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