Somalia starts to pick up the pieces

After decades of war, piracy and famine, and despite continuing attacks by al-Shabaab militants, the east African nation is cautiously optimistic about the future


‘Welcome to Somalia” reads the sign, in Somali and English, greeting travellers as they walk out of Mogadishu’s ramshackle airport. On a wall nearby is an artist’s impression of what the airport will look like when a Turkish reconstruction project is completed. The planned gleaming glass and steel structure seems ambitious in a city that still experiences attacks by the al-Shabaab militants that once controlled it and much of Somalia, but it chimes with the mood of cautious optimism that has taken hold over the past year.

One of the world’s most dangerous countries, Somalia became synonymous with war, piracy and famine in the chaotic decades that followed the collapse of its government in 1991. Now Somalis are daring to imagine a very different future for their homeland.

“For the first time in a very long time, people here have hope,” says Liban Mahdi, one of scores of diaspora Somalis who have returned to Mogadishu since al-Shabaab were routed from the city by African Union and Somali forces in August 2011. Parts of the battle-scarred capital are experiencing a construction boom, with hospitals, homes, schools, shops and hotels rising from once rubbled neighbourhoods. Streets hum with cars and hawkers. “We have traffic jams in Mogadishu now,” says Ismail, who works in construction. “I never imagined I would see that here.”

At Lido beach, where women were banned from swimming under al-Shabaab, couples stroll hand in hand as the Indian Ocean laps the shore. Street lamps now illuminate some of Mogadishu’s war-pocked roads, allowing residents to venture out at night to sample the restaurants and cafes that have opened in recent months.

One of those is the Mug Coffee Lounge, a Kenyan franchise that Mahdi opened on the ground floor of the downtown Hotel Makkah, which he and his family have renovated. It offers $2 cappuccinos and refrigerated cakes to those who can afford it – mostly returned diaspora Somalis like its owner. “Our cafe is now the place to be seen in Mogadishu,” Mahdi says proudly, noting that the striking decor was designed by a female Somali architect who trained in Canada. “People are getting accustomed to the relative calm of the city compared to the open warfare they knew in the past. With stability comes business and investment.”

Fragile peace
Reminders of how fragile that peace is are ever present, however. Al-Shabaab, which evolved from an Islamist movement that ruled Somalia in 2006, may have been largely driven from Mogadishu, but it continues to make its presence felt through an asymmetric war that includes targeted assassinations and attacks on venues that have included a courthouse and a popular cafeteria.

Somalia’s elegant National Theatre, which had been shuttered for more than 20 years because of the war, briefly reopened in March last year only to close again a month later after it was targeted by a suicide bomber. In June, 22 people were killed when al-Shabaab fighters overran a UN base in the city.

“Our biggest fear is that our hotel and cafe might be attacked,” says Mahdi. He employs 30 men to guard the premises and also has to pay for their weapons and ammunition. “Most businesses need that level of security.”

The Somali government led by President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, who took over last year, insists that al-Shabaab has been weakened despite attacks such as a roadside bomb targeting the presidential convoy two months ago. One of the most common al-Shabaab tactics in the city now is the use of hand grenades. The group apparently pays volunteers $50 per grenade thrown, with the money handed over only on presentation of the weapon’s firing pin.

“We are expecting more attacks to happen, but the frequency has reduced and the number of plots has been reduced,” Hassan says in the fortified hilltop presidential compound known as Villa Somalia. “Somalia is a postconflict environment, so when someone is assessing the situation here one should not compare it with other capitals in Africa but with, say, Baghdad or Kabul. I think Somalia is doing far, far better than Afghanistan or Iraq, and it has greater potential than both.”

Hassan, a former academic and Somalia’s first leader to be elected on home soil in decades – he was voted in by MPs, as the country remains too unstable for a full election – says the only solution to the al-Shabaab threat is to deprive it of safe havens.

“There is only one way to eliminate al-Shabaab, and that is to make sure there is a Somali state and functioning state institutions that fully control the territory called Somalia,” he says. “If there are black holes with no state control, al-Shabaab will continue to breed.”

He rejects the suggestion that Mogadishu feels like a bubble of optimism in a country where the government has little power outside the capital and swathes of territory remain under al-Shabaab’s control. He makes much of the fact that regional governors have been appointed.

“This is the first time in Somalia’s recent history where there is representation of the Somali government throughout the regions . . . Yes, they are still small in number, and their capacity is limited, but they are there. After 22 years the Somali government is outside the capital and its presence is growing,” says Hassan.

“What we are struggling with is how we build functioning institutions, how we put in place governance systems and structures throughout the country.”

Checked optimism
Some in Mogadishu say the city’s optimistic mood has been checked over recent months, particularly in the wake of the attack on the United Nations compound.

“Last year there was so much euphoria here, there was a sense of momentum. The recent attacks were a huge slap in the face,” says one UN worker.

UN agencies and other international organisations have become warier of travelling beyond their bases at the airport, and staffers grumble that interaction with Somalis is now more restricted. Fears of another attack are never far away.

For Somalis, the security situation ebbs and flows, says Abdi Aynte, director of the Heritage Institute for Policy Studies, a newly opened think tank in the capital. “The greatest change in Mogadishu is that people power is emerging. People are no longer waiting for the government to change their lives. They’re opening businesses, education and health institutions and innovative projects like solar systems. The impetus for all of this, including the return of diaspora, is the overall improved security and the space that exists.”

Many, including President Hassan, believe the diaspora is key to Somalia’s development, having already helped Somalis through the dark days of the past through remittances sent home from the US, Canada and Europe. He plays down the possibility of tensions as moneyed returned exiles begin new lives in a country that is more conservative – and poorer – than the one they left years before.

“The diaspora was a lifeline for local people when everything was desperate, and now their activities here prove how resilient and entrepreneurial Somali society is,” he says. “They are helping build what they have seen in other parts of the world. Their return is a vote of confidence: they realise the chance of relapse into war is minimal now compared to the past.”

Hassan has an ambitious goal given the security challenges that persist, alongside continuing disputes with the country’s semi-autonomous regions: he wants to see Somalia hold a general election in 2016, the year his term will end. “It would be the first time for over 40 years that ordinary Somalis elect their leaders,” he says. “It would be the foundation for a united Somalia and a stable Somalia in terms of economy, security and social stability.”

In the meantime Somalis such as Liban Mahdi are focusing on building up business in the capital. His family plans to expand into construction and open supermarkets across the city. “Mogadishu descended to a point as low as any city can go,” he says. “The only way you can go from there is up.”

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