In Somalia, optimism rises
One year after the ouster of the Islamist militia, the capital city prospers. But Al Shabab remains a threat.
A little over a year ago, perhaps the most common sound heard on a Mogadishu morning, after the muezzinâ€™s call to prayers, was gunfire.Â
Today, youâ€™re more likely to hear the clang of hammers and the drone of drills.Â
On Aug. 6, Mogadishans celebrated a year to the day since Al Shabab, now partnered with Al Qaeda, slunk out of the cityâ€™s center under cover of darkness, leaving it to government forces. Within weeks, Shababâ€™s fighters would be pushed from Mogadishuâ€™s margins, too.Â
â€śThis used to be a place where misdirected mortars always fell ... and people were killed daily,â€ť says Nur Ibrahim Adan, a shopkeeper at Bakara Market, once an Al Shabab stronghold.Â
â€śNow there is a great change. There is no fear; there are no casualties. There are new buildings, new customers. Already my profit is much higher.â€ť Heâ€™s persuaded things will stay quiet so long as African Union soldiers remain.Â
Somaliaâ€™s capital is in the midst of a transformation of greater significance, happening at greater speed, than at any time in the past 20 years, bringing cautious hope that a measure of peace may finally be taking root. The shift started with the removal of Al Shabab, beginning early on Aug. 6, 2011, after months of daily bombardment by the African Union mission, AMISOM.Â
Now traders who no longer fear stray bullets or mortar blasts are repainting and refitting glass to their shopfronts. Solar-powered streetlights brighten evenings along newly patched roads that marked front lines just a year ago.Â
Remittances from abroad have increased by 20 percent since January, according to Dahabshiil, an international money-transfer firm. The Somali shilling has strengthened by almost 50 percent against the dollar in 12 months.Â
â€śPeople realized that we now had security when we saw there was no more fighting and no more bombings, and every area became populated again,â€ť says Farah Jimale, owner of Cosmetics Center at Bur Ubax in Bakara Market. â€śNow truly there is opportunity here and I have many new customers.
â€śAl Shabab, though, it is a group full of clever tactics,â€ť he adds. â€śI am concerned they can come back. Already they are killing government officials. It is hard not to worry.â€ťÂ
The Islamist army, while weakened, is far from defeated. Only Mogadishu and a clutch of other towns are in government hands. Al Shabab still controls much of Somaliaâ€™s rural south, and the major port city of Kismayo.
Its commanders boast that the withdrawal from Mogadishu was strategic rethink; that it has shifted from a guerrilla army holding territory to what one analyst termed â€śa true hit-and-run terror group.â€ťÂ
â€śNow we are saving money, while the enemy pays more and more to secure land it seized, recruit new soldiers, pay for services,â€ť Sheikh Mohamed Ibrahim, an Al Shabab commander, tells the Monitor. â€śDo you think really they can continue like that forever? Already we are in Mogadishu every night, carrying out missions.â€ťÂ
But the greatest obstacle to Mogadishuâ€™s rise is Somaliaâ€™s leadership, says J. Peter Pham, director of the Michael S. Ansari Africa Center at the Atlantic Council in Washington. â€śThereâ€™s still no government presence, in terms of offering services or administrating, in the space thatâ€™s been opened up by forcing Shabab out,â€ť he says.Â
The government also faces an Aug. 20 deadline â€“ described by Dr. Pham as â€śimpossibleâ€ť â€“ when Somaliaâ€™s transitional government must cede power.