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Mogadishu diary part 5: Last hope?

Andrew Harding | 18:03 UK time, Friday, 3 December 2010

I'm just back from an early morning run along the airport runway here in Mogadishu. The familiar thud and rattle of mortar and gunfire in the middle distance. Unusually heavy fighting today.

A Somali government soldier

This government soldier is hoping to be paid soon

There are new lights along both sides of the runway, and the steady rumble of bulldozers clearing ground for a series of new compounds here. For years this country has been a virtual no-go zone for foreigners - for obvious and legitimate security reasons. Instead, the international community has overseen its disastrous - or merely failed - attempts at state-building - and a massive humanitarian operation - at largely arm's length, from the safety of offices in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi.

But today there are tentative signs that things may be changing. The compound I'm staying at is now full of security, communications, and construction contractors from all over the world. A queue of burly white men is forming beside me right now for breakfast.

So what's going on? Is this a turning point, or another false dawn, in a country that specialises in the latter.

From his icy, air-conditioned cabin near the beach, Amisom's commander, Major General Nathan Mugisha does not try too hard to hide his frustrations. It's taken four wasted years for his troop numbers to reach full strength. "If we'd had the troops four years ago, that would have been enough. But the situation has changed in the meantime." He's hopeful - but not sure - that he'll get an extra 4,000 troops next year. Just about enough, he thinks, to seize Mogadishu - at a pinch.

View of Mogadishu city

Will the new cabinet be prepared to stick it out in Mogdishu?

Now the general feels it's high time the international community returned to Mogadishu in force. "These NGOs should be here to support the people - there's no reason why not. We need their support, and I believe this is an opportunity for them." He doesn't like to talk about building a Baghdad-style "green zone" in case it becomes a target for militants, but he blithely dismisses the risks - "how many bullets have you dodged? We have an area that is safe enough." Perhaps - but that's only within the Amisom compound. The city itself still requires careful navigation, with a dozen or more armed, and loyal security guards.

Abruptly, the general's tone changes, from easy confidence to something approaching anxiety. "This is the last hope we have. This opportunity cannot be missed," he says.

The "opportunity" he mentions is the emergence of a new cabinet for Somalia's Western-backed Transitional Federal Government. It's a smaller team, made up of technocrats drawn, to a large extent, from the vast diaspora. General Mugisha seems confident that, following the reorganisation, the TFG will now finally begin to tackle corruption, pay its soldiers, and be, as he delicately puts it "more transparent... and accountable. We're very happy and optimistic about this new cabinet."

One test for the TFG will be whether its ministers actually stay in Mogadishu themselves. Previous administrations have tended to spend more time in Nairobi, plotting and squabbling. The TFG's chief of protocol, Mursal Saney, assured me that things would be very different. "We work 18 hours a day now. We share our hotel rooms here and sometimes have nowhere to sleep." His boss, President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmad, also insisted his new team was up to the task. When I asked him what was different from previous and equally confident administrations that have come and gone over the years he gave me a one-word answer. "Experience."

But time is not on the TFG's side. Its mandate expires next August and it badly needs to broaden its political base before then. It can probably only achieve that if has some concrete results to point to in Mogadishu, which in turn will depend on Amisom, and the broader international community backing it up. These next few months will be tough to navigate.


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