Mogadishu is enjoying its longest period of relative peace since the 1980s, writes Nick Meo in the Somali capital. Is it possible that the country has turned a corner?
The last time a headless body was kicked out of a pick-up truck and dumped in the dirt in front of Fatima Ali’s roadside shop, she was so used to it that she didn’t bother to find out who it was.
At the time, three weeks ago, the Islamist al-Shabaab group still held her home town of Afgoye, a row of tin shacks straddling a key junction half an hour’s drive outside Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia.
Their fighters were paranoid and desperate, becoming more brutal as they retreated, and executing any government soldier or suspected spy who fell into their hands.
“Everybody was afraid of them,” Miss Ali said. “When they slaughtered people they would display their bodies here to travellers driving past. Once I saw them behead a man in the middle of the road.”
Soon afterwards, the Shabaab, which has pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda, was driven out by Ugandan soldiers fighting with an African Union army financed and trained by America and Britain. Losing territory and with support ebbing away, the once-fearsome militia, Africa’s version of the Taliban, is now faced with defeat.
Somalis now hope that after more than 20 years of bloody anarchy, they may finally be at the beginning of a new dawn, and Western leaders including David Cameron have signalled a major new effort to help them recover.
Aid agencies are planning to move in from next-door Kenya, and British officers in uniform have arrived in Mogadishu’s fortified airport complex, ready help their new Somali allies with security. The CIA are already there, along with camera-shy private security advisors, and the occasional frontier businessman looking for potential opportunities.
But before the west starts another nation-building experiment, the Shabaab must be finished off.
Reaching Afgoye, the scene of their most recent defeat, meant joining an armoured African Union convoy with a tank escort on the main road, where only last month, Somalia’s president survived an ambush.
Abandoned villages and buildings holed by explosions line the route of the battle. Patrolling soldiers from Uganda and Burundi are still shot at every day, but the ranks of Shabaab guerrillas left the bush have been dramatically thinned by battle casualties and desertions.
“All the Shabaab fighters are thinking of escape now,” said Absher Ali Mohammed, 24, who until last Sunday was a Shabaab commander.
The Sunday Telegraph met him in an army camp in the bush outside Afgoye, where he was assisting the Ugandans, his former sworn enemies, with valuable intelligence on the Shebab, his old comrades in arms.
A slight, cheerful young man with a wispy beard, Mr Mohammed was one of hundreds of fighters to change sides in recent months.
“Al-Shebab will be finished before the end of this year,” he said. “Their problem is that they were too brutal and they never won the support of the people.”
Mr Mohammed was one of the movement’s rising stars until he calculated that it was time to get out. As he discussed his former life, with the sound of heavy machine-gun fire and mortars in the distance – what the Ugandans described as “mopping up” – his mobile phone rang.
It was his old boss, Sheikh Mustaph, a commander of 300 Shabaab fighters who is notorious for ordering dozens of beheadings and amputations for transgressions of the group’s strict Islamic codes.
For five minutes the two appeared to chat like old friends. Then, when the conversation was finished, Mr Mohammed calmly explained that Sheikh Mustaph had just threatened to personally cut his head off.
“I told him he was on the losing side if he stays with Shebab,” he said with a grin.
His comrade Abdi Abdullahi, 45, deserted two months ago.
“Everyone is fed up with fighting,” he said.
Before Shebab persuaded him to join them to defend Somalia and Islam from foreigners, he had been a gun for hire, fighting for warlords.
“If the AU wasn’t here we would go back to tribal warfare,” he said. He now wonders if he can live peacefully for the first time in his adult life, and send his children to school.
It is a very different picture from a year ago, when the African Union forces looked bogged down in a brutal street-by-street fight that had already cost them hundreds of casualties since they launched an offensive in 2010. The Burundians lost 53 men in one battle alone. Like American soldiers who pulled out of Somalia in 1994 after their disastrous Operation Restore Hope mission went badly wrong, or the Ethiopian soldiers who invaded in 2006 and went home three traumatic years later, it looked as if the AU would fail to tame Somalia’s gunmen.
The ranks of the Islamic hardliners were swollen with 250 international jihadists, many with experience of Iraq and Afghanistan, who were determined to turn Somalia into a terrorist base. With the Olympics coming up, British intelligence services are acutely aware of the risk of ethnic British Somalis getting terrorism training.
Back by intelligence and training from the US and Britain, the Africans have fought an effective campaign despite heavy casualties. They managed to push the Shebab out of Mogadishu last year. Then, in a desperate attempt to rally support abroad in February the militia’s leaders announced a merger with al-Qaeda.
It was a disastrous miscalculation. Many of their Somali supporters did not want to be linked to foreigners, and key warlords split away from Shebab’s ranks.
Now they are retreating on all fronts, split by internal arguments, and short of cash after losing cities where they levied taxes. Kenya’s army has invaded the south of Somalia to fight them, and America this week announced $33 million worth of bounties for seven of the top leaders, a financial inducement which may well be enough to make their own men turn them in.
With the Shebab gone from Mogadishu and the war shifted a few miles out into the bush, the city’s population is enjoying its longest period of relative peace since the late 1980s, although life is still far from safe. There were ten assassinations in four days last week, the mayhem actually increasing as energised businessmen and politicians jockey for markets and power.
But streets and cafes that were empty a year ago are now busy, and planes full of Somalis with bulging suitcases are returning daily.
Today, locals gather on the city’s white sanded-beachfront to swim and play volleyball, the only real danger they face being the sharks who lurk amid the Indian Ocean breakers. Guesthouses are re-opening in antiicipation of an influx of aid workers and businessmen. And while many of Mogadishu’s elegant Italianate colonial buildings have been wrecked beyond restoration, the hope is that in a few years’ time, the city may once again be restored to its 20th centruy glory days, when it was once of the most attractive ports in East Africa.
Already, property prices are also going through the ceiling – land that was worth $20,000 a year ago has jumped in price to $100,000 – and new businesses are opening every day.
Whether the new Somalia succeeds or fails may well be decided in the next few weeks as attempts are made to form a proper government. A new constitution is being drawn up and a council of elders will select a new president and prime minister by August.
If the international community feels confident enough, millions of dollars in aid will pour in, with Britain leading the way. Spreading security across Somalia is also acknowledged as the only real way to tackle the piracy gangs that continue to operate along its vast coastline. Foreign navies have admitted that catching pirates at sea will only have limited effect as long as they still have safe havens on land.
The political challenges ahead, though, are as tough as the security ones. Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government is notoriously corrupt – the World Bank this month announced that the TFG cannot account for $130 million in aid money – and most of its politicians are reputedly ineffective, although there are some good ones.
With so many problems, a ruined infrastructure, and a population traumatised by years of war, it is going to be a tall order to turn Somalia into anything like a normal place.
“I give it a 70/30 chance of success,” said one international consultant. “After so many years of war and chaos it will not be easy.
International help is desperately needed, if aid workers and the UN can be persuaded to risk their safety and come in here.
“The goal will be modest though. If they manage to turn Somalia into a normal corrupt African nation, that will be a massive improvement.” One indicator that there is confidence in the future is the return of thousands of middle class Somalis who fled the war and violence.
Many are coming full of hope from the diaspora in Africa, North America and Britain, although they are still very much aware of the dangers ahead.
“I wanted to come back to my country because you cannot be happy living as an exile, and now the economy is very good,” said Farhiye Ahmed, 32, who returned from Ethiopia last year to start a clothes shop.
“Those who butcher people have gone but there is still danger in Mogadishu,” she said. “The mafias, criminals and warlords are still in the city, and many of the Shebab are in hiding. We can see light at the end of the tunnel. My only hope is that we can reach it.”