Few signs of progress as Somalia's new MPs are sworn in

Parliamentary placemen are set to pick president in campaign dogged by violence and corruption
  • @howden_africa

Somalia swore in a new parliament but no new president yesterday as an international deadline for ending the troubled transition in the war-ravaged country passed with few signs of genuine progress.

A batch of 211 new MPs took their oath in the car park of Mogadishu airport, as the battered parliament building was considered too dangerous.

It is hoped their induction into parliament will restore some legitimacy to a central government beset by squabbling and corruption.

The roadmap for a new government, meant to build on recent progress in pushing Islamic militants al-Shabaab out of the capital, comes after 17 failed attempts since the collapse of the last central administration in 1991. The lawmakers must elect a new speaker and president in the coming days to cap what one UN diplomat said would be "the first serious political accomplishment in Somalia in 20 years".

Despite the candidates' posters plastered over the ruined seaside capital and the loudspeakers of campaign vehicles which have replaced the notorious battlewagons of the war years, this is a selection not an election. Ordinary Somalis are no closer to casting their ballot in a country that has not held an election since 1967.

Instead, the UN has overseen the selection of a cast of traditional elders who have chosen a new roster of MPs, who must now vote for one of the more than 60 presidential candidates. The leading contenders include all the main players in the tainted Transitional Federal Government – a body accused by a UN report in July of looting nearly two-thirds of its own budget.

The international community – with major donors like the UK and US to the fore – has said that if the process is seen to be "credible" then it could be the cue for a major stabilisation effort. But behind the scenes the same clan divisions, violence and corruption that have dogged Somali politics for years have dominated again. Fewer than half the elders chosen to represent Somalia's influential clans are genuine, a senior source claims, and presidential candidates have made bribes of between $3,000 and $25,000 to get their placemen on the list.

The technical committee tasked with vetting the elders' lists to remove past or present warlords, and those with no secondary education, has been dogged by threats. Several members have complained of receiving text messages telling them to "write their will". Augustine Mahiga, the UN's special representative to Somalia, said competition had been intense, with at least 5,000 people competing for 275 jobs: "Those with the means to intimidate have used them and those with money have sometimes used it."

Somalia descended into a clan-based civil war after the collapse of socialist dictator Siad Barre's government in 1991. The northern region of Somaliland and, to a lesser extent, its southern neighbour Puntland have managed to restore some order. But the central and southern regions have been a theatre first for clan warfare, then foreign occupation and finally the Islamic extremists of al-Shabaab.

Fit for office? The main candidates

Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed

Current President, 47, once called the "last best hope" by Hillary Clinton. Now seen as biggest obstacle to change.

Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed

The only recent Prime Minister credited with doing any-thing after he got the army and police paid on time. Now campaigns in Somali diaspora.

Yusuf Garaad

Former head of BBC Somali service gave up his home and job in London to go home and try to do something about the chaos he reported on.

Sharif Hassan Sheikh Aden

Former parliament speaker and political survivor. Dogged by accusations of grand corruption. A manipulator of clan politics.