Piracy, terrorism and warfare have torn Somalia for the past 20 years. This resilient nation has however managed to remain afloat amidst the turmoil and is now pushing forward to reclaim its title, The Pearl of the Indian Ocean By Abdullahi Jamaa.
mogadishu fishing harbour

A peaceful morning in Mogadishu's fishing harbour

Since 1991, when his country, Somalia, first collapsed, Ahmed Mohamed has been slowly putting pieces of his broken life back together, trying to resign himself to his host city and adopt it as his real home. His listlessness comes through in the way he carries himself and, unable to speak more than a few words of Kiswahili, his voice gives away a melancholy note in the few words he utters. “Life turned upside down. I don’t think I will ever find family warmth and care away from my country.”

During the functioning regime, Mohamed was a well-known businessman in Somalia, a trade he has sustained to date, running a transportation business in Mombasa. He sits on a wooden stool under an old coconut tree, the test of time etched on his ageing face and flimsy fingers that ever so often he raises to stroke his whitening beard. Away from the sadness that looms in his eyes he gives a smile occasionally, displaying teeth as white as peeled corn seed.

Mohamed is currently a refugee in Kenya. Cirrus clouds hover above the massive waters of the Indian Ocean along Mombasa’s Nyali neighbourhood, where his family lives in a two-bedroom home. Far along the length of this coastal strip, to the north, rests a country hankering for resurgence after years of continued existence with barely a national body governing it. “This environment reminds me of Mogadishu’s heydays. I like sitting here facing the sea and towards the direction of Somalia,” says the father of 10. “It is a bit much missing Mogadishu.”  Mohamed becomes lost in the days when that city, his birthplace, was referred to as the Pearl of the Indian Ocean.

Against All Odds

Despite the disintegration that has trampled Somalia into dust, the country was once an ambitious regime that had a formidable influence in the African continent. Mohamed recalls how prior to the civil war, Somalia’s restive capital was one of the best cities in Africa in almost all facets of life. A distant, assuaged look emerges as he talks of Somalia being the centre of a vibrant business owned by both foreign and local investors. “But all those fortunes have been reduced to ashes. Wars after wars of destruction reduced the city into a shell.”

Somalia passed through several stages of existence; from traditional governance to the colonial epoch, through a short period of democracy, to a military rule and then to a continuous era of lawlessness.

mogadishu before 1990

Mogadishu as the Pearl of Indian Ocean, before the civil unrest of the 1990s.

It is the country’s dysfunctional system of government, unabated disorder and mayhem – punctuated with senseless death and destruction – that has forced many patriots like Mohamed to fly the nest. He is nostalgic but the protracted conflict in his country has meant a deadly blow to his homeland as relentless infighting translated into a gloomy outlook for the future.

Like most Somali refugees, Mogadishu is the apple of his eye and the seat of all his affection. Over the years, he has staunchly kept a close eye on the political and security situation of the war ravaged Horn of Africa nation, but things only seemed to go from bad to worse.

From the sidelines he has watched more than 20 regional and international attempts to restore and rebuild Somalia as a functioning state, yet most peace initiatives have been a flash in the pan.

“Sometimes, I believed it was only [a] miracle that [would] return back sanity in our country and you know miracles don’t happen,” Mohamed notes, downcast. Since the ousting of the military regime in Somalia, the elderly man has made five efforts to resettle his business and family in Somalia, particularly in the restive capital Mogadishu, to no avail. However, hope still prevails.

According to him, that hope was at its highest in 2004, when a new transitional parliament, inaugurated at a ceremony in Kenya, elected Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed as the president. The installation of the transitional government seemed a golden opportunity. Mohamed kept his chin up, flying to Mogadishu on Oct. 20, 2004, barely a week after the election of President Ahmed.

Unfortunately, increased military activity in south-central parts of the country made it too difficult for him to take root, and he ended up staying in the city for just over a month. Notwithstanding, he made another attempt in 2009 following the election of President Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, but his entry into office was marked by a battle for control between the government and Islamist group al-Shabaab and, as he established his power, corruption. It was seemingly the straw that broke the camel’s back. “Every time I went back the situation seemed worse and fighting continued. It was like choosing between life and death.”

Over the years, the situation in the city has became more and more volatile, more and more dangerous until it degenerated into a deathbed for its own residents. Nevertheless, Somalis’ insatiable desire to pacify and rebuild their country has never died down.

In Mombasa, Mohamed has been nursing a brimming hope that one day he will return to his birthplace and rebuild his country. “I have never been without hope and dream that Mogadishu will come to life. It is a matter of time.”

A Time of Revolution

In the second half of 2012, Mohamed’s longstanding dream started taking some shape and form. After the emergence of authority through President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, Somalis started seeing some semblance of peace, with more than 800 constituency assembly members converging in Somalia to discuss a lasting solution. These were the first internationally backed peace talks coordinated in the country.

Government forces overran the strong holds of al-Shabaab last year, backed by the African Union peace keeping mission (AMISOM). One still needs wishful thinking to see Mogadishu as a vivacious capital, but squint your eyes, cock your head to the side and mentally fill in the gaps and that’s exactly what it has become since last year. President Mohamud, described as a captivating, spiritual, solicitous man who has absolute certitude in Somalia’s future success, has his work cut out for him, but that has done little to deter him.

mogadishu warlords

Mogadishu as it was when it was controlled by competing warlords.

While even a cursory look back is a cautionary tale of past slip ups and missed chances, Mogadishu has jumped on the bandwagon. Adan Omar can hardly conceal his joy as he points to the model of a beach resort he is planning to put up along Lido, one of Mogadishu’s pristine beaches. “Mogadishu has been [the] Horn of Africa’s business hub,” he says, hoping it can reprise the role.

Its come back from economic comatose means a blistering hope for millions living in the parched and bare region. “Everybody is coming back to Mogadishu, from Cape and Cairo, from New York and Nairobi. People are coming to invest,” pipes Omar.

This time Mohamed is preparing to go back for good as he embarks on his path in the long and tough journey of reconstruction. He already earns a significant amount of income from his former premises in Mogadishu, a powerful indictment of the city’s rising opportunities. “I earn about USD $6,000 a month as rent from three premises I own in Mogadishu. Next month I am [moving] with my second wife and her three children for resettlement.”

With the new administration, restaurants and resorts are at the top of a sign of prosperity. Money is flowing, visitors are coming, posh cars are cruising, and the income graphs are on the up-and-up. Mogadishu’s Jazeera and Lido beaches are once again places for locals and foreigners alike to enjoy themselves while the city’s troubled past builds itself an optimistic future.

If the emerging signals are anything to go by, Somalia’s ravaged capital is rising from the ashes. It is emerging from the edge of an abyss and fiercely fighting to reclaim its lost glory.

Rebuilding a Nation

There is a flurry of activity in Somalia, as scores of blossoming new businesses sprout in streets that have stood deserted for way too long. Operated and financed by Somalis from the Diaspora who are venturing into huge projects such as beach resorts, factories and chain stores, the atmosphere is filled with joie de vivre as the nation gets to work. A multimilliondollar reconstruction drive is underway in every corner and alleyway. It is coming up with integrated flats, skyscrapers, shopping malls and hotels that are a world away from the debris of war, which are still seen clearly along major highways and streets. Aden Ade International Airport is now receiving passenger planes on a daily basis, which is a key step for increasing trade in the country. Additionally, in March 2012, Turkish Airlines started operating passenger planes destined for Mogadishu, one among several high profile international companies that are tapping into the fledgling economy. “The city [was] a popular holiday destination in the 1970s and 80s; it was laden with holiday resorts and beaches frequented by high profile revellers,” remarks Hasna Ali, a business lady who frequents the town.

Besides being a huge economic injector, the presence of tourists in the country will likely influence Somalis who might be wary of returning to their homeland. Shops and markets that used to shut at dusk now remain open until late into the evening, giving the town a new lease on its nightlife. “Economically, Somalia seems to have a resilient group of local entrepreneurs who are now betting on peace and rebuilding the country disregarding the blazing guns around them,” financial consultant Salah Abdi Sheikh observes from his Nairobi office.

The capital’s Bakara market, infamous for being the epicentre of the 1993 US invasion of Somalia, has never known any respite from the many wars. In the first decade of Somalia’s conflict, Bakara braved and braced, almost on a daily basis, running battles that led to destruction on a monumental scale.

During the American conflict, warlord Mohamed Aideed and his clan army ruled from the populated, wall-laced forts of central Bakara where the tenacity of US Special Forces was tested and resisted. By the end of May 1993, the Americans withdrew broken and defeated, leaving the strategic market to the hands of the unrelenting warlord.

The market is an iconic social junction that is deeply entrenched in the history of the failed nation and a series of warlords like Aideed could not afford to lose the market as their stronghold. In Somalia, it is regarded as the umbilical cord of any authority’s power grip.

Known for illegal operations – arms sales and creating spurious official documents – Bakara has been previously recognised as the prime weapons bazaar within the continent. Today, most of the market’s structure bears the brunt of the war, its walls torn and dotted with gunshots, its streets ruined and ragged. Disused buildings and abandoned streets are still common.

Although Bakara remains a ghostly reminder of the wars and hostilities that left Somalia ravaged, these days it is cropping up with new buyers, sellers and premises – a key illustration of the possibilities that stem from investment. Things seem to be taking a turn for the better and now it is a fully functioning open market. AMISOM and the Somali National Army, the two existent security providers in the city, are a source of reassurance to the natives. They also man most of the strategic installations like airports and the Mogadishu Port.

While Mohamed is yet to make the journey back, those already residing in Somalia are happy to finally see the country shift in a positive direction. Even so, years of upheaval have taught them to do away with gullibility. Many realise that it may be some time before Mogadishu’s troubled residents fully experience the joy of normalcy.

Remaining optimistic, Mogadishu resident Mursal Omar reckons that the security is remarkable and believes the city is on the right track. “I think, there is much hope, much more than before. Today Mogadishu’s beaches are a stomping ground for residents and foreigners, and that shows the extent to which the city is safe.”

Somalis are embracing peace and whatever the remaining dangers, their country is much more stable today than it was in yester years, when warlords and militant Islamists fought over the scraps of destruction.

The Cause of Somalia’s Degeneration

It was not only infighting that crippled Somalia for such an extended period; piracy and terrorist activities have also taken the country to horrible levels of insecurity. From 2008, Somali pirates controlled the coast and launched hundreds of attacks against ships, while demanding ransoms amounting to millions of dollars.

The rash of kidnappings and increased attacks on merchant vessels along the Gulf of Aden forced the international community to come up with urgent and immediate interventions to curb the growing menace. In 2011, the International Maritime Organization recorded 176 attacks along the Somali Coastline, just topping 2010’s 174.

The cost of insecurity occasioned by ambitious Somali pirates grew into billions of dollars as it halted shipping across the Gulf of Aden, one of the world’s largest international sea routes. To an unprecedented level, the cost of essential commodities skyrocketed in most parts of the Horn of Africa due to increased freight and insurance charges.

But according to the European Union Naval Force (EU NAVFOR) the number of reported piracy incidents have drastically reduced and by the first part of 2013, no ships were successfully pirated off the coast of Somalia, with only 11 suspicious piracy events and two attacks on merchant vessels. Economic analysts agree that piracy activity along the coast of Somalia has reduced enough that the country is experiencing something of a respite from the consequences.

“Whilst pirate attacks are down, the strategic conditions in Somalia have not changed sufficiently enough to stop young men from turning to piracy,” cautions Timo Lange, a media operations officer with EU NAVFOR. There have been recent disruptions by their ships that show pirate gangs are still intent on getting out to sea to attack ships for ransom.

Though piracy appears to be restricted for now, Lange counsels that “The pirates’ business model is fractured, but not broken [hence] the threat remains.” On the other hand, Salah suspects that more should be done to resolve another impending quandary. Piracy came about due to an influx of foreign, large scale fishing operations in Somalia’s waters.

Fishermen could no longer support themselves and turned to other methods. “Pirates were criminals who also played the role of Coast Guards. They protected Somali waters from overfishing by huge illegal fishing ships. Now, Somalia has no Coast Guards and the trawlers will return and clean the Somali bays dry of fish.” It’s unclear how this struggle for power will play out, but a peaceful solution will require a strong Somali government and cooperation from international powers.

A militant group linked to al-Qaeda, al-Shabaab also played a huge role in the descent of Somalia. Despite the fact that their warfare has been greatly subdued by Kenyan troops, where they cannot fight using armaments they employ psychological tactics. Unfortunately, some remnants of al-Shabaab continue to embrace insurgency in the worst hit southern parts of Somalia, sometimes reigniting fresh battles. Despite the government’s zero-tolerance policy, terror attacks by al-Shabaab have been an ongoing occurrence, distracting the nation from its objectives to reinstate and move forward. Recently, on April 14, Mogadishu was rocked by an attack on the country’s Supreme Court that left at least 35 people dead.

There is concern over what might happen should the country not develop as anticipated. Decades with no internal structure have left the country ragged, with most of its citizens living in abject poverty. There are also thousands of internal refugees, and a Human Rights Watch report published in late March made it clear that the nation’s newly found prosperity isn’t reaching them. Rape and assault are rampant in the refugee camps and government forces are the accused perpetrators.

Institutionally, political commentators say the Somali government is yet to establish any credible and essential institutions like judiciary, police, and tax and revenue services. But they agree on one thing – this is the opportunity for Somalis to seize. So far, President Mohamud’s enthusiasts laud his charisma and style of leadership, as he has succeeded in putting together a lean government with a minimal number of cabinet ministers in order to boost efficiency and reduce cost.

A New Somalia

“The warlords have folded their war enterprises and [are] now out of business. The crop of politicians in power now is the best Somalia could probably find,” Salah theorises, and countless Somalis will back him on this. When you visit the city, people’s faces stand out with enthusiasm. Hope for better opportunities is a common expression both physically and emotionally. Somalis have seen what it is like to carry a gun. ‘We are tired of war’ is the popular adage these days.

The election of President Mohamud on Sept. 10, 2012 certainly marked the beginning of a new Somalia. He is a Somalis some political reassurance that things will never be the same again. “The opportunity presented to Somalia is huge and there is hope in the air that things may actually improve,” Salah says, capturing the tone of the nation.

lido beach - Somalia

Lido beach in December 2012, crowded with Somalis enjoying a day out in the sun.

Residents are praying that the current situation lasts while opinion leaders and commentators warn of its fragility. They say it is not yet time for Somalis to sit and twiddle their fingers. Currently the government is conducting a bold campaign to reach out to autonomous and semi-autonomous regions of the country for nation building and reconciliation.

“For the last six months, he has demonstrated a bit of efficiency that earned him recognition from the United States of America and Western countries and ended the dual tract system policy of Western allies towards Somalia,” says Abdiwahab Sheikh Abdisamed, a Somali political analyst.

“The level of corruption that used to be there during the previous transitional authorities is reducing. At least we can say comfortably that the prognosis is good,” asserts Mohamed Hussein, a Somali MP.

Commentators say the strength of the government is derived mainly from the various personalities who are now actively engaged in trying to restore peace earnestly without any sinister motives. Though still fragile, the authority seems to emerge as a functioning government that can serve the troubled Somali citizens.

Rejoicing the hard earned tranquillity, the city’s residents are pulling down Islamists signboards and painting over their murals to celebrate what they consider liberation of Somalia’s new generation. Eateries and coffee shops are once again becoming stomping grounds, particularly in the mid-afternoons when elders and politicians frequent them. Mogadishu has enjoyed a relative period of peace for the past 18 months. And it is the hope of many Somalis that there will be no more running street battles.

Mohamed looks out at the Indian Ocean, a deep stillness about his demeanour. With any luck, the next time he sits to enjoy this grand display of sea and sky, he will be in his native country. He is hopeful that peace will prevail as he prepares to go back home, a dream he has envisioned for far too many years.