Jef­frey Gettleman

The Mayor of Mogadishu: A Story of Chaos and Re­demp­tion in the Ru­ins of So­ma­lia by An­drew Hard­ing

The New York Review of Books - - Contents - Jef­frey Gettleman

The Mayor of Mogadishu:

A Story of Chaos and Re­demp­tion in the Ru­ins of So­ma­lia by An­drew Hard­ing.

St. Martin’s, 278 pp., $26.99

For the past sev­eral decades, So­ma­lia has been one of the poor­est and most tur­bu­lent na­tions on earth. But in re­cent years the coun­try has be­gun to edge away from chaos. Air­plane pas­sen­gers no longer fall silent as their plane de­scends into Mogadishu air­port, which lies right next to the sea. They are greeted by a shut­tle bus rather than a bat­tered pickup truck filled with mili­ti­a­men in thread­bare cam­ou­flage. Neigh­bor­hoods heaped with rub­ble are sprout­ing new houses, new ho­tels, new shops, new roads, new so­lar-pow­ered street lamps, and (once unimag­in­able) new cafés. Though vi­o­lence re­mains a fresh mem­ory and still oc­curs, a grow­ing num­ber of So­mali pro­fes­sion­als and en­trepreneurs have re­turned from all over the world to re­claim their old houses, old busi­nesses, and old lives. They are de­ter­mined not to let the oc­ca­sional bomb or ter­ror­ist at­tack scare them off again. Din­ers in Mogadishu’s new restau­rants and pizze­rias look up for an in­stant when ex­plo­sions rat­tle the win­dows but then go back to their plates. Of course, there is a limit to this. A dou­ble truck bomb­ing in mid-Oc­to­ber killed more than 250 peo­ple, deeply un­set­tling the city. Once an Ital­ian colony, So­ma­lia had an odd history dur­ing the cold war, switch­ing abruptly in the 1970s from a Soviet client state to a staunch Amer­i­can ally. When the cold war ended, so did Amer­i­can sup­port for So­ma­lia’s dic­ta­tor, Siad Barre, and an al­liance of clan-based faction lead­ers brought down Barre’s gov­ern­ment in 1991. They soon turned on one an­other and none emerged strong enough to run the coun­try. The modern na­tion-state of So­ma­lia dis­in­te­grated into fiefs, with mili­tias and war­lords ter­ror­iz­ing the coun­try, and a famine soon broke out. The United States tried to in­ter­vene, send­ing in tens of thou­sands of sol­diers in the early 1990s, but the mis­sion failed and So­ma­lia sank into deeper dis­ar­ray. Most of the peo­ple who died dur­ing this pe­riod were starv­ing chil­dren.

From this up­heaval, an Is­lamist move­ment grad­u­ally arose. By 2006 an al­liance of Is­lamist sheikhs and mili­tias had de­feated the war­lords. So­ma­lia en­joyed a few months of rel­a­tive peace but then was plunged back into vi­o­lence when neigh­bor­ing Ethiopia in­vaded, and, with Amer­i­can help, over­threw the Is­lamists and in­stalled a pup­pet gov­ern­ment that con­trolled no more than a few city blocks. The gov­ern­ment es­sen­tially re­de­ployed many of the same war­lords who had de­stroyed So­ma­lia in the first place. One of the Is­lamist mili­tias, al-Shabab, emerged as a pow­er­ful in­sur­gent force, ex­ploit­ing the coun­try’s wide­spread antigov­ern­ment feel­ing to re­cruit thou­sands of young men and vow­ing to turn So­ma­lia into a strict Is­lamic state. Soon, with alQaeda’s help, al-Shabab be­gan stag­ing dev­as­tat­ing at­tacks across So­ma­lia. For­eign pow­ers, in­clud­ing the United States and the Euro­pean Union, under the aus­pices of the UN Se­cu­rity Coun­cil, dep­u­tized the African Union to send in peacekeepers and push alShabab out. The ef­fort has been partly suc­cess­ful, al­low­ing a slightly more sta­ble and pop­u­lar gov­ern­ment to co­a­lesce, although al-Shabab forces still mas­sacre peacekeepers and civil­ians. This is where An­drew Hard­ing’s book, The Mayor of Mogadishu: A Story of Chaos and Re­demp­tion in the Ru­ins of So­ma­lia, be­gins. Hard­ing is a BBC jour­nal­ist who has logged many miles in So­ma­lia as a for­eign cor­re­spon­dent for ra­dio and tele­vi­sion. His book de­scribes a charis­matic, cun­ning, de­ceit­ful, and at times in­spir­ing mayor, Mo­hamud Nur, bet­ter known as “Tarzan,” who served as the hard-charg­ing leader of Mogadishu from 2010 to 2014, a pe­riod that turned out to be cru­cial.

Tarzan grew up in a Mogadishu or­phan­age in the mid-1960s and early 1970s, dur­ing rel­a­tively good times. Mogadishu was a lively and peace­ful cap­i­tal, known for its hy­brid of Ital­ian and Arab ar­chi­tec­ture and its long beaches. Cou­ples went out for evening strolls; the city’s many cin­e­mas showed Ital­ian films; on week­ends the beaches were packed. At the time, Barre seemed firmly in control. So­mali of­fi­cials of­ten earn nick­names (Barre’s was “Big Mouth”), and Tarzan got his from an in­ci­dent when he was around eight and tried to get out of his morn­ing du­ties. A teacher dis­cov­ered him hid­ing out­side his dorm room, half naked and hang­ing from a tree.

Life in a So­mali or­phan­age was as squalid and Dick­en­sian as one could imag­ine, and Tarzan grew into what was es­sen­tially a capo, al­ways happy to rough up a ri­val. But he cred­its the or­phan­age with in­spir­ing his brand of na­tion­al­ism. Re­jected from their fam­i­lies and dis­con­nected from their lin­eages, Mogadishu’s or­phans banded to­gether, re­sist­ing So­ma­lia’s tra­di­tional lines of di­vi­sion. In a so­ci­ety deeply riven by clan, the or­phans built their own clan. By the late 1980s, Tarzan sensed that So­ma­lia was about to un­ravel. Barre was cor­rupt, iso­lated, and ve­nal, and he had alien­ated ev­ery ma­jor sub­clan ex­cept his own, the Mare­han. Many So­ma­lis say they al­ways sus­pected Barre’s gov­ern­ment would buckle. The sur­prise was that no al­ter­na­tive regime ever ma­te­ri­al­ized to re­place it.

After Barre was ousted in 1991, the horde of clan mili­tias sacked Mogadishu. Stocked with child sol­diers chew­ing khat, a leaf that pro­duces a slight high, the mili­tias be­haved like street gangs armed with cold war sur­plus weaponry. They fought on ev­ery block and cor­ner and blew up any­thing in their path. Any­body who could get out of Mogadishu did, and So­ma­lia be­gan hem­or­rhag­ing more than a mil­lion peo­ple. Tarzan, who had been work­ing in Saudi Ara­bia as a cook and a truck driver, among other jobs, moved to Lon­don, where his wife and six chil­dren had lived for a few years. He strug­gled at first but even­tu­ally found work as a refugee coun­selor and com­mu­nity ac­tivist among Lon­don’s grow­ing So­mali pop­u­la­tion. When the Is­lamists took over So­ma­lia in 2006, Tarzan felt drawn in. He liked the Is­lamists; their au­thor­ity was not tied to clan.

In 2009, a peace ac­cord be­tween the weak gov­ern­ment and sev­eral Is­lamist fac­tions brought Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, a for­mer ge­og­ra­phy and re­li­gion teacher, to power as So­ma­lia’s first Is­lamist pres­i­dent. When Sheikh Sharif asked Tarzan to be Mogadishu’s mayor, Tarzan’s ini­tial re­ac­tion was no: “It’s a mess, and I don’t want to get dirty.” He had no real ad­min­is­tra­tive ex­pe­ri­ence, but as Hard­ing writes, “this was a gov­ern­ment with­out a coun­try—an ex­pres­sion of am­bi­tion, rather than of abil­ity, a wob­bly al­liance of com­pet­ing clan in­ter­ests parachuted into one cor­ner of a ru­ined city.” That is one of my fa­vorite sen­tences in the book and there are many oth­ers. Hard­ing is a writer of en­vi­able pow­ers and he brings a lot of em­pa­thy to his work. His book is one of the best in re­cent years to de­ci­pher So­ma­lia, a na­tion that has grabbed much at­ten­tion but re­mains opaque. He deftly takes apart clan dy­nam­ics and writes about the “acid jolt of mu­tual re­sent­ment” be­tween the So­ma­lis who re­mained in So­ma­lia through the war years and those, like Tarzan, who re­turned only after things had im­proved. Hard­ing also had won­der­ful ac­cess. Hav­ing won Tarzan’s con­fi­dence early in his may­oralty, he spent hours with him in his for­ti­fied of­fice, in the fam­ily house in Mogadishu, and in Tarzan’s crowded Lon­don flat.

Tarzan’s big­gest worry was the one shared by most vis­i­tors to So­ma­lia, in­clud­ing my­self: per­sonal sur­vival. On his first night back in Mogadishu, alShabab—see­ing him as a sta­bi­liz­ing force and there­fore a threat—launched rock­ets at his ho­tel. Hard­ing’s book be­gins with an al-Shabab at­tack on a heav­ily pro­tected mosque where Tarzan was pray­ing with such con­cen­tra­tion that he didn’t seem to no­tice, un­til he had fin­ished, that sev­eral peo­ple next to him had just been shot.

Tarzan never ad­mit­ted to be­ing scared. “The hour of my death has been writ­ten. I can­not change it,” he said again and again. Even after a min­is­ter friend was as­sas­si­nated in his liv­ing room by his own niece (an un­der­cover al-Shabab sui­cide bomber), Tarzan kept up his fear­less front. “I don’t afraid any­one,” is how he of­ten put it, in his self-taught English. De­spite his at­tempts, Hard­ing ad­mits that he doesn’t quite succeed in get­ting Tarzan to open up, so it’s dif­fi­cult to know how much of Tarzan’s bravado was play­ing to the cam­eras or a deeper in­di­ca­tion of a bat­tle-hard­ened or­phan emo­tion­ally pro­tect­ing him­self once again. Al-Shabab was a deadly threat that would men­ace Tarzan for his en­tire term in of­fice; maybe the only sus­tain­able way of deal­ing with it was be­ing fa­tal­is­tic. Even though alShabab no longer en­joyed wide­spread pop­u­lar­ity, they still re­cruited de­vout fol­low­ers will­ing to drive trucks into walls and strap on ex­plo­sives, killing thou­sands of peo­ple. Tarzan sur­vived sev­eral very close calls.

Tarzan’s first ef­forts as mayor were to clean up the city. He helped in­stall street­lights and get Mogadishu’s roads paved, draw­ing on in­ter­na­tional funds and ex­per­tise. Turkey, for in­stance, be­gan to show an un­usual in­ter­est in So­ma­lia and do­nated mil­lions of dol­lars to im­prove in­fra­struc­ture. The

Demon­stra­tors at a protest against the Is­lamist mili­tia al-Shabab, Mogadishu, So­ma­lia, Jan­uary 2016

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