In November 2011, Kenyan author and journalist Rasna Warah visited Mogadishu to interview Mohamoud Nur, the 57-year old mayor of Mogadishu and governor of Somalia’s Benadir region. She asked him about the challenges he faces as mayor of one of the most dangerous cities in the world. She also met with locals, who recalled a vibrant, cosmopolitan city before the civil war.
Mogadishu, Somalia’s largest city and capital, is often described as the most dangerous city in the world. For the last 20 years, fierce fighting between warlords, militia, and now Al Shabab (a militant Islamist rebel movement linked to Al Qaeda) and African Union forces, has turned the city into a no-go zone and left it in ruins. I was more than just a little apprehensive when I caught a flight from Nairobi to Mogadishu in late November 2011. But my fear was somewhat softened by a fellow passenger, a US-based Somali, who told me he was going “on holiday” to Mogadishu. And so it seemed, were the other passengers. African Union forces had made Somalia’s capital city relatively safe in recent weeks, and Somalis in the diaspora were going there in droves to visit relatives and assess damage to the properties they had left behind when they fled the country at the start of the civil war in the early 1990s.
The first thing one sees landing at Mogadishu’s Adan Adde airport is the shell of a Russian cargo plane recently brought down by Al Shabab. Upon disembarking, one is welcomed by a warm breeze from the Indian Ocean. Soldiers from the African Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) guard the runway as passengers disembark. I was booked at the Safari Hotel in the heart of Mogadishu’s K5 district, a five-star hotel (by Mogadishu’s standards) with air-conditioning, internet connection and satellite television. The gate to the hotel was guarded by armed men; groups of men sat chatting in the courtyard outside while sipping coffee.
Occasionally, I heard gunshots from outside my hotel window, but residents told me that I needn’t be afraid – they were probably coming from the weapons’ market nearby, where customers routinely tested guns before purchasing them. Mogadishu was now safe, they assured me, since Ugandan and Burundian soldiers from AMISOM succeeded in forcing Al Shabab from the city three months earlier. I was not so sure. There seemed to be too many young men with guns; some even wore belts of bullets around their necks like long necklaces.
Mogadishu, or Hamar, as it is known locally, literally means “The Seat of the Shah”. The city has a long history that dates back to the 10th century when Arab and Persian traders began settling there. It is difficult to assess the actual population of the city, as there has been no official census undertaken for decades, but rough estimates indicate that it is around 2.5-million, of which about 400,000 are refugees from Somalia’s ongoing civil war. Somalia’s total population is estimated at around nine million, Mogadishu home to more than a quarter of the country’s people.
Historical documents indicate that the city was a traditional centre for Islam and an important hub for trade with communities along the Indian Ocean coastline. Mogadishu’s mosques are among the oldest in East Africa. When the famous Moroccan traveller Ibn Batuta arrived in Mogadishu in 1331, he described it as “an exceedingly large city” where prosperous merchants sold the finest cloth and jewellery in silver and gold. In 1871, Mogadishu came under control of the Sultan of Zanzibar, and twenty years later, was leased to Italy, when it became the headquarters of Italian Somaliland, until independence in 1960.
Older residents of the city describe Mogadishu as a cosmopolitan commercial hub with a variety of cultural and social amenities, including museums, libraries, cafes and beachfront restaurants. A Somali man who now works in Islamabad recalled the beautiful sandy beachfronts bustling with nightlife and diverse cuisines. “We could walk along the beaches at night listening to bands playing sweet music,” he said. “Moga was peaceful.” Abdullahi Mohamud Ahmed, a Somali businessman resident in the United States, told me that when he grew up in Mogadishu in the 1960s and 70s, the city was a vibrant, multicultural, hospitable place that had a strong sense of solidarity and good neighbourliness. “Today, Mogadishu is naked,” he moaned, “stripped of all its good qualities.” Shamis Elmi, wife of current mayor Mohamed Nur, who relocated to the war-torn city after living in London for many years, talks nostalgically of the Italian coffee shops and restaurants that she frequented as young girl. The waterfront where she and her classmates went to hang out is now a sad and desolate place, devoid of girly chatter.
Nostalgia for pre-war Somalia is evident not just among Somalis who live in the diaspora, but also among those who come as visitors. Abdi Latif Dahir, a Kenyan-Somali whose family —for reasons that even he cannot understand—moved to Mogadishu at the height of the civil war in the mid 1990s, recalls going to school in one of the city’s bloodiest neighbourhoods where clan fighting and incessant killing was the order of the day. “We were shot at almost daily for the first four years in the school bus and muttered prayers every time a bullet went off,” he remarked over a cup of cappuccino at a Nairobi cafe. Dahir remembers spending a lot of time at home reading because he couldn’t go out. But despite the horrors that he witnessed, he still misses Mogadishu.
What is this crazy love for Mogadishu among its older residents? Those who lived there in the 1970s and 80s say they loved it for its sophisticated, cosmopolitan urban culture. One old-time resident showed me the lawns of the once-famous Juba Hotel, where the mayor and his wife used to go for New Year’s Eve celebrations. The hotel is now gutted and squatters are living on its spacious lawns.
Mogadishu’s fortunes began to wane with the overthrow of President Siad Barre in 1991 when a coalition of clan-based armed opposition groups ousted Mohamed Siad Barre’s military government. The ensuing civil war saw various clans and factions fighting for control of the city, and for the next two decades, bloody battles were fought on Mogadishu’s wide boulevards and amid it’s historical buildings. Wars destroy cities, and Mogadishu is no exception. Everywhere, there are shells of once magnificent buildings, government offices, museums, cinemas, hotels, mosques, cathedrals and libraries. Bullet-ridden movie theatres serve as bunkers and hotel lobbies have been turned into refugee camps.
But there are signs of hope even among the ruins. Small shops have sprung up among the ruins, and in some parts of the city business is booming. Mobile and internet connectivity is widespread—it is estimated that Somalis are among the connected people in Africa. Some returning Somalis mourn the “villagisation” of Mogadishu by rural people fleeing the civil war, including pastoralists, who now squat—with their animals – in the remnants of once beautiful homes and buildings. Many old-time residents believe that these rural people have little appreciation of city life, and will never adopt an urban culture. They are afraid that most will not return to their villages either, even when peace returns.
Many Somali experts blame the country’s largely pastoral culture for the destruction of the city. The acclaimed Somali novelist Nuruddin Farah, who fled Somalia in 1963 and currently lives in Cape Town, believes that the conflict in Somalia is not so much between clans, but between urban and pastoral communities. “The pastoralist Somalis, who are by nature urban phobics,” he writes, “saw the city as alien and parasitic, and because it occupied an ambiguous space in their hearts and minds, they gradually accumulated hostility towards the city until they became intent on destroying it.” Elmi, whose husband assumed the office of mayor in July 2010, says the destruction of Mogadishu has not just been physical, but psychological too. Glue sniffing is rampant among Mogadishu’s youth. “They are traumatized,” she notes. “They use glue to forget.”
A city vista showing remnants of Mogadishu
Life goes on: a trader in a bullet-riddled building doing business
A man walks past a fitness centre in the city
At work on Mogadishu’s Harbour: it is still one of the biggest ports in East Africa and has turned into a thriving business centre providing a vital lifeline to war-weary residents
The mayor of Mogadishu, Mohammed Nur at home
Armed soldiers on the streets of Mogadishu
Children pose for a picture during a break from a game of street soccer
Al Shabab, whose name translates from Arabic as “The Youth” or “The Boys”, contributed to the boredom of inhabiting a city with few civic structures and amenities. Al Shabab imposed a ban on music and football, amongst other activities. Shortly after Mayor Nur took office in 2010, the Somali Youth Advocacy Organization, a new Mogadishu based organisation founded in 2009, organized a music show—including singers, poets and theatrical performers. On weekends, young men now flock to Mogadishu’s beaches to play football.
These youthful activities gesture towards a tenuous normalisation of civic life in Mogadishu. The mayor, for example, has embarked on a clean-up campaign to rid the city of mountains of garbage, and the Turkish government is rebuilding schools, hospitals and government buildings. The United Nations has also expressed interest in moving its Somali operations from Nairobi to Mogadishu, as have various humanitarian agencies. However, the threat of Al Shabab is ever-present. In February, an Al Shabab suicide bomber detonated a car bomb near a popular café where lawmakers gather, killing 15 people. The rebel organisation poses a constant threat. But as one resident told me, “Life always goes on in Mogadishu, even in a time of war.”
Rasna Warah: How did you get to be the mayor of Mogadishu?
Mohamoud Nur: I was appointed by Sheikh Sharif, president of the Transitional Federal Government (TFG), on July 14, 2010. Prior to this I had been involved in various activities in London, where I lived at the time. I was a founder of the Alliance for the Re-liberation of Somalia (ARS) and a leader of Somalis in the diaspora. I was also the director of a community organisation called Somali Speakers Organisation, which was involved in capacity building and advocacy. Sheikh Sharif was the head of the ARS and I was in charge of planning and development. Together, we fought the Ethiopian occupation of Somalia in 2008, politically and militarily. In February 2009, the new government came to Mogadishu and I was appointed Member of Parliament in December 2009. In March 2009, Al Shabab started fighting the government. I was not too happy with the way the government was handling things and I soon earned the reputation of a renegade, so I went back to London in June 2009. In June the following year, I was asked to be mayor of Mogadishu, an offer that I initially rejected. But I finally accepted it on the condition that I could select my own deputies, people with capacity and integrity who could do the job. I wanted to avoid clannism. However, this did not happen. I also insisted that half the tax revenue from Mogadishu’s port be allocated to the regional authority, or local government. I only managed to get 15 per cent.
RW: How do you avoid clannism in a society that is so clan-based?
MN: My father died when I was five years old, and my mother was poor so that I was raised in an orphanage. When I was a teenager, I received a basketball scholarship to continue high school. I am a self-made man, and have no sympathy for clannism.
RW: You have been described as a man with the most dangerous job in the world. Describe some of the challenges you face as mayor of Mogadishu.
I am a self-made man, and have no sympathy for clannism
MN: I don’t believe I have the most dangerous job in the world, nor do I believe that Mogadishu is the most dangerous city. It is certainly no more dangerous than Baghdad or Kabul. The reason Mogadishu has a bad reputation is that there is no superpower present here. I have been threatened and I use protection, but I am not afraid. If I had fear, I would have not taken this job. One of the problems we face is that because the government is functioning only in Mogadishu and not in the rest of the country, there are many overlaps between my job and the job of the TFG. Instead of focusing on national issues, the government is only focused on the city. This can create conflict. So, for instance, when I rehabilitated the fish market in Mogadishu, the Minister of Fisheries objected.
There is also the issue of revenue collection. There is no tax regime, though I have started a pilot project to collect taxes in certain districts. Over the last 20 years, a group of people in Somalia—militia leaders and small warlords—have become profiteers. The unstable conditions in the country have allowed them to make money. Thus they are not interested in peace. They will fight from every corner. They spread rumours and threaten people. Also, because the image of the government is bad, many bilateral donors are not interested in investing. On the other hand, members of the international community, it seems, do not want to come to Mogadishu. They prefer Nairobi as a base for their Somali operations. Though they give money to Somalia, they are not accountable to anyone. The corruption starts in Nairobi and spreads here. For instance, when it comes to food aid, there is looting and a general lack of coordination. There is no control over the food coming through the seaport, or monitoring of its distribution. Every UN agency uses a local NGO to distribute food and other aid. But the local NGOs are also not accountable to anybody.
You are talking of planning in a city that did not have a single broom for cleaning the streets. Our priority right now is not data collection; it is to collect garbage and manage waste
RW: The Turkish government appears to have a heavy presence in Mogadishu. What are they helping with?
MN: They are building new hospitals and schools, and are also helping with waste management. We welcome their contributions.
RW: Mogadishu has a reputation as a dysfunctional city within a failed state. What initiatives have you undertaken to change this image?
MN: Mogadishu has an estimated population of 2.5-million. The basic infrastructure has been destroyed by two decades of civil war. When the civil war started in 1991, educated people left the city. The rural poor moved into the city and squatted in government and private buildings. Their children have never seen a functioning government. When I became mayor, Mogadishu had no public services: no garbage collection, no street lighting, no functioning sewage system, no fire fighting truck, no ambulance and no clean water. People were digging wells to get water, which carries the risk of contamination. There was not a single broom in the municipality to clean the streets with, and no wheelbarrow or other equipment. Services were being provided by private companies to people who could afford them.
The city is still in this condition, but since I became mayor I have successfully lit up many streets in Mogadishu and removed the many piles of garbage around the city. I still have a long way to go, but I realize that change is not just physical but psychological. I need to change the mentality of the people in the city. Before, the mindset of people was self-defeating; they believed their current life would never change. I am fighting a battle of minds. People tell me that the residents of Mogadishu are like people locked in a dark box with no windows, doors or toilets, who hear horrible sounds outside the box. They stay in the box waiting for someone to release them. They hold on to their dignity for as long as they can but eventually give up. So their environment becomes filthy and ugly. Psychologically, they begin to accept this as normal. They need to know that they can break the box—they need hope.
RW: There seems to be very little data on Mogadishu. How do you intend to plan for the city without reliable data?
MN: You are talking of planning in a city that did not have a single broom for cleaning the streets. Our priority right now is not data collection; it is to collect garbage and manage waste. Besides, for data collection you need money and security. There are some districts in Mogadishu that are still unsafe.
RW: In one of your previous interviews, you stated that women will lead the struggle for Mogadishu. What did you mean by that?
MN: Women hold society together. When men go to war, women become the breadwinners. Women have always supported the cause of Somalia. Unfortunately, women are highly under-represented in the current government. I personally believe that the next president of Somalia should be a woman.