The madness and chaos of Somalia is good: Tales from a broken country

By Charles Onyango-Obbo - I just returned from the Somalia capital, Mogadishu. I got the first taste of Somalia in the departure lounge of the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport.
The madness and chaos of Somalia is good: Tales from a broken country

The lounge was full of Somalis who were to take the flight, and they were quite rowdy. Some passengers would leave the lounge and walk into the embarkation area to look out for “our plane” as if it were a matatu.

Yet, that was nothing compared to what happened in Mogadishu on the return leg. Total madness and chaos. Inside the airport was as bad, because the place was full of hustlers.

Even to get a departure card, there is a fixer trying to make a cut.

We went to Villa Somalia, a high security area because that is where the offices of President Sharif Sheikh Ahmed and Prime Minister Abdiweli Mohamed Ali are located.

Outside the Villa Somalia compound, the place looked like a market. There were all sorts of people sitting around on benches and on the grass, arguing, laughing, and making noise.

You wouldn’t do even a kilometre away from the Ethiopian, Rwandan, or Ugandan State House.

If you have a stereotypical view of Somalis as “naturally” disorderly, lawless, and ungovernable, these scenes of chaos would confirm your outlook. Perhaps not.

My sense is that Somalis live in a bizarre post-democracy society, and because clan loyalties are so strong, to win their respect, you have to rise to standards that its recent leaders have failed to meet.

When Ugandan troops arrived in Mogadishu as the first Amisom contingent, and were later joined by Burundi, the Somalis didn’t think they would ever eject Al Shabaab from the city.

There was good reason for it. Several of the young militants in Al Shabaab grew up in war and in the ruins of Mogadishu. They know the mangled city like the back of their hands.

Al Shabaab, Amisom officers will tell you, is one of the most accomplished urban guerilla outfits in the world.

The stories of what it took to defeat them in Mogadishu are riveting. Amisom would fight the Shabaab for three days non-stop only to gain 50 metres.

A Ugandan officer told me that the Shabaab taught them lessons that have made them among the best urban warfare armies on the continent.

That is what it took for the Somalis to take Amisom seriously.

I also think that this chaos is the source of the famed entrepreneurship of the Somali. Any Somali shopkeeper or bank, eventually must learn to listen to 20 people shouting at them at the same time.

Those skills enable some Somalis to see through clutter better than most East Africans, and to sniff opportunity where there seems to be none.

Perhaps because of this, the Somali diaspora is destined to succeed. Prime Minister Abdiweli’s tone actually has a tinge of superiority when he refers to Somali’s diaspora success.

The Turks, too, are respected. They rebuilt the Mogadishu airport; constructed a new hospital complete with elevators have repaired schools, and their charities do the best work in Mogadishu.

When Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Mogadishu last year, he came with his family and ministers.

Unlike UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and Britain’s Foreign minister William Hague, Erdogan did not travel in Amisom armoured cars weighed down with a helmet and bulletproof jacket (as indeed we too were). Nor did he stay in Amisom’s heavily fortified base compound.

Somalis like what they see from the Turks. Not surprisingly, the most popular name for newly born babies in Mogadishu recently is Istanbul. And the name for a rich man who helps the needy is Turk.

It is a long way to go, but in the five months that Amisom has firmly taken control of Mogadishu, it is remarkable how much renovation and building is taking place.

Today, parts of Mogadishu have a very Nairobi-like or Kampala-style problem – one hour plus traffic jams.

Somalia exports more banana than any other East African country. Despite two decades of war, Somalis still have more livestock per capita than any other country in the world.

And it exports more frozen beef than Tanzania, Uganda, or Rwanda.

Somalia is still nasty and brutish. But it is not yet a totally lost cause.

This Article was originally published in the Daily Nation

Article 21 May 2021 10:14

I read your article on Foreign Policy with keen eyes and interest. While whining from public officials does not deserve response from any sensible citizen of the Republic of Somalia, I felt compelled to counter false narrative with more objective analysis.