Wednesday, August 29, 2012
By Hafsa Ibrahim
Decades of civil war had largely taken Somalia off the map as an investment destination. It did not help that the capital Mogadishu was branded as the ‘most dangerous city’ in the world. Perceptions are, however, changing with relative calm in Mogadishu and Somalis from the diaspora trooping back.
Sounds of construction works have replaced those of bullets. A major business boom is taking place as the city revels in its longest period of relative peace since 1991. Beach front hotels, telephone and construction companies are currently the most profitable firms as the country rebuilds what was left of it after decades of war.
Having read many reports, both positive and negative, on Mogadishu since the liberation of the city and other towns from the extremist group al Shabaab, I was curious - let’s just say I was looking forward to this trip - considering the exciting time that the country is going through.
On arrival at the Aden Adede International Airport (formerly Mogadishu Airport), what hit me was the level of normalcy; business was just like what you would expect in any other airport. The Aden Adede Airport was organised and all the security apparatus were in place. This was a clear indication that despite recent gains in the city, security remains an issue.
My arrival was a day after the inauguration of the new Parliament - the first to be sworn in on Somali soil in over 20 years. Some 253 out of a total of 275 MPs were sworn in as the country nears the completion of the eight-year Transitional Federal Government and at the airport there were groups of international observers.
After years of failed peace initiatives organised abroad, Somalia’s endlessly feuding politicians are finally back in their own capital city, and nearing the climax of an exhaustive, Somali-led, internationally chaperoned new process that has already delivered a new constitution and a new Parliament and President - and with luck, something resembling a functioning government with a reach that might extend far beyond Mogadishu.
On the streets of Mogadishu, I was struck by the normalcy of everyday life and walking through the main commercial districts, it was hard to believe that just over a year ago, the city was under al Shabaab and the scene of frequent attacks. Amidst the rubble, homes are being rebuilt, cafes are re-opening as thousands of members of the diaspora return back to their homeland. Everyone is talking with varying degrees of confidence - about a future without bloodshed.
Businesses were open, in the streets there were crowds of people as they go about their activities, lorries and pick-ups carrying piles of goods and even armed men in pick-ups and military cars driving around. I could not help noticing how familiar the place looked; it reminded me of Eastleigh in Nairobi except the part of armed men patrolling the city.
Businesses are booming. There were women selling clothes, cosmetics, handbags, shoes; a scene that was unusual last year. Construction is going on everywhere for new homes, hotels and shopping malls with many old organisations being renovated with freshly painted buildings in shades of pink, blue, yellow,green and other colours.
The interesting part was seeing groups of school-going children carrying bags as they go to and from school. Traffic police manning the huge traffic that was starting to build up was also a sight to relish, big cars like the Range Rovers, pick-ups and lorries were everywhere and this gives the sense that the city was functioning well considering what it has faced in the last two decades.
In the last one year, the city has seen a major transformation security-wise. The diaspora have been trooping back and high-profiled people visiting for the first time in two decades. Turkey for the first time launched its international flight to Mogadishu for over 21 years. Local entrepreneurs and diaspora are investing in the city; they are repairing villas and buildings. The city also has effective electricity 24/7 for those who can afford it, largely courtesy of small entrepreneurs who operate generators.
Land prices have skyrocketed because many native Somalis who fled the violence are leaving their adopted countries and are now investing back home. A drive through the beach indicates a completely different side of the once ‘most dangerous city’. They are simply beautiful! At the beach you would see young men dressed in vests playing football, women, although few, dressed in long flowing diras and buibuis and shirtless children can also be seen playing around.
Along the shores there are women who sell stunning sea shells and cold drinks to quench the thirst of the merry-makers. With security in Mogadishu improving, residents are reclaiming the lives they had lost. All across the bullet-ridden city, people are taking steps to return to normalcy after years of chaos. Somalia’s restaurant scene is also quickly changing for the better.
The new beach restaurants painted beautifully with bright colours are seen to behold. Smartly dressed waiters go through their normal work tending to the customers. On all sides, there are several plasma TVs as people enjoy the English football. Across the corner stood armed men, a reminder of the country’s precarious security.
After a day in Mogadishu, although the challenges cannot be ignored, there have been many positive developments than the country gets credit for. The city is returning to life. The damage exacted on this 500-year old city and its unique blend of Islamic and Italian architecture over decades of conflicts is still everywhere but it takes little imagination to see how it was a once magnificent city.
Improved security is one of the reasons people are coming back. Rebuilding is still going on and there is plenty to be done to return Mogadishu to its former glory. Many are hopeful this is the beginning of new era in the war-torn country. “Everyone has had enough of war; people want peace. We want to rebuild what was left of our life,” says the taxi driver who was taking me round.