NAIROBI, Kenya – The United States on Friday sharply criticized a vote by Somali parliamentarians to extend their term by three years, calling the unilateral decision a disservice to the Somali people and a setback to the establishment of a legitimate and effective government.
The 500-member parliament voted on the extension Thursday despite failing to pass any laws the in last six years. When asked for an example of the legislative body's accomplishments, one parliamentarian told The Associated Press that the politicians had refurbished the parliament building.
The job-extending vote drew a scathing response from the U.S., which said the extension could even strengthen Somalia's most dangerous militant force, al-Shabab, an insurgent group that actively recruits Somali-Americans and masterminded the twin bombings in Uganda during the World Cup final last July.
"This unilateral and unrepresentative extension ... serves only to further undermine the credibility of the Parliament and risks strengthening al-Shabab," the U.S. statement said. "This self-serving political maneuvering calls into question the suitability of the senior leadership of the Parliament as viable partners for the Somali people and the international community as we collectively work to bring peace, stability, and progress back to Somalia."
The U.N.'s top Somalia representative called the vote a "disappointing decision taken in haste."
Somali legislators receive $300 a month each from the United Nations. Thursday's vote was attended by 435 lawmakers and 421 of them voted for the extension. The U.S. urged that the "ill-conceived decision" be reconsidered.
The criticism of parliament comes amid a growing chorus calling for the Somali government itself — headed by the president and prime minister — to end when its mandate expires in August.
The second-highest ranking official in the U.S. State Department said during a visit to Kenya on Thursday that Washington hasn't seen any progress by the government, which is known as the Transitional Federal Government.
"We just can't continue with business as usual. We have been frankly disappointed with the performance of the TFG. It has not broadened its base of support. It has not been effective in meeting the needs of the people," Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg said.
The U.N.'s envoy to Somalia, Augistine Mahiga, said earlier this month that any extension for the Somali government was out of the question.
"There was unanimous agreement, both inside and outside Somalia, that the transitional period has to end in August as envisaged under the Djibouti Peace Agreement," said Mahiga.
But no one yet knows what will happen in Mogadishu when August arrives. Steinberg said "we all intend to work very hard" to find a solution. He said the U.S. does not believe a large conference needs to be held or that the process should start from scratch, but that a consensus needs to be found among key players.
Whether a government exists or not may not make much difference to the people of Somalia, a country in conflict since a 1991 coup. The government, which is backed and protected by more than 8,000 African Union peacekeepers, controls only a small slice of the capital, Mogadishu. It provides few or no services to Somalis.
When President Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed was chosen during a peace conference in 2009, it was hoped that the former insurgent would be able to bring his allies into the peace process. But Ahmed's term was crippled by internal fighting with the former prime minister and insurgent groups have expanded their control of south-central Somalia.
Despite that, critics suspect that Ahmed's administration is devising ways to hang onto power beyond its mandate.
"The current administration has failed, so it should go," said Ali Mohamud Farah, one of a dozen members of parliament who say they object to any efforts to extend the term of the president. "Let's bring in a new leadership that can solve the country's problems."
Somalia's Information Minister Abdulkareem Hassan Jama said the decision to extend president's term "should come from Somalis themselves. They will not accept outside decisions dictated to them."
For months, the U.N. and several European countries have been pressing the president to back a new draft constitution aimed at scraping the "transitional" tag from the government to pave the way for a new elected administration.
But Ahmed has opposed the document, which later became the bone of contention between him and former Prime Minister Omar Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke.
Sharmarke, who supported the draft constitution, resigned in September, leaving the document in limbo.