NAIROBI, Kenya — Somalia’s president suspended the country’s prime minister and marine forces commander on Monday, a sharp escalation in a political dispute that threatens to further destabilize the troubled nation on the Horn of Africa.
President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed suspended Prime Minister Mohamed Hussein Roble over allegations of corruption and misuse of public land. Mr. Mohamed’s office had earlier accused Mr. Roble of “posing a serious threat to the electoral process” and of carrying out activities that violated his mandate.
Mr. Roble refused to accept the order and accused Mr. Mohamed of deploying troops to attack his office and those of the cabinet to prevent them from carrying out their duties. The moves, he said in a televised address, were “a blatant attempt to overthrow the government, the Constitution and the laws of the land.”
On Monday, foreign governments and international observers expressed concern that the dispute could set off yet another cycle of violence in a nation battered by decades of fighting.
The simmering political impasse blew up into violence in the streets in April, after Mr. Mohamed signed a law extending his term in office by two years. Opponents of Mr. Mohamed, a former American citizen and bureaucrat, along with his Western allies denounced the move, and many Somalis worried that it could reverse the modest democratic gains the country has achieved after decades of civil war.
The showdown eventually led Mr. Mohamed to ask Parliament to nullify the extension and request that Mr. Roble help organize the delayed elections.
Calling Mr. Mohamed “the former president,” the premier on Monday instructed armed forces to report directly to his office and promised to take action against anyone who defied those orders. He also said Mr. Mohamed, whose mandate technically lapsed in February of this year, intended to disrupt the elections so “he can illegally remain in office.”
Somalia is driven by clan politics, and analysts say the rift between the president and the prime minister — who are from different clans — threatens to escalate into full-on violence not just among their supporters but also among their clansmen inside the Somali military. On Monday evening, armed forces loyal to the opposition amassed in certain neighborhoods in the capital, Mogadishu, witnesses said, while Somali military forces fortified the roads leading to the presidential palace.
The process of organizing the elections has not been smooth, with legislative elections facing delays, irregularities and multiple corruption allegations from candidates and observers. So far, only 26 of the 275 lawmakers for the lower house of Parliament have been elected, with 53 of 54 seats in the upper house filled.
Somalia’s electoral process is decidedly complex, with traditional elders choosing special delegates who select lawmakers, who then choose the country’s president. Mr. Mohamed has said he wants to move to a more traditional one-person-one-vote process, but his critics say he is driven by a desire to hold onto power.
The Somali Constitution gives the president the power to appoint a premier, but the power to dismiss or vote no confidence in the prime minister and his cabinet lies with Parliament.
Abdirahman Yusuf Omar, a deputy minister of information loyal to the prime minister, called the president’s decision an “indirect coup.”
Writing on Facebook, Mr. Omar said the deployment of security forces around the prime minister’s office would not prevent Mr. Roble from carrying out his duties.
The political battle comes as more than 90 percent of the country faces drought conditions, according to the United Nations, with almost four million people estimated to be at risk of acute food insecurity.
Somalia is also confronting increasing threats from the Shabab terrorist group, Covid-19’s negative economic impact and clashes between rival forces in various parts of the country that have left dozens dead and thousands displaced from their homes.
On Monday, Mogadishu residents said there was a heavy presence of troops in the streets, with many worrying that the political feud could turn bloody yet again.
Abdimalik Abdullahi, an independent analyst in Mogadishu, said the latest suspension “spirals Somalia into another rocky political crisis.”
The international community, Mr. Abdullahi said, should “put pressure on the political actors in Somalia to comply with existing election agreements, provide stern notice to spoilers with possible repercussions and support the prime minister to deliver his mandate regarding the management of the electoral process.”
On Sunday, the United States, Britain and other Western countries said they were concerned about the delay in the elections and urged political leaders to attend a Monday meeting convened by the prime minister to resolve disputes and speed up the electoral process.
But ahead of the meeting, President Mohamed’s office on Sunday accused the prime minister of “posing a serious threat to the electoral process” and of carrying out activities that violated his mandate.
The prime minister is also facing an investigation on corruption charges.
The commander of the Somali Navy, Brig. Gen. Abdihamid Mohamed Dirir, recently publicly accused top government officials, including Mr. Roble, of planning to grab public land belonging to the Coast Guard near Mogadishu’s port.
In a statement released by the presidency, Mr. Mohamed accused Mr. Roble not only of misappropriating the land but also of exerting pressure on the defense minister, “which amounts to tampering” with the investigation.
Pending the conclusion of the inquiry, “the duty and powers of the prime minister remain suspended,” Mr. Mohamed said.
The president also suspended General Dirir, saying the move was crucial for completing the investigation of the prime minister.
As the political turmoil grew on Monday, the United Nations, the European Union and almost two dozen other nations worldwide issued a joint statement urging restraint and dialogue. Somali political leaders also asked officials to take urgent steps to de-escalate the situation.
“I am deeply saddened by the horrific actions that threaten the stability and existence of this nation,” Fawzia Yusuf H. Adam, a former foreign minister and the only female presidential candidate, said in a post shared on Twitter. “The leaders of this country must stop inciting violence and abide by the law and agreements.”