After 20 years of almost non-stop warfare, Somalia’s capital Mogadishu is not an easy place to get around.
We’re tearing along a pot-holed street, squeezed inside one of the heavily armoured trucks that the Ugandan peacekeepers use to patrol their territory. In our flak jackets and helmets, we jolt against each other like beer cans in shopping bag. The reinforced windows bear the cobweb-like scars of bullets. The Ugandan troops stand, heads through hatches in the roof, manning three big guns.
Through the windows, two strong, conflicting impressions: Mogadishu is rubble, and Mogadishu is impressively busy.
Two decades of litter and debris cover the roads. Many buildings are in ruins, others pockmarked with an acne-rash of bullet holes. It is impossible to look in any direction without seeing a Kalashnikov – slung over a shoulder, resting at someone’s feet, brandished on a street corner. Some men stand swaddled in bandoleers of bullets. In a side-street, an anti-aircraft gun sits welded to the back of a truck. It all feels – just like it did a decade ago when I first came to this city – like wandering into a Mad Max movie.
And yet, look past the guns and the ruins and there is also another city visible from the armoured truck. We pass a market – its stalls full of oranges and mangoes. A crowd of elderly men are sipping tea in the shade of a tree. Small shops are open. Goats foraging in the rubbish. Adverts for mobile phones.
After about 15 minutes, the sea comes into view again on our right, then we dip down a hill and our convoy of trucks turns ponderously up towards Villa Somalia – the country’s once-elegant state house that is now home to the besieged inmates of an unelected Transitional Federal Government (TFG) that would probably be overrun within hours by al-Shabab, the Islamist mlitia which has links to al-Qaeda, if it weren’t for the Ugandan peacekeepers manning the front lines a few blocks away.
A boom of artillery, and a few close pops of automatic gunfire greet us as we climb out of the truck. It might well have been this incident.
Inside, in a dark, gloomy but elegantly furnished room, we are introduced to half a dozen members of the country’s new, streamlined, technocratic cabinet. Many have just returned from years in exile in the hope that change is finally coming to Somalia.
I struggle to contain my scepticism. Ten years ago I covered my first major Somali peace initiative on a sweltering hilltop in nearby Djibouti. Everyone seemed convinced it would work – that this time, things would be different. The diaspora was thrilled. It all went nowhere.
But Doctor Maryan Qasim tries hard to convince me things have finally changed. She got off the plane four days ago from Birmingham, UK, after over 20 years in exile there.
“My family said: ‘You’re mad,'” she admits. “But my country needs me. I told them it’s challenging but I have to make a sacrifice.” After years as an English primary school teacher, she suddenly finds herself waiting for the transitional parliament in Mogadishu to confirm her as Minister for Women’s Development and Family Affairs.
“If we are optimists and work hard, the rest will follow,” she insists, claiming that “now is the right point. People have suffered a lot and now for 20 years they don’t want this to carry on more and more. I have a big hope this is a turning point.”
Doctor Maryan Qasim’s family thought she was mad to leave Birmingham for Mogadishu
Sitting near her, the incoming Minister of Information, Abdulkareem Jama, may be toying with his worry beads, but he’s pushing the same positive message. “It may seem to some that we’re fidgeting. But there is a process,” he says of the political wrangling that has deadlocked the TFG.
“The government has expanded control of Mogadishu to over half the city. The opportunity we have now is one that has not come along any time in the last 20 years. No two clans are fighting. The civil war is essentially over.” Al-Shabab’s forces, he declares, are not nearly as strong as they seem – just a few men with guns filling a political vacuum in most towns and villages. “We can succeed in bringing Somalia back to its glory days.”
Next up, the irrepressible mayor of Mogadishu, Mohamoud Ahmed Nur. He’s come back from London to try to breathe life into the ruins of what many regard as the world’s most dangerous city. “It’s not the most dangerous,” he insists. “Baghdad and Kabul are worse – but they have lots of money. We have none because here there are no Americans.”
The mayor may have almost no budget, and is constantly in danger of ambush by al-Shabab, but his talk of “mobilising the people” and “harnessing the business community” chips away at the edges of my scepticism. “If we get five years’ peace,” he declares, Mogadishu “will come closer to Hong Kong.” That’s a big “if”, I point out. “Yes, it’s a big ‘if’.”
Then it’s time to grab a few words with the new Prime Minister, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, who brushes aside my criticisms of the TFG’s few accomplishments and endless political deadlocks. Instead he’s anxious to remind me that Somalia’s problems are the world’s problems. He wants more money from the west, and more troops for the Amisom peacekeeping force:
“Al-Qaeda and al-Shabab cannot be defeated by the TFG. For sure. The international terrorists… have more financial resources. We are energising the population here now. This is doable. The only thing lacking is international support.”
The armoured convoy is revving up outside, ready to take us back to Amisom’s fortress beside the airport. I grab a last word with the new foreign minister, Mohamed Abdullahi Omaar. He talks proudly of the 2,000 university graduates produced in the city each year; of the vast resources and skills possessed by the diaspora – now hopefully poised to return to the country. But is there not, I wonder, a reality gap between the government’s ambitious plans, and the fact that they’re stuck in a besieged corner of a ruined city? He sets me straight.
“There is,” he says, “a subterranean iceberg of normality” here. An image to ponder.
More to come from Mogadishu tomorrow.