Six people in military fatigues sit on a bench in
Members of the Somali military force supporting anti-government opposition leaders rest on a street in Mogadishu, Somalia, on April 25, 2021. (Photo by AFP via Getty Images)

Somalia’s Government Has Lost Control of Most Of Its Capital

As different forces jockey for power in Mogadishu, violence has descended upon the city.

Mogadishu, Somalia — After two weeks weeks of openly maneuvering and mobilizing, and months of strain, fighting between political forces has broken out in Mogadishu, and it is no longer clear that Somalia’s sitting government has control over the capital. On Saturday night, troops from clans that oppose President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, known as Farmaajo, arrived in trucks, driving south from the Middle Shabelle region. On Sunday, shooting started in earnest for the first time as the forces loyal to the president fought against the opposition, many of whom are soldiers that peeled off from national security forces.


“We don’t recognize Farmaajo and we cannot work with him. We don’t take orders from the army commander, we are loyal to our clan leaders,” one such soldier, who works at the military’s headquarters in the city’s Hodan district, told VICE World News last week. He also said that he recently moved to Yaqshiid district where former President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, a leading member of the opposition and clan leader, is currently residing. A checkpoint where he is staying was attacked on Sunday, though the Somali government has denied that the strike emanated from government forces.

By early Monday morning, regional presidents negotiated a cease-fire. The amount of civilian and military casualties, while expected to be significant, is not yet reported. Still, the city is now officially divided and some residents have started to flee the violence. Schools and universities are shut down and exams postponed. 

“We don’t recognize Farmaajo and we cannot work with him. We don’t take orders from the army commander, we are loyal to our clan leaders.”

A grainy image of people walking down the street holding possessions.

Photographs of residents fleeing Mogadishu have been circulating in Somali WhatsApp groups. (Courtesy of Amanda Sperber)

“The Farmaajo administration has been forced to retreat from small parts of north and south Mogadishu, and as more opposing clans splinter from national security forces and arrive from the countryside, he will likely lose the city itself,” Hussein Sheikh-Ali, a former national security and counter-terrorism advisor to two Somali presidents, told VICE World News. 


This tension is related to the fact that the deadline to hold national elections passed on February 8 without a vote, ushering in a new era of political instability. It was the first time in Somalia that a presidential term ended before an agreement on how to proceed with the next election had been reached, and in April, Farmaajo signed a law that extended his presidency by two years. 

Over the last two weeks, Somali politicians and officials who are against the extended mandate relocated themselves from their original stronghold at an upmarket hotel in the south of the city to neighborhoods in the north that are past the other side of the historic green-line of the last civil war. Former President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, another leading member of the opposition, recently moved to an area called Siisii, which was the neighborhood where the Islamic Courts Unit (ICU) was founded. The ICU was the religious political party that is considered the precursor to the terrorist group al Shabaab, and this move to the north of the city was, in part, a symbolic relocation to his base.

“I have to defend myself,” Abdirahman Abdishakur, a leading opposition figure who suspended his presidential campaign because there was no election planned, told VICE World News last week. Abdishakur moved to a clan stronghold, but said he got attacked this weekend by forces loyal to the Farmaajo administration.


At the same time, special police, national intelligence and army units that are known to be aligned with Farmaajo’s administration have been beefing up their presence throughout the city. In areas still government-held, key junctions like Kilometer 4, which is near the heavily fortified international airport that is protected by the African Union troops, were shut down on Sunday as troops braced for a new wave of defecting forces. Spokespeople with the Farmaajo administration did not respond to emails or calls for comment. 

This moment has long been in the making. When Farmaajo was inaugurated in 2017, his win, while condemned as corrupt, was also heralded as a new age of post-clan politics in Somalia. Farmaajo did not come from the dominant group in Mogadishu, but he had their support. When he took office through an indirect electoral process, he promised to ensure a “one-person-one-vote” direct vote going forward. 

As Somalia began to regain stability, it adopted a federal model with a sitting head uniting the member states in Mogadishu. When Farmaajo took office, much of the country’s governance structure, including the national army, was still under negotiations. Politics became further entrenched in state-building as leaders, many of whom had been part of the ICU and al Shabaab or were other players in the civil war, vied for power and money. The politicians never came close to putting together a direct electoral model, and were then unable to agree on another indirect vote in time.  


“In past election cycles, Somalia's elites have found a way to strike a compromise. This time, the wall of mistrust has been too high to surmount,” Murithi Mutiga, the International Crisis Group’s Horn of Africa project director, told VICE World News. 

Violent demonstrations followed a week after the February deadline. After that, two months of high profile meetings in hotels across the capital commenced. It took over a month to get the key players into the same room to discuss what agenda they might have in order to talk about elections, but after two days, the talks collapsed and the presidents from Federal Member States went home. A week later, on April 12, the Lower House, part of Somalia’s parliament, came together in a last minute gathering to extend Farmaajo’s mandate.

Right before the meeting, Sadik "John" Omar, a police chief at the time, blocked the house from sitting. In a televised address, he said that if the house sat and voted to extend Farmaajo’s mandate, it would cause instability in the country. Omar was quickly fired and replaced, and the house sat and voted. A known hitman for the president, his flip was a surprise. Omar has since become involved in the fighting and could become another well-armed political player in his own right.

“In past election cycles, Somalia's elites have found a way to strike a compromise. This time, the wall of mistrust has been too high to surmount.”


In light of the long festering divisions plaguing Mogadishu, the United Nations Security Council has already convened four times to discuss Somalia in 2021, highlighting the worry about the extent of the intensity of any fallout that could come from this political crisis. Many of Somalia’s key international partners that fund the state have put out strongly worded statements against the term extension, and said it would bring instability. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the U.S. is “deeply disappointed,” after the Lower House voted for the extension. Both the U.S. and the EU have threatened sanctions if a push to immediately hold elections did not resume. After the recent fighting, Nicolas Berlanga, the EU Ambassador to Somalia expressed his concern, and said “violence is unacceptable.”

"I think Mogadishu is falling under the watch of the international community,” said Abdisalam Guled, the former deputy director of the National Intelligence and Security Agency. “Somalia does not need distant advice or beautiful diplomatic rhetoric from New York, Washington or London at this time. What we need is an immediate intervention to save this fragile country.”

Last week, the African Union issued a strongly worded communiqué condemning the extension, and said a special AU envoy would come to Somalia to get the election process back on track. The union also noted that AMISOM, the African Union Mission in Somalia, should “monitor” the deployment of  national security forces, implying that they could get used for political purposes. The Farmaajo administration has expressed appreciation for concern, but affirmed its sovereignty.

But after some of the worst violence the city has seen in years, Somali civilians relayed their fears to VICE World News. “We are asking the opposition leaders and the government to agree on a way forward so that we avoid war,” said Ahmed Jama, a citizen of Mogadishu who lived in the city through the last civil war. “No one wants to go back to where we were 30 years ago, but the situation now seems like we are headed back there.”