A bureaucrat from Buffalo, a primary school teacher from Birmingham and the Oxford-educated brother of broadcaster Rageh Omaar. These are, respectively, Somalia’s new Prime Minister, Women’s Minister and Foreign Minister. And collectively they represent their country’s last chance for a generation of piecing together a central government in the war-torn Horn of Africa nation.
Sounding like a politician anywhere else in the world, Prime Minister Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed talks of his first 100 days. Then he checks himself and changes that to 80 days, because “we don’t have time to waste”. Speaking in the favoured political clichés of his adopted country, he says the new “team” is made up of “professionals and scholars” with the “energy to bring change”.
Eight months from now, the mandate for the UN-backed transitional federal government (TFG) will run out. The international community warns that it is ready to give up on the administration unless clear progress is demonstrated. Diplomats admit that it will take “a miracle in Mogadishu” to turn things around and nobody is sure what might come next
A walk through the wreck of the old parliament in central Mogadishu offers a warning to anyone who thinks they can make politics work in this divided country. Goats wander through the rubble of its hallways, while African Union soldiers are camped under canvas among its smashed walls. On the second floor is the amphitheatre where MPs once sat. The roof has been blown away and a mural featuring a woman breaking chains above a crowd of Somali faces has been blasted to a faint outline by the sun.
Parliament now meets in the basement function room where the plastic chairs – in blue and white, to reflect the Somali flag – offer the only hint of a national purpose. To date, the internationally funded peace process has delivered a succession of expensive governments in exile, a boon for the five-star hotels of the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, and nothing for most Somalis.
Despite the reassuringly familiar accents of many of the new ministers, politics in Mogadishu is nothing like anywhere else. Government officials live as virtual prisoners in the compound of Villa Somalia – the city’s presidential palace – travelling to meetings in the back of armoured personnel carriers mounted with machine guns. The vehicles reverse to the door of meeting rooms to shield their VIP cargo. Five Somali cabinet ministers have been killed in attacks by Islamic extremists, al-Shabaab, in the past year.
This is the world Dr Maryan Qasim has just stepped into. For the past eight years she has been working at a primary school in Birmingham. After less than a week back in her home city after an absence of more than 20 years, the softly spoken former doctor is struggling to adjust.
She speaks of the problems facing Somali immigrants in the UK before seeming to remember where she is now. “Everything has changed,” she says. “After 20 years of civil war I could imagine what I would find but there is no word to define the suffering here.”
Only a fortnight ago the telephone rang in her “nice house” in Britain’s second city. It was the new Prime Minister’s office asking her to come home. “My family begged me not to go,” she admits.
She says she is still getting used to going to sleep to the sound of heavy weapons. The university where she earned her degree in the 1970s is now in ruins, stuffed with sandbags and razor wire for its new life as headquarters for the Burundi contingent of the African Union Mission in Somalia force, Amisom. Like anyone else visiting the capital, the new Women’s Minister sees no evidence of international support. “Where is Unicef?” she asks. In an effort to describe things in terms that would make sense in Britain, she says that Somalia needs its own “Sure Start” programme for families.
With the impeccable manners of a bygone era, the Foreign Minister Mohamed Abdullahi Omaar concedes that the international community has supported past governments to little effect and that Somali politics has been sunk in a mire of corruption and infighting. But he insists “clean government” has arrived. He believes that the TFG can defeat al-Shabaab in the capital within four months and this will “provide proof positive of change”.
The Prime Minister has been in the country less than a month and speaks as though he were a local party hack for the US Democrats. A little over a month ago he was still a commissioner for ethnic minority rights in Buffalo, New York. He says: “We need good government and reconciliation. Without them we are wasting time.” Overflowing with his can-do attitude, he says: “We have energy and fresh ideas. A lot of people are buying that.”
But not everyone. The decades-long bid to restore some measure of central government to Somalia has disappointed everyone involved. “We’ve heard it all before,” says a senior UN official, speaking on condition of anonymity. “What these people have to demonstrate is that they can change lives of the people of Mogadishu. Posturing is not enough.”
In the coming weeks, the UN Security Council will sanction the expansion of the Amisom force from 8,000 to 12,000 troops at international expense. A senior diplomat from one of the main donor countries says: “There will be no extension of the TFG’s mandate if they fail. It’s definitely over.”
For its part, the government of expats is hoping its willingness to come to this war-torn city will prompt international agencies in cosy Somalia postings in Nairobi to follow suit. The UN said in July it would be returning to Mogadishu “within six weeks”. But a suicide bombing followed and that timeline was quietly abandoned. The man who oversees the closest that Mogadishu has to a “green zone” is Ugandan Major-General Nathan Mugisha, head of the Amisom mission. He says the time has come for aid agencies to leave the comfort of Kenya and risk return. “There’s no reason why the biggest shots shouldn’t come here,” he says. He points to the weekend visit by the Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, the first of its kind in two decades, as evidence of improved security. “The military has done its part,” General Mugisha says. “We need them to come and fill the gaps.”
The “plan B” for Somalia being discussed if the new cabinet of “outsiders” doesn’t work boils down to recognising that parts of the country have continued to work despite anarchy in central and southern areas. The northern breakaway, Somaliland, is not internationally recognised but it carried out arguably the most successful African election this year. The semi-autonomous province of Puntland has fared better in the war against al-Shabaab.
A Western diplomat working with the new government says that some governments were already switching focus: “The new strategy will mean directing support to the parts of the country which work and containing the parts that don’t.” Optimism, like everything else in Somalia, is in short supply.