Somalia on the edge
The Mayor of Mogadishu by Andrew Harding St Martin’s Press 304 pages R206 at takealot.com
This book by Andrew Harding, one of the BBC’s most experienced foreign correspondents, makes for fascinating reading. The account of the unravelling of Somalia homes in on Mogadishu, the capital, and the life of Mohamed “Tarzan” Nur and his family, but there is a large cast of characters and the book roams widely over space and time. Right off, we are introduced to the “beasts still prowling the streets of the capital: terror, corruption, clan conflict, extremism and, chasing at their tails, the lingering fear that Somalia is merely flirting with stability”. And the suspicion is borne out when, in 2014, a particularly vicious attack takes place.
Tarzan has just walked through the doors of a mosque full of worshippers when an attack begins. As mayor of Mogadishu, Nur is no stranger to attacks and assassinations, and he makes his way to the front of the mosque, convinced that the shooting is “outgoing”. But the shooting is in the mosque and a man right next to Tarzan is killed. The attack is claimed by fundamentalist group al-Shabaab as a move against “infidels”, while the president asserts defiantly that the group remains “on the brink of extinction”.
This microcosm of many such incidents is the reader’s introduction to the chaos and anxiety of life in Somalia, and Harding cleverly anchors it in the person of Tarzan, who some see as a “callow, corrupt survivor”, and who others see as a kind of saviour. But for Harding, “his story is a thread that weaves its way through decades of upheaval – a glint worth following in a dark maze”.
The book is hugely instructive, drawing you into the complex history and culture of the country through the narrative in a compelling manner. Harding also includes a map, so the reader is reminded exactly of Somalia’s location between Ethiopia and Kenya. There are also nostalgic black and white photographs from old official guidebooks, Harding’s own photographs and those of other journalists and friends to add to our understanding of the time and place.
Tarzan’s brother, Yusuf, a university professor in the US, says of Somalia: “There are no records. So you can claim whatever you want.” And critics of Tarzan say that is precisely what he does, starting with his alleged birth in San Martino hospital in Mogadishu, when in fact he was born to nomads living in the Ogaden in Ethiopia who were “dirt poor”, according to Yusuf, following the rains and the fresh grass and tending their livestock.
Harding explains that it is the nomadic spirit that is key to understanding Somalia and the peoples’ proudly independent families, suspicion of outside authority, clan allegiances and arranged marriages.
How does Tarzan become mayor of Mogadishu in 2010? Through a long series of dislocations, years spent in exile in London and, finally, his return in June 2006 to do what he thought he could after years of anarchy and rule by competing warlords, when, for the first time in 15 years, the fighting stopped in Mogadishu. “You see, I was now the leader of the diaspora,” was Tarzan’s answer. The book follows no clear linear pattern and the occasional dislocation mirrors the sense of what most Somalis must have experienced in this period, and probably still are experiencing. Harding is realistic about Somalia today. He says it has begun to make measurable progress in that it has an army and a government, and that piracy has been stopped. Also, al-Shabaab control less territory, there is oil offshore, and a talented and wealthy diaspora.
He ends on a positive note, saying that pessimism would seem like a crime, and that the worst must surely be over. The book leaves us intrigued, and so much more informed, as well as sympathetic to the struggles of ordinary people in the wake of greed and corruption.