship and we ask all civilians to come out and respond."
Minister of Security Hassan Hundubey Jimale has categorically denied the accusation, saying that armed gunmen organized by the opposition attacked government troops in their duty positions.
"Our troops were in their positions when organized gunmen attacked them. They responded and brought the situation under control,” Jimale said.
Later Friday, more gunfire erupted in the city as a street protest led by former Prime Minister Hassan Ali Khaire marched toward the KM4 area, a strategic junction manned by government troops.
“Last night there was an assassination attempt on the lives of two former presidents, and this afternoon we came under fire while were peacefully protesting,” Khaire told reporters at a press conference.
A video clip circulated on social media showed the former prime minister and his supporters ducking for cover during the gunfire.
“We warn and it is essential to make sure that this country does not go back to where it came from,” Khaire said. “What is happening is a sign of greediness for power and dictatorship behavior.”
During the gunfire, a mortar round landed inside Mogadishu’s Aden Abdulle International Airport, starting a fire at one of the airport compound restaurants.
“The mortar shell landed at a restaurant away from the terminal and caused no damage. The airport is open and still operational,” Ahmed Moalim Hassan, the director-general of the Civil Aviation Authority, told VOA Somali.
Holding a press conference, Somali Prime Minister Mohamed Hussein Roble called on the public not to accept the violence.
“It is unfortunate that at this time there are elements claiming there is no legitimate government in place in the country and that attacks are launched on national army bases in Mogadishu,” Roble said. “Do not accept violence in your city and the destruction of your properties.”
He said efforts were under way to avert further violence and promised that talks aimed at holding elections would materialize.
The U.N. office in Somalia (UNSOM) wrote on Twitter that it was "deeply concerned by armed clashes in Mogadishu overnight and on Friday morning, and calls for calm and restraint by all parties involved, and urges that open lines of communication be maintained to help reduce tensions."
Fear of violence
There is a growing concern that the boiling political tension triggered by the dispute over the delayed election could throw the country back into a civil war.
“It's a moment of great uncertainty. Four years passed and there is no election, and this new violence can degenerate into conflict,” warned Hussein Moalim Mohamud, Somalia's former national security adviser.
“There's still no consensus on how to move forward and the opposition is getting frustrated. This has resulted in the clashes in Mogadishu this morning, as they moved ahead to organize protests,” said Omar Mahmood, senior analyst for Somalia at the International Crisis Group.
“This latest violence has diminished the hope for a political solution to hold elections, and this can cause more violence if Somalia’s parliament does not take an immediate step to save the country from slipping back into chaos,” said Abdullahi Godah Barre, a member of Somalia’s parliament.
Somalia has not had an effective central government since the collapse of Siad Barre's military regime in 1991, which led to decades of civil war and lawlessness fueled by clan conflicts and the rise of militant group al-Shabab.
This latest violence in Mogadishu is the result of months of political tensions over delayed presidential and parliamentary elections.
Hopes of hosting Somalia's first one-person, one-vote ballot since 1969 were first abandoned over security problems and disputes over the process.
In subsequent negotiations, Farmajo and leaders of the country's federal member states agreed to hold indirect elections, but implementing those polls has been a major challenge.
In follow-up conferences, leaders have been unable to resolve disputes over the electoral committee that would oversee the process. Months have gone by with no progress and Farmajo’s mandate ended on February 8.
Since then, the tensions grew, and a coalition of opposition parties announced it no longer recognized Farmajo as president and called on him to resign. The president and his allies insist he is still in power.