Somalia's struggle for unity far from over
- 7 May 2013
- From the section Africa
It's a bumpy half hour's drive inland from Mogadishu - with its furious traffic, its ruins, and its vast camps of displaced families - to the sleepy farming town of Afgoye.
After the dust and frenzy of the capital, Afgoye is almost shockingly green, surrounded by lush, well-irrigated fields. Trucks piled high with bananas rattle past us.
It is striking to note that most of the work in and around the town seems to be done by women - bent double in the fields, tending to cattle, and running the tiny makeshift shops that line the muddy roads.
A year ago, Afgoye was under the control of Somalia's Islamist militant group, al-Shabab, which held most of the countryside beyond Mogadishu.
But a concerted military push by Somali and African Union forces forced al-Shabab to retreat.
Today the town seems as good a place as any to judge the progress this country, with its new internationally-backed government, is making towards stability after two decades of anarchy.
Before I set out for Afgoye, Somalia's new prime minister - a genial economist named Abdi Farah Shirdon - told me: "We control most of Somalia - more than 80%. The future is very promising.
"Al-Shabab is acting as a wild card. They don't want life. They respect nothing, but I believe they have no future."
But if they have lost control of many key towns these days, al-Shabab can still cause trouble.
On Sunday, minutes after I'd flown into Mogadishu, a car bomb exploded up the road at a busy roundabout, killing or injuring more than 30 people.
For several hours, the area was strewn with blood and debris, but a huge bulldozer quickly arrived to clear the area.
Although there were enduring scenes of grief and agony in the crowded, filthy wards at the nearby Medina hospital - by the end of the day, the damage at the roundabout was indistinguishable from the general, all-engulfing mess that is Mogadishu.
I hitched a ride out to Afgoye the next morning with Ugandan peacekeepers from the African Union force, AMISOM.
Colonel Joseph Balikudembe commands the Ugandan forces, and escorted us into the muddy centre of town, where we were quickly surrounded by a well-armed, uniformed, and welcoming crowd of local Somali soldiers and policemen, together with a handful of civil and military officials.
Across the street, several members of a local clan militia lounged in the shade beside a heavy machine gun, watching us with obvious suspicion.
"We want to empower the Somalis," said Colonel Balikudembe. "We are mentoring them. When we leave they should be able to do their own affairs."
But he conceded that they had only made "a bit of progress" so far, and that it was a "fight" to get everyone with a gun into a uniform, and committed to the idea of "united" Somalia.
"This district is very good," said the district commissioner, a portly, well-dressed man named Abdulahi Abdi Ahmed.
"But we need money from the UN - we have no police station, no court, no prison."
Still, he was adamant that al-Shabab would not return to the town, insisting "we have enough soldiers to defeat them now".
'Time to pay taxes'
I tried to talk to a group of civilians sitting nearby. There were mutterings about corruption and frustration with the new government, but policemen quickly surrounded us and the criticisms melted away.
Eventually a 24-year-old man named Ahmed Jabril pointed at the pot-holed roads and told me the new authorities were not doing enough.
"I don't have a job. The young people here don't have jobs. They finish high school. No university. They just stay at home playing football. It's disturbing my heart," he said.
But Saladeh Mohammed Usman, a large, energetic woman in a spectacularly bright pink dress, insisted the government was doing its best.
She's in charge of revenue collection for the Finance Ministry in the Lower Shabelle region, and had just driven from Mogadishu in her small white car with a couple of armed guards.
"I'm able to do this now that we have a recognised government that isn't transitional, and now that we've got some security. So now is the right time to come here and register companies and farmers and start to collect revenue. It's time for people to pay taxes again," she said emphatically.
So who will prevail in towns like Afgoye?
The forces of change and optimism like Ms Usman, or the clan militias and extremists hovering in the background, waiting for the new government to run out of money and momentum and poised to push Somalia back towards anarchy?
For now, I'd say the optimists have the edge. But it's going to be a long, precarious struggle.