MOGADISHU, SOMALIA - Hundreds of disgruntled people took to the streets of Mogadishu on Saturday to protest alleged abuses by government security forces.
The demonstration came after a government police officer fatally shot two civilians while enforcing coronavirus restrictions Friday night.
The placard-carrying protesters shouted anti-government slogans, set rubber tires on fire and burned photos of President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed.
In the early hours of Saturday, the protesters crowded into the city center, demanding justice from the government.
Speaking to the crowd, Mayor Omar Mohamud Mohamed said the police officer who killed the two civilians Friday in the Bondhere neighborhood, south of the city, had been arrested and would be prosecuted.
“On behalf of my name and that of the country’s leaders, I would like to share with you that the killer is in custody and will face justice,” the mayor said.
There has been growing anger among some residents about what they describe as heavy-handedness by some government security forces enforcing a nighttime curfew imposed on the city to control the spread of the coronavirus.
In response to the protesters' demands, the country’s police chief fired the commissioner in charge of security in Bondhere district. He also pushed back by one hour the starting time of the nightly curfew, which will now run from 8 p.m. until 5 a.m.
A different kind of Ramadan
Mogadishu residents are among 1.8 billion Muslims around the world who are currently observing the holy month of Ramadan. But the mood this year is somber because of the coronavirus, soaring food prices and missing remittance payments from family members in the diaspora.
Somalia’s minister of health said Saturday that the country had so far officially recorded 328 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 16 deaths.
Speaking to VOA’s Somali service in the streets of Mogadishu, some of Saturday's protesters shared their feelings.
“The wholesale traders, who import food in our country, are known to raise the price of the essential food during Ramadan every year," said shopkeeper Seynab Omar. “But this year it is more painful because of the current economic crisis brought by the coronavirus.”
According to VOA reporters in the city, local markets were keeping shelves well-stocked, but few residents could afford to buy the goods they need.
"Most of us are unable to buy them because the price has doubled,” said Mogadishu resident Mohamed Isse. “Many laborers, who lived a hand-to-mouth existence, cannot earn a penny today because of the coronavirus lockdown.”
Experts say some major food importers have been holding back stockpiles of food and other important commodities in the days ahead of Ramadan to sell them at high prices during the holy month.
Trade and Industry Minister Abdullahi Ali Hassan demanded that merchants at main markets in Mogadishu lower the prices on basic food items so that poor people can feed their families during Ramadan.
"We know traders who have been hoarding food and other important resources for their personal gains and to sell them a higher price later,” the minister said. “We ask them to have compassion for people who are poor and bring down the cost of essential foods during Ramadan. Otherwise, the government will take strict measures against them.”
Life was already hard
In a country that has suffered nearly three decades of conflict, living standards were poor for most of the population even before the coronavirus appeared.
Somalia depends on foreign aid and limited tax revenue from businesses, the port and the airport of Mogadishu, and many families depended on remittances from Somalis abroad. The World Bank says remittances account for 23% of the country’s GDP, with approximately $1.4 billion arriving in the country annually.
On Wednesday, the World Bank said in a study that sub-Saharan Africa as a whole could lose close to $10 billion in remittances because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Due to the COVID-19 crisis, remittance flows to the region are expected to decline by 23.1 percent to reach $37 billion in 2020, while a recovery of 4 percent is expected in 2021,” the global lender said. That would follow a 0.5% decline in remittances in 2019, which stood at $48 billion.
Civil society organizations and economists are warning that the volatile global food supply, soaring food prices, missing vital remittances from the diaspora and the coronavirus lockdowns could plunge Somalia into another humanitarian catastrophe.
Seynab Abukar Mohamewd and Abdulkadir Abdulle contributed this report from Mogadishu.