MOGADISHU, Somalia -- Somali leaders voted overwhelmingly on Wednesday to adopt a new constitution that contains new individual rights and sets the country on a course for a more powerful and representative government. The vote came after two thunderous blasts at the gates of the meeting site from a failed suicide attack.
The 825 Somali leaders who debated the constitution for a week approved the document with 621 for, 13 against and 11 abstentions. The constitution, some eight years in the making, makes it clear that Islamic law is the basis for Somalia's legal foundation. No religion other than Islam can be propagated in the country and all laws must be compliant with Shariah -- Islamic law.
The constitution protects the right to an abortion to save the life of the mother and bans the circumcision of girls, a common practice in Somalia that opponents call female genital mutilation.
The U.N. hopes to transition the country to a more representative form of government, but nationwide or even regional elections appear to be years away. Still, the top U.N. representative to Somalia, Augustine Mahiga, said that a new, more representative era for Somalia is about to start after the vote of Somali leaders, or elders.
"Through their good work, the elders have proven their reputation as the custodians of the Somali nationhood and demonstrated their respect for a fair and legitimate process," he said.
The delegates voted about two hours after two suicide bombers tried to attack the Mogadishu meeting. A police officer said security forces shot the two bombers at the gate to the meeting area. The two bombers were killed and one Somali soldier was wounded, said Abdi Yassin, a police officer.
The explosions are a reminder that even as Somalia continues down a slow path of re-establishing a functioning government after two decades of near anarchy in this East African nation, al-Shabab militants who were pushed out of the capital last year can still infiltrate Mogadishu and wreak havoc.
Somali President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed said the vote by the National Constituent Assembly means that Somalia has ended its period of transitional government. The U.N. mandate for Somalia's current government -- the Transitional Federal Government, or TFG -- expires on Aug. 20. Somali leaders were tasked with voting on the constitution, voting in a new 275-member parliament, and electing a president before then.
Security has improved markedly in Mogadishu over the last year, leading to a general revival of the seaside capital. But militants of the hardline Islamist group al-Shabab still infiltrate the city and carry out suicide attacks, particularly at high-profile events. An offensive by African Union and Somali forces pushed al-Shabab fighters out of Mogadishu on Aug. 6, 2011.
The country's former constitution was the Transitional Federal Charter, written in 2004. Meant only as a temporary charter, it contained fewer rights than those spelled out in the new constitution. Somalia has not had a powerful central government since 1991, when the president was killed and the country collapsed into chaos. The international community is working to create a government respected by the people that can provide goods and services in and outside the capital.
But Mahiga also warned of vote-buying and general corruption taking place in the scramble to name a new parliament.
"There have been disturbing reports of undue influence from aspiring politicians in current and former positions. This influence takes many forms including exchange and demands for favors, bribery and intimidation. We should not allow parliamentary seats to become commodities for sale or items for auction to the highest bidders at a time when we are seeking to reclaim the true stature of a dignified and respected Somali nation," he said.
A scathing report written for the U.N. Security Council last month found that systematic misappropriation, embezzlement and outright theft of taxpayer funds have become a system of governance in Somalia. The nearly 200-page report listed numerous examples of money intended for Somalia's Transitional Federal Government going missing, saying that for every $10 received, $7 never made it into state coffers.
The report, written by the U.N. Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea, quoted a senior government official as saying that nothing gets done in the Somali government without someone asking the question "What's in it for me?"
Because the transitional government was not voted in by Somali citizens, the public has few mechanisms to hold officials to account for misused funds.
-- Straziuso reported from Nairobi, Kenya.