December in Mogadishu

I came back to Mogadishu on the 9th of this month. I was delayed a bit by the UN Secretary General’s arrival. Apparently, the security officials at Mogadishu’s Aden Adde International Airport decided having passengers land around the time as the SG was dangerous for his security. As if the people in the city were less dangerous!

Everything in the airport was same old: former ICU guys look for potential Shabab guys among the passengers – I did not succeed in ignoring them this time round. We had a chat while I waited for my luggage about the city and how my area was now habitable, how the Shabab were defeated once and for all (welcome to the world of the wishful thinking by the TFG), and which route was now closed for the SG (basically the road from the Airport to Villa Somalia was closed for hours, prompting me to take a long detour).

I had to carry my luggage with the help of the taxi driver for some time away from the main road to reach where the car was parked at. We passed by some guys who had their faces covered and were deployed all along the road. They are either Somali Special Forces or members of a foreign security firm who protect visiting VIPs, depending on who you speak with.

The TFG soldiers we saw after passing the masked soldiers were very courteous to the point I thought they were new recruits. However, one of them recognised me and spoke with me. I am against the practise, but apparently the TFG policy of summarily executing soldiers who rob civilians is paying off. It is that, or the more timely pay is making them act a little more like real soldiers (I would later find out that the Shabab are not happy about this, obviously). There should be an independent group monitoring the paying of the soldiers to keep up this progress.

Mogadishu is destroyed beyond my expectations. Entire buildings are missing from the areas where the 2-year front line snaked through. Understandably, the Shabab side of the front lines is more cratered, thanks to the heavy artillery and tanks available to AMISOM and the TFG. In my neighbourhood in Shibis district, there is almost no building that was not hit at least 1-2 times by an artillery shell. On the positive side, Shibis is rebuilding, with most families fixing their homes and moving back. People were forcibly moved from Shibis by the Shabab in mid-2009, claiming that the people would otherwise be massacred in shelling. As if the people would stay if they saw their neighbours killed by a “stray” mortar. To win hearts and minds, helping in the rebuilding is better than giving food aid that is not needed anyway by most of Mogadishu’s residents. Aid that is taken to the market, and sold by the “distributors”. As for the cooked food aid, it is used to feed the livestock.

In the past 12 days, I met many Shabab and TFG officials. I was surprised at how similar they were in outlook. Both sides feel like they are winning. I believe both are wrong, and that it is more of a stalemate.

Their difference is that the Shabab are more determined and seem to have a clear vision of what they want, and who their enemy is. Everybody who has defected from them and joined their enemies is an apostate, unless rarely otherwise stated. Members who decide to lay down their arms are viewed with suspicion and considered “sitters”, while members from other groups who became civilians are routinely arrested on suspicions of being spies. The Shabab see a Somalia ruled by Shariah, and count on the foreign troops stopping them from that withdrawing one day.

An interesting thing I saw this time is that more and more Shabab are interested in talks, if it will get them any closer to their goals. How far this goes up the Shabab hierarchy is not clear, but I think this may suggest a possible maturity of the group.

The TFG officials I met invited me to have a chat with them in a room that was full of smoke while they chewed Khat. They seemed to me like all they cared about is the moment, and not the future – and I am not saying that because they smoked like chimneys. I am more concerned with solutions than anything else, so when I asked them what the way forward was, they got into a tirade of conspiracy theories about how the Shabab were being funded by Arab Intelligence agencies (oh, the irony! *cough* who trains the ICU members of the TFG security? Sudan), how every side was working for a foreign agenda and had foreign troops by its side, and how Sharif himself may be a Shabab member! Who cares about proving one’s claims when chewing Khat? I was half expecting them to tell me that my non-existent Unicorn was flapping its wings too loud.

The TFG has definitely improved, but a lot needs to be done. The lack of an independent anti-corruption watchdog in the country still makes corrupt officials not fear any repercussions for their actions. But because of the TFG nature, even such a watchdog may have to conform to the 4.5 formula, which is structurally broken and prone to abuse by corrupt and nepotistic officials.

The Shabab support is based on their ability to provide security, and justice in their courts in the areas they control. For the Shabab to be irrelevant, the TFG have to up their game, big time. Despite the improved soldier discipline, you can still expect to be robbed by government forces in areas farthest away from their bases. The TFG judiciary is perhaps the most corrupt arm of government in the history of corrupt governments. Judges are for sell, so you better not go there to settle a dispute if your opponent has more money.

The Parliament perhaps is not much less corrupt than the judiciary. The word in the street is that they vote for whoever pays them (hence the reason why most of the voting is done by hand raising). The Parliament now seems to hold an impromptu weekly fighting match between MPs.

The Shabab are best fought by the truth. Accusing them of banning bras will not weaken their support. My opposition to the Kenya incursion that caught even the TFG by surprise is an opposition to a recruiting tool for the Shabab – that Somalia is being boxed in by its Christian neighbours. The opposition to the Kenyan invasion has really improved the image of the Shabab to Somalia’s staunchly nationalist population, and weakened the TFG because of their flip-flopping positions (support, and then oppose, then kind of support, then support!).

I remember a member of the disbanded Hizbul Islam telling me that he would have joined the TFG side had it not been for their uncivilised conduct. He opted to not join the Shabab and become a civilian instead. It is the advice I gave him. The TFG may be a dysfunctional charade of a government, but that does not mean one should join an authoritarian, death-loving group.

Somalia needs to go forward. It will, despite the odds.

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