MOGADISHU, Somalia – Students stayed home from school and traders closed their shops Thursday after Islamist militants said they would attack a rare political gathering — a meeting of Somalia's parliament.
The militant al-Shabab group even warned teachers nearby not to hold class. Parliament wound up canceling the session for the second time this week. Parliament speaker Sheik Aden Mohamed Nur insisted it was not because of the threats but because the meeting hall "needed loudspeakers and some other adjustments."
The legislature — 550 members hand-picked by their clans — has many more problems than missing audio equipment.
Parliamentarians are fleeing Mogadishu, Somalia's bleak, shattered capital, in droves and resettling in neighboring countries. Militants have killed nine parliamentarians over the last few years for being part of a Western-backed government.
One former parliamentarian has even joined al-Shabab while another quit last month, opting to be jobless. Parliament now has trouble forming a quorum.
"Apart from the title of a parliamentarian, they are nothing," said Said Hassan Shire, the member who resigned. "I regret the useless years I was part of a failed parliament. I curse every day of those years."
Like ordinary Somalis, parliamentarians face insecurity and a low standard of living. They have been arrested in security crackdowns in Kenya and Ethiopia, and some have sought asylum in Europe. They have seen their stipend cut by two-thirds to $600 a month.
"The situation of Somali MPs is deplorable," said Rashid Abdi, a Somali expert at the International Crisis Group. "Their future is bleak and the blame lies with the international community that urged the parliament to increase its number to 550 members and failed to assist. Now the members have run out of options. They are targeted by armed groups in Somalia and by neighboring countries."
A decade ago, Shire gave up his business exporting livestock in hopes he would become part of a functioning government that could restore security to his anarchic country. When the current government signed a power-sharing agreement in 2008 with moderate Islamists, the aim, Shire said, was to reconcile with the remaining opposition groups and restore peace to the country.
"But all those things have failed. So my conscience simply won't allow me to be part of a failed parliament," he said. "Members can't operate freely. They don't have the security to move around, nor the money to survive."
Pay for the parliamentarians is a sore point. Members say the United Nations Development Program for Somalia should be paying them, and that they have not received their full salaries for almost a year. Deputy speaker Mohamed Omar Dalha said the European Union pays parliament's salary through the UNDP. But Marie Dimond, UNDP-Somalia's deputy country director, said the money is a "support measure" for the government.
"Salary payments are first and foremost a government responsibility," she said.
When parliament does meet it passes laws — albeit ones that can be enforced only in the small area the government controls — and approves Cabinet appointments. Members last met in December.
Earlier this week al-Shabab fighters visited a school near where parliament was to meet Thursday and warned teachers not to hold class, said Abdulahi Jamal, a teacher.
"I was too afraid to open my shop this morning," said Ahmed Mo'alin, a shop owner at Mogadishu's Bakara market. "If the parliament session had opened, the insurgents would have attacked, and then the retaliatory fire could have hit us."
It's not clear when the session will be rescheduled.
Dalha said unidentified gunmen have killed nine members of parliament and injured 13 others during the last five years. Many members prefer to live in safer environs in the U.S., Europe, Gulf states and African capitals like Nairobi in Kenya and Kampala, Uganda.
"We parliamentarians are at risk, at grave risk," Dalha said. "We are targeted for being part of the government, and the government has no strong forces to protect us."
Muhumed reported from Nairobi, Kenya.