Somalia: A new parliament but no presidential vote

Associated Press
Somali president Sharif Sheik Ahmed, left, and UN envoy for Somalia Augostina Mahiga, right, during the swearing in ceremony of 211 MP's at Aden Ade international airport in Mogadishu, Somalia, Monday, Aug 20, 2012.  Somalia's newly-selected members of parliament were on Monday sworn in as the Horn of Africa country moves from the long-drawn transitional period to a permanent form of government. (AP Photo/Farah Abdi Warsamehmeh)
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MOGADISHU, Somalia (AP) — Somalia's chief justice on Monday swore in 215 new members of parliament, an accomplishment but one that fell far short of U.N. hopes that the Horn of Africa nation would seat a full 275-member parliament that would vote in a new president.

Monday — the last day of eight years of Somalia's U.N.-backed Transitional Federal Government — was the day by which the U.N. repeatedly said a new president would be in place. But political bickering, violent threats and seat-buying schemes delayed progress, guaranteeing the day would come and go with no new leader in place.

Nonetheless, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon congratulated the people of Somalia "on reaching this watershed moment on their road to peace, stability and political transformation," U.N. deputy spokesman Eduardo del Buey said.

He urged clan elders to complete the seating of all parliament members within a few days and called on the new parliamentarians to prepare for elections of a speaker and president so that the country's political transition can be completed promptly and peacefully "in an environment free from intimidation," del Buey said.

"The Somali people have waited 20 years for peace to take root in their country," the secretary-general's spokesman said. "Now is the time to begin a new chapter in their history."

Somalia has seen much progress over the last year. Al-Shabab militants were forced out of Mogadishu in August 2011, allowing businesses to thrive and the arts and sports to return.

However, Mogadishu politics remains an ugly business, as it did in 1991, when the country's last legitimate president was ousted and the country spiraled into bloody chaos. The International Crisis Group think tank said the current political process has been as undemocratic as the Transitional Federal Government structure it seeks to replace, "with unprecedented levels of political interference, corruption and intimidation."

Somali elders were tasked with naming a parliament, since no election could be held given the state of security around the country. A technical committee disqualified several nominees.

"Some elders allegedly nominated uneducated and objectionable individuals, some sold seats to highest bidders, and others even nominated their own family members," the International Crisis Group said.

Few of the allegations will surprise the international backers — the U.N., U.S. and EU — heavily involved in the political process. A report released in June written for the U.N. said that the last government was rife with corruption. The government allegedly protected a notorious pirate leader and deposited only $3 of every $10 received into state coffers. A report commissioned by the World Bank published in May similarly found that 68 percent of TFG revenues in 2009-10 were unaccounted for.

Monday's swearing-in ceremony was moved to the highly protected airport at the last minute after members of parliament asked for increased security. Somali police and African Union troops patrolled around the airport, which adjoins an African Union military base and is the most secure location in the city.

"This historic moment marks the long-awaited end of the transitional period in Somalia. The new MPs, selected after broad-based, grass roots consultations and representing all of Somalia's clans, have been successfully screened against objective criteria and are now ready to start their important work," said Augustine Mahiga, the U.N. representative to Somalia.

Al-Shabab militants, though evicted from Mogadishu, still penetrate the seaside capital to carry out suicide attacks. One such attack took place earlier this month as Somali elders voted in a new internationally backed constitution that guarantees more rights for women and children. The bombers were stopped at the gates and no one except the two attackers was killed.

After Monday's ceremony, Zainab Mohamed Amir, one of the few female parliamentarians, said she feared women would be underrepresented. Some political negotiations tried to guarantee women 30 percent of parliament seats, but that guarantee has not been made.

"I'm very happy today because we have a new federal parliament that will bring a new government for Somalia," Amir said. "But I'm afraid that women will not get their quota in the parliament."

Backroom political deals center not only on who is named to parliament but also which clan will get what office. The upcoming government will have three powerful positions: president, prime minister and speaker of the parliament. Whatever clan gets a post like speaker, for example, will not be eligible for president.

Despite the fact Somali leaders did not make as much progress as the U.N. hoped, the prime minister of the TFG, Abdiweli Mohamed Ali — a former community college instructor from New York state — called Monday "a historic day."

"Somalia has a new parliament and the presidential election will be next after the parliament gets a new speaker. I wish Somalia will keep the positive news coming so that peace will prevail in the country at last," he said.

No one will say when the presidential election will take place because no one knows. The International Crisis Group predicted that it would be October before a full government is seated. After the president is elected, he must appoint a prime minister who must then assemble a Cabinet that meets the approval of the parliament.

Nick Birnback, a spokesman for the U.N. mission to Somalia, said the vote for the speaker of parliament will be held on Saturday, and that the vote for president could follow later in the month or in early September.

For now the only man — or woman — in a proper position of power in the new government is Mussa Hassan, a former 72-year-old general.

"I am the oldest of the parliament members so I will have to be the caretaker speaker," the grey-haired man told the newly sworn in parliamentarians, as he listed upcoming tasks: "We need an election commission first, to prepare for the election."

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Straziuso reported from Nairobi, Kenya.

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