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The Story of a New Mogadishu

Somalia’s history has been long dominated by raging conflicts and aggressive, authoritarian governments.  Before it emerged as a modern state, it was subject to the presence of tribal wars, later bound together by the colonialist ambitions of the British and the Italians.   Upon independence the country achieved a temporary level a stability, but at a cost, as the dictatorship of Said Barre utilized oppressive tactics of espionage and secret police forces to maintain control over the nation.  Barre also was a master of manipulating cold war politics to his advantage, but when the Soviet Union collapsed, the government of Somalia was soon to follow.  In 1991 the government fell apart and civil war consumed the nation, initiating 21 years of war.

Today Somalia has yet to fully heal, but the nation’s capital of Mogadishu is quickly becoming the world’s greatest success story.  On August 2011, the militant group al Shabaab abandoned the city, relinquishing 6 nearly of control due to the pressures of environmental famine and fighting against adversaries on multiple fronts.  The rebuilding of Mogadishu began almost immediately.  Somalia continues to maintain a top-down political system, a lingering relic from the days of Soviet influence.  Yet this system is beginning to change, as the city residents, the returnees, and supportive communities abroad the real change-makers.

To provide a catalyst for community-level engagement and change, the Mayor of Mogadishu, Mohamoud Nur, has teamed up with Urban Interactive Studio and strategic planning firm Sutika Sipus, to create an online platform for Somali returnees and all those who witness the changes in Mogadishu to share their experiences.  Now, with a means for broad, global communication among all stakeholders, Mogadishu is undergoing radical transformation from the ground up.

Contemporary processes of post-war reconstruction feature an array of actors, such as UN organizations, non-governmental agencies, and extensive aid packages by foreign governments.  While all of these institutions may maintain positive and locally connected priorities, their presence may also prove detrimental via prompting rapid inflation, distorting real estate markets, alongside a combination of internal mandates and disproportionate advantages to the local population.

Yet Mogadishu is different.  There are international actors in Mogadishu, most notably the presence of Turkish aid workers and infrastructure reconstruction projects overseen by the International Order of Migration (IOM), and funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).   Yet the rebuilding streets and sewer systems fail to explain the broader level of change found within the city.

When al Shabaab withdrew from Mogadishu, the city was at peace for the first time in decades.  Where it was previously impossible to walk down many streets, or send children to school, residents suddenly had the ability to discover their city; a city in shambles.  A group of high school students began to pick up trash in front of their home, and after about an hour, discovered that their small amount of individual effort made a massive impact when applied collectively.  They began to recruit other students, regardless of age, tribe, or neighborhood, and organized sessions for city cleanup.  Growing in size and organization, the newly founded Mogadishu City Volunteers began to undertake projects throughout the city, cleaning abandoned lots of garbage and razor wire, planting trees and flowers.

It has been estimated that 14% of Somalia’s population is in diaspora.[1]  But today, many are returning to reclaim property, open new businesses, and rebuild.  The return of so many Somalis has been a contentious issue in the city.  This population brings many assets such as global education, multicultural experiences, and money.  But their presence also escalates local real-estate prices, creates tiered economies, and ultimately presents greater challenges to the local populations who are attempting to rebuild their lives.

The majority of Somalis who return however, do not necessarily return with the intent to settle; at least not immediately.  With 21 years of war alongside decades of tyrannical oppression by the former government of Said Barre, many who sought refugee asylum during the last 40 years have little desire to return, but a lingering curiosity about change.  Those in diaspora with the greatest interest appear to be the youth, those who left Somalia as children or lived their entire lives in foreign country, forever raised on stories of the homeland.  Many younger Somalis return to investigate the rebirth of Mogadishu for a few months and then return to their home in Europe or America to report news of change.  Some of these younger Somalis do return again, later, but this time with a business plan intact.

Unfortunately for those who visit Mogadishu and then return home there is little space for the stories to be shared.  Beyond the kitchen walls or the family room, few others will hear about the dramatic changes taking place in Somalia.  Most of us are limited to popular news coverage.  But change cannot happen in a vacuum.  For Mogadishu to succeed, it must also be connected to the outside world through real bonds. 

In an era of globalization, Somalia requires the interest of more than the Somali people to prosper.  Support is not need in terms of aid money or humanitarian relief, but rather through the establishment of viable business relationships to reassert and leverage Mogadishu’s strategic location.   Historically, Somalia has functioned as the gateway to Africa, linking Asia and the Gulf states with the sub-Saharan.  Its position remains significant, yet to be successful it must form a new identity.  For decades Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, has been referred to as the world’s most dangerous city, but if the stories of its current revival can be shared and embraced, a new identify will form as the greatest success story of our time.


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