Somali lawmakers were choosing a president on Wednesday amid a security lockdown that has closed the capital’s international airport and cleared major streets over fears of a strike by Shabaab militants.
Mortar fire hit several neighborhoods of Mogadishu and fighting broke out between the extremists and African Union peacekeepers (AMISOM) just outside the capital on Tuesday evening, according to police and witnesses.
Such shelling is not unusual in Mogadishu and is a common tactic by Al-Qaeda-linked Shabaab militants seeking to make their presence known. No casualties were reported.
However, fears of further violence were palpable, with Mogadishu on lockdown as MPs headed to the site of the election at the airport, situated within a secure compound which is home to diplomats, aid workers and soldiers.
Hundreds of lawmakers, observers and journalists mixed together in a snaking line for manual security checks to gain access to the hangar where the vote took place.
Somalia’s election has been billed as its most democratic in nearly five decades, even though only 14,000 delegates were able to vote for MPs in a drawn out process.
The government is only the second to be chosen inside Somalia since the 1991 overthrow of Siad Barre’s military regime led to decades of anarchy, however it will still have only limited control of the country.
Despite being ousted from Mogadishu by AMISOM troops in 2011, the Shabaab still launches regular, deadly attacks and holds swathes of countryside.
Four years after lawmakers were handpicked by 135 clan elders, and then voted for a president, Somalia had been promised a one-person, one-vote election in 2016.
However political infighting and insecurity saw the plan ditched for a limited vote running six months behind schedule.
Repeated delays meant the new lawmakers were only sworn in in December.
In Wednesday’s vote, President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud is seeking re-election against 20 other candidates, after several withdrew from the race at the last minute.
Mohamud, a 61-year-old former academic and civil society activist from the Hawiye clan, is seen as a frontrunner as is ex-president Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, 52, a fellow Hawiye.
The leading candidates from the Darod clan are Prime Minister Omar Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke, 56, and former premier Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed ‘Farmajo’, 55.
Mogadishu has been on lockdown since Tuesday ahead of the vote, with main roads blocked off by big mounds of sand, and only heavily-armed security personnel patrolling the streets.
Schools were closed and residents urged to stay inside.
Security sources said commercial flights would not be operating throughout the day.
Tense residents reported heavy fighting between AMISOM troops and Shabaab militants at a military base outside the capital on Tuesday night.
Other residents also reported heavy gunfire, while mortar shells landed in several neighborhoods of Mogadishu.