MOGADISHU – Somalia’s president early Wednesday bowed to growing opposition to his extended stay in office, urging a return to negotiations on the country's delayed election and vowing that the sight of rival soldiers clashing in the streets of the capital would not happen again.
President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed delivered the national address after midnight following fast-moving events that saw two key regional states object to his two-year extension and the prime minister welcome their action.
The president did not resign, as some expected, but he said he will speak to parliament on Saturday to inform them of developments. He had faced growing opposition after the lower house of parliament approved the extension of his mandate and he signed it into law, to the fury of Senate leaders who called the move illegal. Now he is ready to go ahead with elections based on the Sept. 17 agreement between his government and regional states, which the international community had emphasized.
The president had not commented publicly since hundreds of soldiers opposing his mandate extension took up positions in the capital on Sunday and clashed with other security forces. Alarmed by the extraordinary sight, the United Nations, African Union, United States and others on Tuesday warned against the “emerging fragmentation” of the Somali National Army along clan lines.
Some residents fled, worried that Somalia was against collapsing into conflict after years of trying to rebuild.
Soon afterward, the regional states of Hirshabelle and Galmudug turned against the president’s stance and called for a return to talks on the national election that had been meant to take place in early February.
Prime Minister Mohamed Hussein Roble backed that joint statement and called on security forces to return to their barracks. He also urged opposition leaders to stop any actions that could harm Somalia's stability.
In his brief speech, the president early Wednesday blamed unnamed foreigners for the recent troubles and accused unnamed political leaders of trying to use the “blood of young Somalis” to seek positions of power.
Somalia’s election has been delayed amid disputes between the federal government and the states of Puntland and Jubbaland along with the opposition. The U.N. and others have warned that the uncertainty jeopardizes a country rebuilding from three decades of conflict, and that the al-Qaida-linked al-Shabab extremist group could take advantage of the chaos.
The president, a former U.S. citizen who gave up that status while in office, tried to defend his actions on the election standoff in a recent interview with his former local newspaper, The Buffalo News, asserting that Somalia “cannot afford a power vacuum" and the extra time would allow officials to organize the first one-person-one-vote direct election in decades. He added, “Who can lead, if we leave?”
The goal of a direct 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, has objected, arguing it leaves them no say in the politics of their own country.
The president in his interview with The Buffalo News called the current election model undemocratic. But when asked if he would peacefully hand over power if someone else is elected, he replied, “Absolutely, without any hesitation.”