Mogadishu: Cry the Beloved City!

Published on 13th May 2014

Mogadishu is simply known to most as “Caasimadda”: Somalia’s capital city, it’s financial, cultural and political heart. Mogadishu was once the top holiday destination for many western tourists who flocked to the city for the wonderful climate, beautiful beaches and the wonderful night life. Mogadishu was safe and clean. It was a place where multiculturalism was a reality as European holiday makers and their limited settler counterparts as well as Somalis from all regions lived and sought to establish themselves there. Like most capital cities across the world, Mogadishu attracted people because of its promise of work, play, personal development and enjoyment. Regardless of tribe and background, anybody who was anyone was from “Caasimadda.”

“Mogadishu between independence until its collapse was hard to describe -- I think -- because it was a place for all people with all budgets and the party atmosphere seemed to never die,” Says Ahmed a former businessman in Mogadishu now living in Birmingham. “Mogadishu’s charm was that it was safe, relatively cheap, relaxed and the residents were welcoming.”

“I remember finishing work around 4pm, going home to rest and then eating out with friends most evenings in one of the many top restaurants in central Mogadishu like Jubba and Shabelle,” adds Mohammed, another resident in Birmingham who was a Pharmacist in Mogadishu before the war. “The weekends were a galore of great music, theatre and family events at home.”

The Mogadishu both Ahmed and Mohammed were reminiscing could be another capital in another nation today. Mogadishu  turned into one of the worst war zones the world had ever seen as rival tribal factions fought to control it in the hope of winning overall political power in the absence of a functioning state after 1991. Mogadishu became a No Go zone for anyone who could avoid it. The images of armoured cars manned by highly intoxicated young men wearing macawiis and firing sporadically filled the international headlines. In this most difficult time where there was never one tribal winner for the control of the whole city, the internally displaced and those remaining residents resorted to refugee camps in Kenya. Those unfortunate enough not to leave were subjected to the harshest and most barbaric acts of violence by disputing sides. The Mogadishu that once welcomed all equally became diced slices of land controlled by warring warlords who when they were not extorting those who resided in their areas were engaged in destructive battles in the city centre. All government and public infrastructures were looted, destroyed or occupied illegally by warlords and desperate internally displaced people with absolutely no other alternatives.

Looking back at the time between the collapse of the State and the arrival of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), if a person wanted to send a post card from Mogadishu, it would only be of people lying dead on the ground or once monumental buildings now riddled with bullets to the point of collapse. The ICU fought with and successfully drove out the notorious and murderous warlords in 2006 with the support of the locals and the business community in Mogadishu. The ICU established law and order and successfully initiated a form of justice in land disputes. Public services such as community policing and price regulations for every day essential goods such as food, medicine and toiletries were introduced. A local tax system was established and most businesses and property owners enrolled to pay in exchange for trading. The ICU membership and employees were from all tribes including the oppressed smaller ones living in the Banadir region under the warlords. A 2007 briefing paper by the respected Chatham House, a world leading international affairs think tank based in London stated: "The Courts achieved the unthinkable, uniting Mogadishu for the first time in 16 years, and re-establishing peace and security." However, before the ICU could firmly establish itself, they were attacked, defeated and driven out of Mogadishu by the American backed Ethiopian government which supposedly feared the rising popularity and influence of Islamic militants in the Horn of Africa.

After the ICU defeat in Mogadishu and the resignation of the then Somali President, Abdullahi Yusuf, the former ICU leader Sheikh Sharif, now a reformed, western friendly, “moderate” Muslim cleric, took over as the President and appointed Mohamud Ahmed Nur (Tarzan) as Mogadishu’s new mayor. Tarzan was a London businessman and a fresh chicken in terms of Somali politics. Although he had been politically active in the Diaspora, he had never held public office in Somalia. When he inherited the city, it was once again at war and a ghost town as law and order had broken down with tribal infighting and Al-Shabaab had taken over most parts of the city with the government shamefully confined to not more than a few kilometres and blocks in the capital.

Tarzan started to once again put Mogadishu on the map with his optimism and love for his city. The BBC, Aljazeera and many other prominent media organisations came to visit him in Mogadishu and he actively promoted his city abroad. He projected an image of Mogadishu as a place of hope and not despair and a place of potential and not destruction. Tarzan’s passionate and eloquent communication stirred the city into action and defying Al-Shabaab albeit to a detrimental cost in the end. Towards the end of his tenure in 2014, the AMISOM troops had driven Al-Shabaab out of Mogadishu, although they were still carrying out bombing attacks. Large numbers of the Somali Diaspora and indigenous populations living in neighbouring countries had returned to invest and redevelop their city. Despite his efforts and his 4 year administration, Tarzan, while putting the city back on the international map, could not do very much to steer the political and economic direction of Mogadishu as it is currently a city undergoing the kind of transition that is difficult to manage and predict even for the best of city planners. However, the appointment of and the continuation of his employment under the new President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, is a testament to a great shift in Mogadishu tribal politics as Tarzan broke the dominant cycle of only majority clans governing Mogadishu.

Governing any capital city in the world is rife with challenges but Somalia is unique in that it is a recovering war zone which is always one argument or misunderstanding away from full scale tribal infighting. In addition, the threat from Al-Shabaab has not totally disappeared and anti-government elements are still vocal and in a position to act against the government which is reliant on AMISOM troops to guard it. As Tarzan left office, housing, food, electricity, water and the basic needs of citizens were still severely lacking.  Where they existed, they were either run or managed by the private sector or NGO’s. The task of taking Mogadishu forward now lies with the new Mayor, General Hassan Mohamed Hussein (Mungab), appointed by the current President. Knowing that security was key to stability, Mungab, a long term member of the loose Somalia Judiciary,  requested and was successfully allowed to bring all security apparatus in Mogadishu under his  control including the Police force which before was overseen by the Interior  and national security Ministries. He replaced most of the district governors who are equivalent to local Councillors and a key success in this process has been the inclusion of minority groups to govern their districts. Mungab has further shown commitment to the rights of Minorities in the city because he has allowed, arguably for the first time in history, those groups to protest publicly against the government and his office.It is too early to judge Mungab’s progress but the above are good signs of the leadership required to resuscitate Mogadishu and help it return to its former glory as the heart of the Somali state. However, the challenges that lie ahead for the Mayor are obvious and pressing.

Mogadishu has always attracted the best and most ambitious like any other capital city in the world. Under the Siad Barre regime, there was a great commitment to Regional Economic Development (RED) through production, industrial diversification, infrastructure investment, and education. This made Mogadishu a place to trade and not necessarily settle for many as the capital was not the only place to find work, learn and do business. Today, as Somalia’s fragile government attempts to re-establish itself after over two decades of violence, war and failure, most of the development and aid has been focused on Mogadishu to rebuild government institutions.

This is one reason why people of all tribes and from all regions in Somalia are flocking to Mogadishu. This mass rush to return has created a housing bubble with some homes selling for over a million dollars whilst most people live in slums. The cost of living is rising daily and sanitation, employment and other public services such as education are in private hands and not available to all. The rising cost of living and the inflated property bubble has made renting prohibitively expensive for the majority of the population, if they have an income to rent with in the first place. The driver of this damaging gentrification process are a combination of no planning laws and a “quick buck” mentality which exploits people’s hopes of a secure and prosperous future Mogadishu. The impact of gentrification in Somalia, unlike in the safer European states and the US where it is also prevalent, is not a matter of academic debate or idle speculation but real as land and tribal identity are increasingly linked. Land disputes are common and it is not always easy to identify the seller as the owner. This makes buying and selling dangerous and community cohesion and peace volatile.

Kenya’s expulsion of Somali refugees from some of their refugee camps this month is a continuing worry for the Mayor of Mogadishu, the central government and aid agencies as they need to be resettled in Somalia. Most of the refugees who already have had traumatic experiences would want to go to Mogadishu as it is the place where they arguably will receive the most support and where they can feel safe and be protected by the Somali government and its security partner AMISOM. For Mungab this will only extend the chronic housing shortage in his city and potentially lead to the creation of more slums. It could further bring more insecurity and confuse the already hard to dissect governance structure of his city bringing him into confrontation with the central government and other stakeholders such as aid agencies. It would have been helpful had the Mayor had the administrative, financial and legal means to act alone in borrowing ideas from other cities in Africa but this type of policy transfer is impossible given the potential size of the refugee returnee population and the poor governance of most other African capitals.

Governing the capital politically is a challenge as it is the seat of national power too. Famous Mayors like Boris Johnson of London have collided with their national leaders over transport and other key portfolios that come under his authority. Mogadishu is different. The leadership is visible but it is hard to identify who is responsible for what and who is doing  what on the ground. This confusion in governance needs to be resolved urgently as the Mayor of Mogadishu can only create an effective plan and strategy when he is better informed of his duties and limitations. On this point, Mungab’s predecessor Tarzan, was more innovative and stepped on the national governments toes several times over Mogadishu specific issues such as security. However, his inability to resolve the confusion inherent in his role has opened him up to greater scrutiny and criticism for failures which he potentially had no control over.

Mungab no doubt has one of the most difficult jobs in the world. As the Mayor of a capital city that on occasions still appears to be at war, is badly governed and has more stakeholders delivering public services than can be counted, managed and monitored, he needs to get a grip and quickly. Mungab needs to start distributing resources across the city and among the people and he needs to coordinate the aid effort in his city. Mungab needs to engage the public and encourage active citizenship and promote localised democratic structures which are directly linked back to his office. Mungab needs to learn from other cities across the world and transfer best practice and good policies where they are relevant and are easy to implement. More importantly, in the absence of outside assistance and support from the centre, Mungab needs to work towards building partnerships with all stakeholders, service providers and other regional leaders to promote sustainable development of his city and others surrounding it in order to promote and encourage Regional Economic Development and partnerships capable of alleviating the housing and other crippling economic and social pressures on his own over crowded city.

Mogadishu may not become London overnight but with patience, partnership and localised democratic structures, things can improve. As Mogadishu is the head of the body that is Somalia, if it heals and functions well, the rest of the body should follow.

By Liban Obsiye:  @LibanObsiye (Twitter) and Sakariye Hussein: @Jawdeer (Twitter). The authors welcome feedback.

Courtesy: Hiiraan.

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