Mogadishu transforms one year on from al-Shabaab exit
Then, shells and small-arms fire echoed across the seaside city’s empty streets as al-Qaeda-linked Islamist fighters withered under the onslaught of an African Union army.
Today, a year since al-Shabaab, that extremist militia, deserted its foxholes and sniper points and left the city to government forces, the sounds of a Mogadishu morning are the cracks of hammers and the drones of drills.
Somalia’s capital is in the midst of its greatest transformation in 20 years, bringing cautious hope that a measure of peace may finally be taking root.
The shift started with al-Shabaab’s departure from central Mogadishu, overnight on August 6 last year, after months of daily bombardment by the African Union mission, AMISOM.
Now scaffolding covers new buildings. Traders no longer fearing stray bullets fit glass to their shopfronts, and street lights brighten evenings along repaired roads that were front lines just a year ago. Down at Lido Beach, teams play volleyball beside the surf.
Above them, new scheduled flights from Turkey, Dubai and Kenya come in to land, carrying home Somalis with money to invest who fled years ago to wait out the war.
“This used to be a place where misdirected mortars always fell and people were killed daily,” said Nur Ibrahim Adan, a stallholder at Bakara Market, Mogadishu’s largest and once an al-Shabaab stronghold.
“Now there is a great change. There is no fear, there are few casualties. There are new buildings, new customers. Already my profit is much higher.”
Remittances from abroad are up by 20 per cent since January. The Somali shilling has strengthened against the dollar by almost 50 per cent.
“Now truly there is opportunity here and I have many new customers,” said Farah Jimale, owner of Cosmetics Centre at Bur Ubax in Bakara Market.
But then he paused. And in that pause is the largely unspoken reality that all this change is tenuous and fragile.
“Al-Shabaab, though, it is a group full of clever tactics,” Mr Jimale said. “I am concerned they can come back. Already they are killing government officials. It is hard not to worry.”
Mohamed Ali, Somalia’s deputy defence minister, agreed that al Shabaab remained a threat, but insisted that it could be contained.
“Now you can see that Somalis, they hate Shabaab,” he said. “They are giving the government information about it, where to find it. The tide has turned.”
The Islamist army, while weakened, is far from defeated, however. Only Mogadishu and a clutch of other towns are in government hands. Al-Shabaab still controls much of Somalia’s rural south, and the major port city of Kismayo.
Its commanders boast that the withdrawal from Mogadishu was planned, part of a strategic rethink that has seen it shift from a guerrilla force holding territory to what one analyst termed “a true hit-and-run terror group”.
“Now we are saving money, while the enemy pays more and more from its budget to secure land it seized, recruit new soldiers, pay for services,” Sheikh Mohamed Ibrahim, an al-Shabaab commander, told The Daily Telegraph.
“Do you think really they can continue like that forever? Already we are in Mogadishu every night, carrying out missions, and we will push on with such missions for years and years, and we will finally re- confiscate whole town.”
Suicide bombers are now Mogadishu’s main threat. They struck the National Theatre, a place of great pride for Somalis, a fortnight after it opened in March, killing eight people including senior government officials.
AU soldiers, MPs, journalists and even radio comedians have been killed. Last week, a major attack at a high-level constitutional conference was narrowly averted.
But the greatest obstacle to Mogadishu’s continued development is the country’s own leadership, said J Peter Pham, director of the Michael S Ansari Africa Centre at the Atlantic Council in Washington.
“There’s still no government presence in the space that’s been opened up by forcing Shabaab out,” he said.
“We’ve seen a lot of bellyaching from MPs and ministers about a lack of resources, a lot of arguing about divvying up what spoils there are, but there’s no evidence that the money they have received amounted to anything.
“The only substantive difference between these guys and the warlords of the 1990s is that you might get a receipt now when they rip you off.”
By August 20, a deadline described by donors including Britain as unbreakable, Somalia’s current transitional government must cede power to a new administration.
There must be a new constitution, a new president and the number of MPs must be nearly halved.
“It’s impossible,” added Mr Pham. “The mistake is that we in the West see Somalia as a problem that needs to be fixed, when in fact it is a perfectly functional political economy benefiting a very narrow and selfish segment of the Somali elite. Fixing it would be the worst outcome for them.
“And meantime Shabaab has downsized into a true hit-and-run terror group with a handful of extremists. They have not gone away, far from it.”