Wounded City: Mogadishu’s Epic Journey to Revival

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Mogadishu, Somalia’s broken capital is ready to experience a rebirth. Its tale is of a city with a troubled but rich history, full of ruins and opportunities. At the 43rd St. Gallen Symposium in Switzerland, its mayor Mohamed Ahmed Nur reflected on his courageous mission to rebuild the war-torn city.

Mayor Mohamed Ahmed Nur addresses the attendees at the symposium.

Photo courtesy of the St. Gallen Symposium

Mayor Mohamed Ahmed Nur addresses the attendees at the symposium.

In Mogadishu and throughout the rest of Somalia, clashes between clans and the central government caused the fall of the Somali state in 1991, leading to a raging civil war—one not yet fully over. Even today, it takes courage to run the city of Mogadishu. Courage not left unrewarded, if you ask its mayor Mohamed Ahmed Nur, who took office in 2010 and who has managed to lift the ruinous capital from the ashes.

Mogadishu has experienced good times before. Not many might remember Mogadishu as a place once famous for being a cosmopolitan metropolis and important trade hub. Old-time locals can still recall the days when Mogadishu buzzed with social and cultural venues, museums, libraries, cafes, and beachfront restaurants. At the 43rd St. Gallen Symposium, Nur proudly reminded the attentive of this truth by way of the recently published book “Mogadishu: Then and Now.The publication – ‘a pictorial tribute to Africa’s most wounded city’ – showcases the beautiful side of Mogadishu (as seen then and now). Its images, then, serve as an invaluable proof of Mogadishu’s bygone peaceful era and provide a much-needed perspective for a people looking to regain a foothold.

Now, ruins are scattered across the city as the bloody history of the civil war has left many scars. “Mogadishu has been raped. The best part of the city has been destroyed,” Nur says. A place once considered to be ‘the most dangerous city in the world’ will need more than pleas to the sky to undergo lasting change. But with ambitious entrepreneurs opening new ventures, and former Somali residents returning to their home country, business is back and Mogadishu is booming.

For Liban Egal, founder of Somalia Wireless and the First Somali Bank, the decision to return to Mogadishu from Baltimore came when the aggressive militant group Al-Shabaab was driven out of Mogadishu in 2011. Not military interventions but women and the media played an important role in getting the general population to speak up against Al-Shabaab. The mayor stated: “It was a women organization [sic] that became brave enough, when I attended two of their meetings and I talked to them, they came out to speak through the media and then gradually people started to speak against Al Shabaab. And then at the same time we organized rallies against Al Shabaab… [Al-Shabaab] couldn’t function in the society because society rejected them.”

Egal says: “There have been so many times in the past that there was hope but this time it is different. I decided to take a risk as I saw major progress.” The increased security made him see new opportunities where there were none before. He decided to make a long-term investment in Mogadishu by setting up the first private bank of Somalia. Egal is determined to stay, with the hope that Mogadishu’s transformation is structurally sound.

Mogadishu’s mayor reflected on the story of Mogadishu’s journey to prosperity in his keynote address on courageous citizenship in Switzerland. He told about the growing hope among Mogadishu’s citizens – whom he amiably calls “people with good hospitality” – as they navigate through their road to recovery.

According to the mayor, small changes have made a great impact. Nowadays, garbage is collected and brand-new solar-powered streetlights dot Modadishu’s landscape. Remarkable reforms in a city which has neither been illuminated nor has witnessed a broom sweep through its streets for quite a while. Egal, for one, has witnessed the improvements: “Somalia has a nightlife again. People are walking on the streets after sunset and businesses can stay open until late in the night.”

And there’s more. The mayor  told  of Somalia’s fertile land, its many minerals and natural resources, its large quantities of livestock, how it plays host to the longest African coastline, and of its effective local community-based hawala banking system. The mayor emphasized that Mogadishu can essentially be “a laboratory for economists.”

Indeed, with tourism returning – the coastal city is famous for its white beaches – the revival of leisure activities by locals unfolding and a construction boom ongoing, Mogadishu is slowly but surely picking up the pieces. After a ban on music in Al-Shabaab-controlled areas, cheerful tunes recently returned to the capital when Mogadishu’s largest music concert in over two decades was held successfully despite major security risks. For many, it was the first time to hear live music performed in their city. Yet, the optimism is taken in cautiously. The situation in Mogadishu remains precarious with soaring malnutrition and mortality rates. Some people still live in camps and on the streets.

A visit to Mogadishu is not without risks; Egal puts it simply: “In Somalia, things can change in a minute.” Every now and then bomb attacks by militants suddenly take place, reminding Mogadishu’s citizens that they are still living in turbulent times even as they transition to peace. The mayor also frequently receives death threats by phone and through text messages but he remains calm and focused: “I believe that I will die one day. Nobody can advance it. Nobody can delay it. That destiny is already written. I don’t know where I will die, so I should not worry about it.” It is clear that the future of Mogadishu sounds promising but the city still has a long way to go.

After the keynote address, the mayor was asked further about the challenges ahead in the small-scale setting of a workshop session. He mentioned that Mogadishu needs more investments from foreign governments in order to create long-term wealth. Interestingly, Turkey has become one of the most active investors in Somalia and also works with the country as a business partner. Next to the need for financial resources, Nur wants to tackle the issue of brain drain and asks highly skilled people from abroad to embark on redevelopment.

In this regard, the mayor has set an example. He moved from his rather stable environment in the United Kingdom to the dangerous ruins of Mogadishu when he took office. When the mayor was asked why he made the decision to go back to Mogadishu, he started off jokingly, “The weather is better.” On a more serious note, he admitted that he refused at first because of the perils that come with the job. “It is a job with very high risks and the city had no resources.” But he continued: “I love my city. It comes from my heart.”

Finally, the mayor was questioned about the role business and entrepreneurship can play to bring the city back to prosperity. The mayor explained that he wants to create a steady partnership with the private sector. Private companies have the resources and the capacity to deal with many of Mogadishu’s major issues. This partnership is steadily unfolding as the government is building a regulatory framework and introducing new legislation for business enterprises, according to Egal. The government is being pushed by the private sector and foreign investors to make such legal reforms in order to facilitate entrepreneurship.

Nur made clear at the St. Gallen Symposium that he has an optimistic message to share. Mogadishu is back in business. Exciting times are ahead. Its citizens have been, quite literally, pulled out of the dark and are now brimming with hope. Resident businessman Egal observes that “this is a once in a lifetime opportunity to build everything from the ground up.” Indeed, the time to invest in a city ready for revival is always a resounding now.

A family at a Mogadishu feeding center share a tender moment.

Flickr / rjones0856 under Creative Commons

A family at a Mogadishu feeding center share a tender moment.

Featured image source: Flickr / macalin

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