You can see where their heads hit the roof,” says a member of Somalia’s bomb squad. He is showing me pictures of the latest co-ordinated suicide attack. Even in the mess that mingles body parts of victims and perpetrators, the explosives team finds it easy to collect a suicide bomber’s DNA: you just look up. Red stains, splattered flesh and a pair of earphones are all that’s left of two al-Shabaab bombers who – posing as soldiers of the national army – detonated themselves at the entrance of a courthouse in the capital, Mogadishu in April.
After the initial explosions, more gunmen wearing suicide vests entered the building and went from room to room, assassinating people before blowing themselves up when they ran out of ammunition. Court workers cowered in rooms before escaping by ladder; altogether 60 people were killed, estimates the man showing me the photos. The attack was the work of Islamist militants, allied to al-Qaeda, who emerged in the mid-2000s as the biggest threat to Somalia – 15 years after the former Italian colony started tearing itself apart in a civil war which has yet to end.
Somalia is still ranked the world’s most troubled state: the country hasn’t held a civilian election in 44 years. Twenty months ago, thousands of UN-backed African troops won a breakthrough when they dislodged al-Shabaab from control in Mogadishu and a new government hankers after stability. But the UN says the effort has cost the lives of 3,000 troops in six years. I have come here to see the consequences of that hard-won fight, and whether tentative recovery can restore a country battered by dictatorship, warlordism and jihad.
Visiting Mogadishu brings risks. Beyond the high-security international base at the airport, photographer Petterik Wiggers and I travel in armoured convoys, in bulletproof cars, and, for three of the six days, behind the dark windows of a vehicle escorted by private security. Eight men in camouflage and with Kalashnikovs lead the way in a pick-up truck, fanning out around us whenever we stop and get out. Elements of al-Shabaab remain in Mogadishu – some have infiltrated the security apparatus that is meant to hunt them down. Armed police carry out night patrols in armoured personnel carriers, stopping to make random checks. Before entering a hotel or restaurant, all visitors are patted down and searched with metal detectors. Although it is getting harder to make and plant bombs and smuggle in semi-automatic weapons without detection, hand-grenade and pistol attacks are easier to deploy at short notice, and word of possible targets travels fast. That meant our visits were necessarily brief. Yet there was no disguising the recovery under way.
One brightly painted brick at a time, the shelled-out city is coming back to life. Along Mogadishu’s tree-lined drags, shopfronts form a tableau of hope. Outsized poster-paint impressions of burgers, fizzy drink bottles and doughnuts daub walls where bullets once made their mark. Renderings of hairdryers, laptops and pressure pumps advertise the high-tech wares inside. Walls and gates are painted the same bright powder-blue base which matches the sea, the sky and the national flag.
But the revival goes beyond shopkeeping. Scaffolding shapes the skyline, livestock and fish markets are back in action and women plunge into the sea from stunning white sands. Surrounded by the crescent of ruins that cradles the old fishing port, I speak to a young fisherman as he smears the hazel sludge of sea lion liver oil over upturned boats. He says he hopes Somalia’s latest government, formed in 2012 in the most legitimate process in years, will last.
The turnround is so impressive that the new government predicts the economy will soon be growing at 10 per cent, up from 2 per cent last year. Statistics are hardly the strong point of a country that hasn’t had a functioning government for 22 years, but the World Bank estimates that a robust informal economy – led by exports of livestock – contributes to a GDP of close to $3bn. Expatriate remittances, at about $1.6bn a year, have long kept the country going, fuelling a dynamic private sector that has run successful telecoms, energy and construction companies in the absence of state regulation. In the past 18 months, remittances have risen by almost 20 per cent, says Abdirashid Duale, chief executive of Dahabshiil, a Somali money transfer service. “As the security situation improves, more and more people are returning,” he adds.
Trade unions talk about a revival in agriculture, hotels and port activity. Their members have battled al-Shabaab threats and imprisonment to turn out regular market data reports, logging the fluctuating prices of camel milk, jerry cans of diesel, goats and imported red rice in Mogadishu’s Bakara market. Today Somalia has more than 52,000 trade union members. One fish processing company, the Somali National Fishing Company, exports to Dubai and Turkey, flying several tonnes at a time. “We plan to export to European, Arab countries,” says Abdirashid Mohamed, standing beside a catch of swordfish lined up on top of deep freezes. “We’ve been speaking with Holland about starting there.”
The latter is thanks to the upsurge in commercial flights. In little over a year, the number of aircraft landing a day has risen from three to 12, says Ahmed Ibrahim Iman, a 29-year-old airport manager. Dubai and Turkey both run commercial airlines into the beachside city, and import fish, fruit and meat from Somalia. But it is a costly tale of recovery. Ahmed’s father, Ibrahim Iman Halane, was airport manager before him and was assassinated last year. “He was killed in town – he went to pray and when he left, two al-Shabaab attacked with pistols,” says Ahmed, explaining that his father’s job made him a target. The revival of the airport is, like the functioning courthouse, among the most telling symbols of Mogadishu’s recovery. “Al-Shabaab say it’s about religion but it’s not – it’s politics.”
Now Ahmed drives to work with only blacked-out windows for protection. “Maybe Shabaab will attack me,” he says. “I can’t accept to sit at home so I’m working – I’m ready to die like my father.”
The resilience of the people putting Mogadishu back together has survived 22 years of battle. “It’s been as hard a war as you could have seen since the second world war,” comments a senior foreign official. In 2010 “we had Amisom [the African Union Mission in Somalia] soldiers filling every single emergency bed in Nairobi, Uganda and Tanzania, and we were shipping people to Dubai and Johannesburg,” he says, referring to the UN-backed troops who today number 17,700. “We lost 600 in one day in Mogadishu.”
All the while al-Shabaab has pursued its jihad – banning singing, dancing, cinema and football, making women cover up wherever it is in control. Today the government holds Mogadishu with the support of Amisom, and African troops hold some areas outside the capital. But al-Shabaab rules much of rural south-central Somalia and infiltrates towns and the capital.
Three weeks ago, the UN admitted the huge loss of 3,000 troops since 2007 – equal to the total number of UN peacekeepers killed globally in more than 10 times as many years and missions. Amisom officials previously played down the numbers in the face of their adversaries’ incessant propaganda. In recent years, al-Shabaab leaders have delivered hurried, gloating messages via radio, internet forums and Twitter and harangued targets by telephone. They have mutilated Amisom soldiers’ bodies, paraded them on television, and “disappeared” them into mass graves. Al-Shabaab is still sending young men on suicide missions in the capital it no longer controls. “But you find people are not willing to die for an unknown person – only for high-value targets,” I’m told by a young man whom al-Shabaab has repeatedly tried to recruit.
The city ignores al-Shabaab. The Chamber of Commerce says it has registered 260 companies in the past four months alone, bringing the total to 351, in sectors ranging from internet services to agricultural exports. “More than 35 per cent are [owned by] diaspora,” says managing director Abdi Dorre, himself a one-time refugee who was taken in by Sweden in the 1990s. Among the returnees – whom the UN estimates at more than 60,000 last year – is twenty-something Guled Garane, who until December lived in London’s Camden neighbourhood, where one street is named “Somali Road”.
Garane was a mortgage underwriter, but decided he could probably make more money by returning to the country he left aged nine. “I saw property prices going up and rents going up; land prices have hit the roof. I saw it was time to get in and see it for myself,” he says over a jug of freshly squeezed lemon juice in a heavily guarded Mogadishu hotel. A year ago, a five-bedroom rental was $500 a month, today it is $4,000, he says of one of the world’s more unlikely housing bubbles. “A lot of people are investing – houses in Mogadishu are now fetching $1m, can you imagine that?” Last year, he says, the same properties would have gone for $100,000-$150,000, figures echoed by several playing the property market. “It just went 800 per cent up and there is no economics to sustain it. People have serious money. But you can’t tell yet if it will last or if it’s just speculative.”
That calculation is not only being made by diaspora returnees. Everyone from warlords to foreign investors is deciding whether to throw in their lot with Somalia’s new dispensation. “It can change from paradise to hell in a second,” says a beachgoer. “One day you’re swimming on Lido Beach; the next day it’s a war zone.”
But still they come. Walking down the beach is so beautiful that the risk seems to recede. The sand is fine, the water shallow and the breeze perfect. But our security detail stops us – a foot further and we’d be in the next section, where government workers are hammering away at the old police station. That association with the state would make us targets. So we dawdle on our patch of sand, protected by Kalashnikovs. I become used to the unlikely combination of beach and guns and the men who criss-cross their ammunition belts across their chest and waist.
Amaall Ahmad is in another of the city’s now customary uniforms – layers of loose material covering her body, a musky blue veil over her hairline. For the first time in seven years, she is back in Somalia. “I came here to see the change and stability in my country,” the 20-year-old tells me as she prepares to plunge into the Indian Ocean. A refugee and a student in Kenya, Amaall is on holiday. She wants to return permanently next year. “I remember when I was young we were swimming in this sea. Al-Shabaab don’t allow women to swim. They kill civilian people without reason. I hate them.” She wades out fully clothed until folds of fabric drag in the water, eventually becoming totally soaked, and bends down to whoosh the ocean at her sister, sending out spray as they laugh. It is an exorcism.
Life wasn’t always like this. The city’s residents remember their mothers plunging into the sea in bikinis, right up to the 1980s. Women sported afros and hooped earrings. It was, in the words of one-time resident and self-exiled writer Nuruddin Farah, “cosmopolitan”. “Before 1991 nobody wore this Arab gear,” he says from his home in South Africa. “We had Persians, Arabs, Somalis, Portuguese and other communities living side by side.” Nuruddin believes the Arab influence on Somalia has been corrosive, saying extremist elements have sought to impose the Arabic language and hardline Wahabbi education, culture, religion. “The Arabs have been totally negative for Somalia as [far as] I’m concerned,” he says.
Somalia’s cosmopolitan past dates back centuries, to when it was on a seaborne silk route furnishing the world with goods from China, Egypt and beyond. Much later, Mogadishu became a playground for Italians. They put up whitewashed arches in their 1930s colony, palms blowing on boulevards beside the sunny seaside. Efforts to cultivate conservatism were long unsuccessful – in 1819 a sheikh in southern Somalia outlawed tobacco and folk dancing and made women wear the veil but it was an isolated attempt.
Nowhere is the old mix of influences better celebrated than in the streets and homes of Mogadishu’s trendiest district of Hamarweyne. Today a lunch banquet pays homage to this fusion culture. Sitting down to a long table covered with silver platters beside a breezy arched window, I am handed a banana by one of the city’s longest-established businessmen, at whose home I have just arrived. I thank him and put it down. But he is still motioning. Bananas, it turns out, go with everything. He directs me to tear off a chunk of the fruit – grown by the Italians and later so profitable a cash crop that Somali factions fought over them in the civil war – to mop up the stew before me as if with a hunk of bread, mixing sweet and savoury. All the while we help ourselves to fish soaked in lemon and chilli, mounds of spaghetti, chips and rice.
It doesn’t stop with food. Nomadic and trading traditions have bred a lively attitude to language as well as sex. As recently as the mid-1990s, marriage was celebrated with proud sensuality. Just before the wedding night, the groom would be offered meat intricately tied with string by his new wife’s family. How dexterously his fingers undid the knots was a sign of how much joy he would bring his wife on their wedding night.
But in the late 1980s “the city moved toward its own extinction”, wrote Nuruddin in an essay in which he mourned the loss of the city he had loved under military dictator Siad Barre’s 22-year rule. Barre’s socialism was intended to unify a nation divided by clan, but he centralised power so ruthlessly in the capital that he earned the nickname “Mayor of Mogadishu”. Nuruddin, who revisited Mogadishu this year, says the trickle of returnees is still “not enough” to reinvigorate the city or salve its conscience.
“If the city were a person it would refuse to communicate with its residents,” he tells me, saying the original residents have been dispossessed. He says they have been replaced by warlords, rapists and those who have expropriated property and whose presence makes reconciliation impossible. “[If Mogadishu could speak] the city would be telling them its secrets, sharing its sorrow with these people … it’s proven to be very difficult to get in touch with the soul of the city.”
President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud admits reconciliation is a long way off. As I sit beside him on a private flight from Mogadishu to Nairobi en route to co-hosting a conference in London, he says he wants to introduce an annual Day of Forgiveness and send peace caravans around the country. But not yet. “The nation has to go into a healing process, which will take some time … but for the time being we are more focused on the security.”
Many believe Mohamud is the country’s best hope in years. Part-educated in India, he later set up a university in Mogadishu and is a long-term advocate of peace. Nine months ago he was selected by parliamentarians to make good on security gains and lead a new government.
“I’m living under constant threat but the risk is worth taking; my country is moving from the dark days of the anarchy,” he tells me hours after a ministerial car came under car-bomb attack in the capital, following the lifting of a three-day security lockdown. “We are trying to tighten our grip on the security, particularly in Mogadishu. But these type of tactics – roadside bombs, suicide bombs – will continue for some time. They are the signs of decline of the conflict.”
In the meantime the city’s residents are busy seeking out happier signs of conflict decline. Once every few weeks, someone holds an underground party in a tradition long nurtured by Mogadishu. Nuruddin remembers events where women would discard their veils on arrival, and attending screenings of blue movies in the mid-1990s. “I went there several times … the dubbing is very good.”
These days fix-it men come with illicit items ranging from booze to marijuana; diaspora Somalis sometimes arrive with ecstasy pills and the latest western music. They dance until morning and no one uploads a single photo on to Facebook. “The invites go out last minute, everyone knows everyone and security has to be tight; cars coming in get checked, that’s very serious,” says one partygoer. The young man whom al-Shabaab has tried to recruit says that, in any case, sharia law forbids spying, which means Mogadishu’s private lives have long been more exciting than its public ones. “It means you can do everything and still think you’re living a sharia life,” he says. The country’s devout Muslims can add chewing jaad (khat) – banned by al-Shabaab – to the list. All bitter leaves and bitterer stalks, jaad releases a stimulant akin to amphetamine. As trade has returned to Mogadishu, so too have night-time roadside stalls, selling bundles of the green plant. “It’s more expensive now than [in] London,” complains one returnee.
The last thing I had expected on my first visit to Mogadishu was to step back into one of the most infamous chapters from the early years of the civil war. In 1993, an American attempt to capture a notorious Somali warlord, Mohamed Farah Aideed, went disastrously wrong when US helicopters were shot down by Somali militia, and images of US corpses being dragged through the streets were beamed across the world. Hundreds of Somalis were killed in the subsequent battle, and Mogadishu’s shot-up landmarks were at the centre of the 2001 Ridley Scott film of the event, Black Hawk Down. The US was forced to withdraw from Somalia; its interventions since have nearly always been at arm’s length, pumping money into its proxy, Ethiopia, and flying drones overhead.
Two decades on, I find myself having a drink in the international airport base with a contractor – one of hundreds tasked with rebuilding the country. He is more familiar with Somalia’s destruction than most, telling me that he spent 1993 in Mogadishu. “Yeah, I was here,” he says. “It was an interesting time.”
The contractor turns out to be a former US special forces operative. Back then, he tells me, his job was to track down information that might lead to the arrest of General Aideed. Twelve days before the US helicopters were gunned down, the US had captured Osman Ali Atto, a gun runner and financier, and Aideed’s number two. (Atto later became one of the warlords fighting for control of Mogadishu.) He was taken to an island off Somalia’s south coast, held in isolation for four months, and the man I am sitting next to tells me it was his job to interrogate him.
On his return to Mogadishu last year, the contractor was eager to look up his old foe, and intermediaries put them in touch. Atto rang to arrange lunch and the most surreal of reunions took place. The contractor says they greeted each other as friends and posed for photos. “Well, for Atto, that was five wars ago,” says his one-time interrogator with a laugh. When he shows me his before and after pictures the American is clearly recognisable from the earlier ones: the facial hair and eyes are the same, only the lines have grown in. He says they avoided talking about the interrogation but still reminisced – about captured warlords, narrow escapes, and what chance al-Shabaab has of retaking control of Mogadishu.
I also watch several videos that the contractor made on his mobile phone. I can hardly believe these exist, but they show the unlikely duo touring Bakara market, visiting the helicopter crash site and Atto’s garage. In one video, Atto explains how he had evaded previous attempts at US capture and both men chuckle at the subterfuge.
“There is a shared bond of respect when you share that kind of experience; fight that hard, take that much risk. It never goes away,” the American says.
This unlikely friendship illustrates some aspects of a deeply held honour code, which may determine Somalia’s future as much as its past. Shared battleground experiences and shifting alliances of convenience and kin are writ large throughout the country. Despite the efforts of academics to map complicated clan ties, loyalties constantly shift as they suit. “Somalis are not clan-based, in the sense they are the most individualistic people I know,” says Nuruddin Farah. “Somalis do every possible lawless activity that will get them an extra penny … you cheat institutions but you keep your trust with persons, with individuals,” he says. That’s one reason why personal bonds shape politics.
Al-Shabaab is only the latest reason the country isn’t working, the one that – because of its global terror link – has triggered such huge western support. The US and EU have each spent more than $1bn on Somalia in the past few years alone. The UK held its second annual Somalia conference last month, garnering aid pledges from across the globe. Qatar, Norway and Turkey are pumping in money.
But Islamism isn’t necessarily the biggest threat to Somalia. In 2006, Islamists even brought the first hint of stability to the country in 15 years, by setting up Islamic courts that meted out harsh punishments and allowed Mogadishu to get going again. Somalia’s greater challenge is the way it sees and deals with itself.
The real fracture at the heart of the state is what President Hassan calls “a very delicate balance” between the centre and periphery. He knows that, for some Somalis, a yearning for independence may be defined in opposition to a central government as much as to an invading force. It is a calculation that weighs heavy on the new Mogadishu elite – whose members claim not to know each other’s clan, but know they can’t risk the ire of clan-aligned regions.
Twenty or so warlords made it into the new parliament. The government is so broke it may be unable to provide services to sell the spoils of peace to Somalis who otherwise refuse to see themselves as citizens of the same state. Several parts of the nation, such as Somaliland, assert total or partial independence; others answer to clan-based militias. Some of these militias are not afraid to make common cause with al-Shabaab.
“Right now our focus is not going into new battle with the regions or the federal units – we are in the process of establishing federalism and the constitution needs more clarification on these issues,” says President Hassan of a new provisional constitution. “This is the first time in the history of post-conflict Somalia where the government of Somalia is moving outside the capital Mogadishu,” he says. “After 22 years we need the citizens to feel that the existence of a government is a value added to their lives and not a mechanism that controls them.”
The fight for that functioning state has barely begun.
Katrina Manson is the FT’s east Africa correspondent. To comment, email firstname.lastname@example.org