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Graft, threats as Somalia faces historic presidential vote

  • Somali soldiers prepare to secure the capital on the eve of presidential elections, at a police academy in Mogadishu, Somalia Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2017. Graft - vote-buying, fraud, intimidation - is the top concern in a nation that Transparency International now rates as the most corrupt in the world and Mogadishu is in lockdown because of the threat of violence by homegrown Islamic extremist group al-Shabab. (AP Photo/Farah Abdi Warsameh)

    Somali soldiers prepare to secure the capital on the eve of presidential elections, at a police academy in Mogadishu, Somalia Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2017. Graft - vote-buying, fraud, intimidation - is the top concern in a nation that Transparency International now rates as the most corrupt in the world and Mogadishu is in lockdown because of the threat of violence by homegrown Islamic extremist group al-Shabab. (AP Photo/Farah Abdi Warsameh)  (The Associated Press)

  • Somalis walk past a campaign poster for candidate Mohamed Abdullahi Farmaajo on the eve of presidential elections in Mogadishu, Somalia Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2017. Graft - vote-buying, fraud, intimidation - is the top concern in a nation that Transparency International now rates as the most corrupt in the world and Mogadishu is in lockdown because of the threat of violence by homegrown Islamic extremist group al-Shabab. (AP Photo/Farah Abdi Warsameh)

    Somalis walk past a campaign poster for candidate Mohamed Abdullahi Farmaajo on the eve of presidential elections in Mogadishu, Somalia Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2017. Graft - vote-buying, fraud, intimidation - is the top concern in a nation that Transparency International now rates as the most corrupt in the world and Mogadishu is in lockdown because of the threat of violence by homegrown Islamic extremist group al-Shabab. (AP Photo/Farah Abdi Warsameh)  (The Associated Press)

  • Somali soldiers prepare to secure the capital on the eve of presidential elections, at a police academy in Mogadishu, Somalia Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2017. Graft - vote-buying, fraud, intimidation - is the top concern in a nation that Transparency International now rates as the most corrupt in the world and Mogadishu is in lockdown because of the threat of violence by homegrown Islamic extremist group al-Shabab. (AP Photo/Farah Abdi Warsameh)

    Somali soldiers prepare to secure the capital on the eve of presidential elections, at a police academy in Mogadishu, Somalia Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2017. Graft - vote-buying, fraud, intimidation - is the top concern in a nation that Transparency International now rates as the most corrupt in the world and Mogadishu is in lockdown because of the threat of violence by homegrown Islamic extremist group al-Shabab. (AP Photo/Farah Abdi Warsameh)  (The Associated Press)

Colorful campaign posters in this seaside capital give the impression that Somalia's presidential election on Wednesday will be like any other. That's far from true.

Mogadishu is in lockdown because of violence by homegrown Islamic extremist group al-Shabab. The airport will be closed, and the vote will be confined to a heavily protected former air force base. Fears of attacks already have delayed the vote several times.

But suicide bombings aren't the biggest threat as this Horn of Africa country, after a quarter-century, tries to put a fully functioning government in place under strong international pressure. Graft — vote-buying, fraud, intimidation — is the top concern in a nation that Transparency International now rates as the most corrupt in the world.

After decades of chaos and warlord-led conflict, the vote will be historic in this country of about 12 million. But some observers worry whether it will be credible.

Already the country's auditor general, Nur Jimale Farah, has said two of the seats for parliament members who will elect the president have gone for $1.3 million apiece. Unlike in elections elsewhere, Somalia's next leader will not be chosen by popular vote but by legislators, who were selected by the country's powerful, intricate network of clans.

"Some votes were bought with $5,000, some with $10,000, and some with $20,000 or $30,000," Farah recently told Voice of America.

The United States and others have pressed Somalia to move ahead with elections as an important symbol of recovery. In the past decade, the U.S. has given $1.5 billion in humanitarian aid and another $240 million to support Somalia's political and economic recovery, and $196 million in overall funding is planned for 2017. Mogadishu remains so unstable that the U.S. does not have an embassy there.

But the international community also has expressed growing concern about the election. A joint statement by the United Nations, U.S., European Union and others cited a number of "egregious cases of abuse of the electoral process, including seats reserved for women candidates only that were ultimately taken by male candidates."

Violence, intimidation and corruption also have marred the process, the U.N. mission said, also criticizing the decision to not disqualify candidates who allegedly commit them.

Some involved in the vote remain confident, calling it an important step for a nation so unstable for so long that it was included on President Donald Trump's recent executive order blocking immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries.

"We are well-prepared to elect a new president. It's a test for a maturing democracy," said Ahmed Ali, a Somali lawmaker. The president will be elected by the 275 members of the lower legislative house and by 54 senators.

Among the 22 candidates, many who also hold foreign passports, Somalia's incumbent President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud is seeking re-election and may have an edge to win a second five-year term.

But rival candidate and Prime Minister Omar Abdirashid Sharmarke has accused regional countries of interfering in the electoral process by pushing for certain candidates.

"Those neighboring countries should respect our sovereignty and stop meddling in our affairs," he said, without naming specific countries. Various Muslim-majority countries seek a friendly Somali government, including Turkey, which has invested in the country. The United Arab Emirates and Qatar are backing different candidates.

Though Matt Bryden, director of Sahan Research and an expert on Somali politics, doesn't believe the election process has been free and fair, he said it is better than the alternative.

"There have been credible, and I think well-substantiated, allegations of fraud, intimidation, abuse, but essentially it is still a step forward," Bryden said. "The alternative was probably not to have a transition at all, in which case Somalia would have gone back to fragmentation, so it's not pretty, but it is a step in the right direction and it's probably the best we could hope for at this stage."

Many in Somalia anticipate a highly contested race which likely will see a further round between the two candidates with the greatest number of votes.

To ensure that Wednesday's election happens, thousands of soldiers were fanning out across Mogadishu, restricting traffic on major streets to reduce the threat of violence by the al-Qaida-linked al-Shabab, which has threatened to disrupt the vote.

"Of course, I understand how these tough security measures will complicate people's lives, but we will not take chances in ensuring a peaceful election," said Ali Mohamoud, a police colonel, standing by a checkpoint as soldiers searched cars and passengers.

At least one candidate put a positive spin on the election. Jabril Abdulle, who also holds a Canadian passport, has been active in Somali politics since the late 1990s and leads the Mogadishu-based Center for Research and Dialogue.

"We are offering bold vision, clear ideas ... that will be good for the Somali people and that will also be good for the whole world, particularly the Horn of Africa region that desperately needs some stability," he said. "Somalia should not be viewed as a land of conflict, drought and killings. By 2020, we bring a new Somalia that is at peace with itself and peace with its neighbors."

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Associated Press videographers Andrew Njuguna in Nairobi and Mohamed Sheikh Nor in Mogadishu contributed.