Inside Story

“We can rise from the ashes”

Clar Ni Chonghaile finds signs of progress in the Somali capital

Clar Ni Chonghaile 21 June 2012 1558 words

“The biggest challenge is changing people’s mentality,” says defence minister Hussein Arab Isse (above), who lived for thirty years in the United States. Clar Ni Chonghaile

AWALLE Ousman Mohamed shares the dreams of many eighteen-year-olds. He would love to travel, to learn more languages (he repeats “multilingual” in a heavy accent, nodding his head for emphasis) and to become a doctor. He also has a young man’s passion: he loves playing football and his favourite team is Manchester United.

But that’s where the similarities with most teenagers end. Awalle lives in the Somali capital Mogadishu and his youth has been anything but commonplace. Since 1991, years before his birth, warlords and foreign troops, militias and Islamist militants have battled for control of a city where Vespas once buzzed through wide streets, past white-washed buildings with arched windows overlooking the Indian Ocean.

These conflicts left the once-elegant city in ruins and turned it into a byword for danger and anarchy. But since African Union peacekeepers pushed the Islamist rebels of al-Shabaab out last August, things have begun to change. Mogadishu is still a crowded, crumbling, cratered city, but for the first time in many years there is a lull in the violence. It’s not definitive, it’s not complete but it’s enough to allow the residents to breathe, to tentatively start new businesses and to plan.

Today, Awalle can play football again on a patch of ground near the peacekeepers’ base. It was too dangerous to do so when al-Shabaab, which swore allegiance to al Qaeda this year, ran the city. The militants, who impose a harsh form of sharia in the areas they control, banned football and video games. And then there was the daily fighting.

“I would like to be a doctor and study in Sudan,” says Awalle, lifting his long yellow-green sarong to wipe his sweaty face, revealing blue football shorts underneath. It feels like everyone is hoping and wishing and holding their breath in Mogadishu – as if willing peace will make it happen. Accentuating this perception is not so much what you see, but the way you see it, at least for the visitor.

When I went to Mogadishu early this month, I travelled with peacekeepers from the African Union Mission in Somalia, or AMISOM, rumbling along the streets in Casspir armoured cars, watching the city’s rebirth through narrow, grimy windows, my neck twisted and sore from the extra weight of the helmet on my head. The troops with us didn’t wear flak jackets, but they insisted we keep ours on. “You can only take off your helmets inside a concrete building,” a security adviser told us before one of our trips out of the heavily fortified base near the Aden Adde international airport.

Not all non-Somali visitors take this many precautions. You can also hire private security guards who will take you around in an ordinary car. They won’t insist you wear body armour. They might even let you take a dip in the sea.

As we drove through the city, I saw men loading newly baked bricks onto donkey carts, a blue-shirted police officer with three holsters shopping at a kiosk, new buildings painted in cheery pastels, and a man with a henna-tinted orange beard in a beige uniform directing traffic.

I also saw thousands of egg-like rag-and-stick shelters, fragile, impermanent homes for the estimated 200,000 people still living rough after fleeing fighting in the countryside or starvation during last year’s famine. These people are not yet part of the new narrative of rebirth – their lives are frozen, they are utterly dependent on food aid and make easy targets for freelance militias or unpaid Somali soldiers seeking cash or kicks. Rapes and sexual assaults in the camps are still common, as are malnutrition cases, even if the numbers have fallen from last year’s peaks.

This vulnerable community is not static: some people leave to return to their farms and villages, others have nothing to go home to. And still more will arrive in the higgledy-piggledy camps as the multinational military machine pursues al-Shabaab into the countryside, or if rains fail again.

More than anything else, these people need the protection and the institutions of law and order that a credible, capable government could deliver. It’s just that nobody is quite sure who can bring this about. Or what it might look like. After all, there is no recent precedent.

“I’ve never seen a functioning government in my life so I can’t know,” Awalle says when I ask him what he thinks a new administration could do. Like many Somalis, though, he is innately sceptical. “They don’t have an agenda for us,” he says, referring to the politicians.

Somalia’s UN-backed transitional government is supposed to be preparing to hand over to a new administration – with a new parliament, new constitution and new president – by 20 August. Many officials portray this process as a last chance for the notoriously corrupt, clan-driven and fractious political class.

Mogadishu’s mayor, former Londoner Mohamud Ahmed Nur, summarises the progress, potential and possible pitfalls. “People in Mogadishu are very hopeful. Their expectations are high. A lot of the diaspora are coming back and buying houses and real estate,” he says. “The danger points would be a bad government. Somalia needs very strong government leadership with vision. If we continue this way, we are…” His voice trails off and he lifts his hands. “I don’t know.”

Because al-Shabaab still controls much of the south and centre, elections are impossible. Instead, traditional elders are choosing members of a National Constituent Assembly, which will then name a parliament, prime minister and president. With just over two months to go, there is a palpable anxiety that the process could go off the rails, or is already being derailed by powerful figures who have benefitted from the war economy.

“It would be naive to think politicians would not seek to influence these elders,” says Augustine Mahiga, the United Nations secretary-general’s special representative to Somalia. The elders have complained of being “bombarded” and have asked to be insulated from pressures, he says. “In the next few weeks, we must provide an institutional protection process around the elders.” The tortuous political process has been bedevilled by so-called spoilers – politicians, former warlords, or shadowy others who do not want to change the status quo. They could eventually face sanctions, including travel bans.

Several AMISOM officials warned that military gains against the Islamist rebels could be undermined if political change doesn’t materialise by the August deadline. According to Lieutenant Colonel Paddy Ankunda, a spokesman for AMISOM, “Kicking al-Shabaab is not the problem at the moment. That is not an end in itself. You must have a political government that works.”

Mayor Nur is adamant that al-Shabaab is no longer the key problem. The rebels have lost Mogadishu and the nearby town of Afgoye to AMISOM, Baidoa in the centre to Ethiopian troops, and some southern towns to Kenyan forces, who are being integrated into the African Union force. “Shabaab can’t recover from this,” says Nur. “Maybe in four months’ time, they will not exist.”

Some analysts might disagree with this prognosis, though probably not with the idea that al-Shabaab aren’t the only bad guys in town. After all, Somalia had descended into chaos long before al-Shabaab came onto the scene in 2006.

FOR every assertion about Mogadishu, there seems to be a qualifier: peace and threats; military victories and political stagnation; hope and fear. Defence minister Hussein Arab Isse, for instance, says Somalia is at a crossroads, which suggests decisions have yet to be made on which way to go. It’s a state of uncertainty, rather than a direction.

Isse is a member of the returning diaspora. He left Somalia in 1981 and spent thirty years in the United States, raising his five children in Berkeley, California. He accepted a role in government after the prime minister called him as he was waiting to play tennis a world away.

He is a hopeful man, with a keen sense of his role in changing things. “I think the biggest challenge is changing people’s mentality. I think the wave is too big to stop,” he says.

But ask him what he will do after 20 August, and he seems less sure. It’s that dichotomy of hope and caution again. “What happens to me depends on whether I’m in the next government, or whether I go home to California.” His use of the word “home” is interesting.

Mayor Nur also expresses this dichotomy, and something darker. He praises Somalia’s resilience, saying, “We can rise from the ashes.” But later in our conversation he ponders his own fate. He knows al-Shabaab, which has tried to kill him before, is still a risk. He says he is not afraid because he will die when he is destined to die. “I will not worry about death or about al-Shabaab. I will say what I believe, that gives me strength.” •