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Mogadishu diary part 2: Can returning ministers restore glory days?

Andrew Harding | 11:09 UK time, Tuesday, 30 November 2010

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.

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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.

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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."

Family Affairs Minister Doctor Maryan Qasim

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.

Comments

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  • 1. At 12:18pm on 30 Nov 2010, Lathaneey wrote:

    I always carry when i watch these sorts' of reports. I was born in Mogadishu during the war but me and family left somalia to find a new life in another country. By the look at this Report i am not going back any time soon :(. one day i hope i just hope they will wake up and realise what they are doing IS SAD!.


    lathaneey

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  • 2. At 12:23pm on 30 Nov 2010, hornofafrica wrote:

    "Many buildings are in ruins, others pockmarked with an acne-rash of bullet holes." Why is it necessary for journalists, blessed with wonderful powers of description to resort to such thoughtless language? It wouldn't be considered acceptable to use other disfigurements to paint a picture with words so why is this considered fine?

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  • 3. At 12:50pm on 30 Nov 2010, DominicBurbidge wrote:

    Great article. I don't think there's a problem with describing buildings as acne-rashed with bullet holes. It's ironic that we can read an article about a place of hardship and then suggest it causes offence because the language is strong.

    I am worried about the words of the new Prime Minister. He seems to be trying to frame things in terms of a fight against Al-Qaeda in the hope of attracting greater international support. This could do damage in the long run if Somalia becomes another battle-ground for other forces. If Al-Qaeda can be fought in Somalia, the support he will receive from 'Americans' will be smash and grab.

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  • 4. At 1:53pm on 30 Nov 2010, kuthuru wrote:

    Somalia's war seems to have been forgotten and the article is a welcome reminder of the suffering taking place in Mogadishu and elsewhere in that country. We residents in Kenya can attest to being witness to the problems of instability the chaos that the war ion Somalia has brought to the region - countless numbers of refugees,the illicit trade in weapons and now piracy.
    Those in the Somali diaspora have the responsibility of restoring peace in the war - ravaged country and should take concrete steps like that of Dr Maryan Qasim and her colleagues and return back. Stop whinning about descriptive words!

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  • 5. At 2:48pm on 30 Nov 2010, redrobb wrote:

    One of many former ex-colonial or close shave colonial countries that were exploited for decades. The tormented populance would have to go back many decades to find stability. Certainly a great many individual factions now trying to exploit it to their own ends. Any former indigenous populance returning to help its re-building are certainly made of stronger stuff, and so to all those many NGO's trying to bring peace in this region.

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  • 6. At 2:58pm on 30 Nov 2010, yottskry wrote:

    "Many buildings are in ruins, others pockmarked with an acne-rash of bullet holes." Why is it necessary for journalists, blessed with wonderful powers of description to resort to such thoughtless language? It wouldn't be considered acceptable to use other disfigurements to paint a picture with words so why is this considered fine?

    But the bullet holes ARE disfiguring the buildings. Seems a totally apposite comparison to me. Some people are just looking for things to critisize.

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  • 7. At 3:17pm on 30 Nov 2010, mohodin wrote:

    While Al-Shabaab unleash terror in the Somali population, they are not invincible. Certainly not as powerful as the Afganistan's Alqaeda. It is exactly as the information minister described them. They can be defeated by Somalia army if they are given regular salary and eqquipment. American troops or NATO, for that matter, are not needed. This is a Somalia problem. So let the Somalis sort it out. The Somali army is willing to fight but they seriously lack resources.

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  • 8. At 3:32pm on 30 Nov 2010, sagat4 wrote:

    @Lathaneey and @mohodin why don't you guys just focus on the points he is trying to put across rather than obsess with little details. Some people just love to complain about anything

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  • 9. At 5:48pm on 30 Nov 2010, Somaliyad wrote:

    Thanks for this report. It really helps to see my city of birth. I wish it didn't have all the hurdles but with God's help and with our new, bright, and the brain of Somalia's new cabinet, we will prevail over the Alshaydan who are destroying our our country, Somalia.
    May Allah help the new Prime Minister, Mr. Mohamed Abdullahi and his chosen Ministers, who the Somali people are supporting overwhelmingly.
    I think, this is our last hope and we (those of us in diaspora and inside Somalia) need to support this new government.
    Somalis, lets put aside our differences once and for all and lets rebuild our beautiful country. Amin.

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  • 10. At 6:12pm on 30 Nov 2010, GIDUDU ISAAC wrote:

    The hurdles in Somalia are existing because Africa is not UNITED.If the African Union really existed,we could not be having three countries keeping peace in Somalia.There are very strong African countries that can support our brothers in Somalia but they have kept quiet about the issue.FOR SOMALIA TO ATTAIN PEACE,AFRICA MUST UNITE AGAINST THE MOSLEM EXTREMISTS IN SOMALIA

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  • 11. At 6:24pm on 30 Nov 2010, Gail Coleshill wrote:

    Somaliland, a northern province, has proved that it can govern and be an economic entity. They have worked with funding from ex patriot Somalis and a sensible Government to make a success of their country. Its a pity they don't have International recognition.
    The new regime in Mogadishu should work with local communities to try a new style of Government by Federation in the style of Somaliland.

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  • 12. At 7:52pm on 30 Nov 2010, Somaliyad wrote:

    Gail,
    Somalia is one country. Majority of Somalis believe Federalism is the only way out of the chaos and I am among one of its strong supporters of Federalism. Make no mistake though, Somaliland or any other region will not seccede from Somalia because despite the peace and stability of Puntland and Somaliland regions in the North of Somalia, still 99% of SOmalis want to have One Somalia.
    That is why it is good idea to start from bottom up approach by building Somalia from block by block to regional or states and then have one federal government.
    hope it helps.

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  • 13. At 8:38pm on 30 Nov 2010, John Carrick Greene wrote:

    Andrew:

    Congratulations on having the courage to go in to Mogadishu and give us this account. But it is extremely valuable and rewarding to read your report in view of the fact that it has been so difficult to learn what has been happening in Somalia since last year. I look forward to reading more from you.
    However, I need a favour from you. Last November Al Shabaab convicted a woman in Kismayo of adultery and sentenced her to be stoned to death. Because she was pregnant she was respited until she gave birth. Although her partner was stoned at that time we have heard nothing from her since that period, although RBC Radio recently notified me that she was alive and living with relatives. They did not confirm that with me though, even though I requested their source. The CSKSW also wants to know what happened to her. I was so moved by her case that I set up a web site here in Canada www.stopthestoning.ca to advocate on her behalf. It might be possible for you to make inquiries on the spot and let us know what you find out. Thank you…all the best and be careful…

    John Carrick Greene
    St. John’s, NL

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  • 14. At 9:19pm on 30 Nov 2010, Lewis Fitzroy wrote:

    At last the time has come for the diaspora from Somalia to return and bring they people much needed hope !!!! and a new bright future only you and other from your once great country, can bring that back you can do it, I wish you every success. The U.K and its government should give every help possible to rebuild into a great nation again. so all our good somali friends can return and live in a much needed peaceful rich country free from warlords and bandits may god bless you all

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  • 15. At 10:37pm on 30 Nov 2010, Anna Sempe wrote:

    @hornofafrica (#2) - I think it's actually quite an apt description - neither are things you'd particularly want to see, are they?

    @kuthuru (#4) - I agree with your sentiments totally and am glad to see this series of posts by Andrew. I'm based in Uganda and do travel a fair bit in the region... the effects of the war in Somalia has certainly affected the entire region for the worst. Besides the influx of those seeking refuge, the lack of hope they almost consistently seem to communicate is heart-breaking.

    It's interesting to see the amount of media coverage the poorer countries get despite the turmoil they experience. The value of life in Africa leaves much to be desired! I hate to say it but if there were an incident involving a European tourist in Somalia, it would more likely attract more attention worldwide than the war.. take the situation in South Africa at the moment with the Anni Dewani murder in the Gugulethu township as a case in point. It's the on-the-ground coverage of how the masses are affected by crime, war and social challenges that really need to reported on and exposed.

    @Lewis Fitzroy (#14) - Hear, hear!

    Thanks Andrew for some much needed coverage - look forward to reading more of the same!

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  • 16. At 10:50pm on 30 Nov 2010, Ddungu Musa Evans wrote:

    I think that people like Doctor Maryan Qasim are strong leaders and true Somalia Nationalist who needs to be honoured, if Somalia continues getting more strong leaders like her things will turn into normal, Somali people have suffered enough and have to be supported thought out this difficult time, I think the world should do more to bring peace in Somalia instead of focusing on printing headlined of what is happening in Mugadishu, African leaders have to do more to bring peace in Somalia before engaging foreign leaders because charity begins at home, Somalis people are our brothers and sisters who needs fully support from African people, any one who cares about Africa should feel the same to Somalis, Transitional Federal Government (TFG) these are the people to bring total change and peace in Somalia, but before things turn to normal all the Somalis have to build trust in their own leaders, otherwise we have to continue praying for our brothers and sisters to get everlasting peace. Anyone contributing to bring stability in Somalia has to be given great honour and respect.

    Ddungu Musa Evans
    Ugandan living in
    New Zealand

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  • 17. At 01:10am on 01 Dec 2010, cookiebunsankle wrote:

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the House Rules.

  • 18. At 03:22am on 01 Dec 2010, Bixe wrote:

    I'm delighted for everyone's proposal via Somalis' needs. As an international student in Thailand from Uganda, i feel empathetic for my neighborhood and brothers indeed. Through Allah I send my prayers to curb and revoke the present catastrophy in Somalia. I buy in with the Idea of African Union. African leaders please penetrate into this before we call upon the foreign aid. Good Job President Y. K. Museveni for your Peacekeeping troops. Let others jion you too. Somalia will get its peaceful renaissance

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  • 19. At 1:41pm on 01 Dec 2010, BluesBerry wrote:

    Mogadishu, in the 1960s and 1970s, was a haven for tourists who came for the beaches and blue-green waters. People called it the Pearl of the Indian Ocean. Occasionally, amid the rubble, you can still catch glimpses of the city that once was — a city that people in Mogadishu hope one day they'll see again.
    Can returning Ministers restore a semblance of what was?
    A former Government worker from Buffalo, a primary school teacher from Birmingham and the Oxford-educated gentleman.
    These are Somalia's PM, Women's Minister & Foreign Minister.
    PM Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed talks of his new team: made up of "professionals and scholars" with the "energy to bring change".
    Eight months from now, there will be no authority for the UN-backed transitional federal government (TFG).
    The old parliament in central Mogadishu does not bespeak success - wandering goats, rubble, African Union soldiers camped amidst the smashed walls. Parliament meets in the basement, sits on plastic chairs – in blue and white, to reflect the Somali flag. To date, the internationally funded process has not delivered, except (of course) a quick succession of governments in exile.
    Government officials must find it difficult to govern in a compound called "Villa Somalia". It's used to be (is) the city's presidential palace. Government officials travel to meetings huddled in the back of armoured vehicles. The vehicles back up to the door and dump their Governmental cargo. (Five Somali cabinet ministers have been killed in attacks by Islamic extremists, al-Shabaab, in the past year alone.)
    Dr Maryan Qasim has chosen to come here. She has been a primary school teacher in Birmingham. She must be struggling to adjust, but her courage is above question.
    Qasim: "Everything has changed. After 20 years of civil war I could imagine what I would find but there is no word to define the suffering here." The university where she earned her degree stands in ruins. It is full of sandbags, surrounded by razor wire. It now exists as HDQ for the Burundi Contingent of the African Union Mission in Somalia force, Amisom. (The AMISOM police component has the mandate to professionalize the Somali police force. The AMISOM police component should be finishing its training of 700 Somali police officers in Djibouti and Kenya right about now.)
    The Foreign Minister Mohamed Abdullahi Omaar says that the international community has supported past governments without success and that Somali politics exists in a cesspool of corruption and infighting. But he speaks of a "clean government". He "believes" that the TFG can defeat al-Shabaab in the capital within 4 months and this is so critically important because it will prove to the people that "positive change" has arrived.
    The Prime Minister (a former commissioner for ethnic minority rights in Buffalo, New York): "We need good government and reconciliation. Without them we are wasting time....We have energy and fresh ideas. A lot of people are buying that."
    The decades-long hardship that followed the Barre Government has disappointed Somalians. These poor, desperate people have heard it all before.
    In the coming weeks, the UN Security Council will expand Amisom force from 8,000 to 12,000 troops, but 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."
    So what is Plan B, and might it not prove better than Plan A - the Transitional Government, which has been transitioning for almost twenty years! If that doesn't spell failure, I don't know what would.
    The "plan B" for Somalia is actually being discussed. The Plan B strategy: will mean directing support to the parts of the country which work and containing the parts that don't." Hmmmmm, I think this needs far more detailed analysis, or else the details are being held close to Governmental vests - to stop bullets if nothing else.

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