Can expatriate Somalis rebuild their country?

  • 14 August 2012
  • From the section Africa
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Mohammed Martello was standing on a sand dune beside the beach just north of Mogadishu, with a big grin on his face.

"Look at that view," sighed Mr Martello, an estate agent who returned home to Somalia recently after years spent living in Luton, England.

Nearby, two elegantly dressed Somali women - one in business, the other a politician's wife - emerged from an air-conditioned car to view the plots with keen interest.

"We've sold 115 houses… Prices are skyrocketing. Everybody is looking for property. I want to make enough money to buy a good house for my kids in Chelsea, London! Posh area! Now is the time to stabilise Somalia - 110%!" gushed Mr Martello.

His enthusiasm is not merely a sales pitch.

After more than 20 years of war and anarchy, Mogadishu is enjoying a rare, extended period of relative calm.

Amidst the rubble, homes are being rebuilt, cafes and hotels opening, thousands of members of the diaspora are returning, and everyone is talking - with varying degrees of confidence - about a future without bloodshed.

There are two driving factors behind that optimism.

Firstly, the militant Islamist group al-Shabab, which once controlled more than half the city, was driven out by African Union and Somali government troops more than a year ago and now appears to pose only a limited threat inside Mogadishu. The group has also lost control of several other key towns and cities.

Secondly, after years of failed peace initiatives organised abroad, Somalia's endlessly feuding politicians are finally back in their own capital city, and nearing the climax of an exhaustive, Somali-led, internationally chaperoned new process that has already delivered a new constitution and by 20 August is supposed to produce a new parliament and president - and with luck, something resembling a functioning government with a reach that might extend far beyond Mogadishu.

Corruption concern

The relative calm in Mogadishu is encouraging expatriate Somalis such as Mohammed Martello to return

"Vote for a real leader," shouted a group of women standing in matching outfits at the heavily guarded gates of the city's airport. They broke into song as a heavily armed convoy emerged, carrying the latest candidate to throw his hat into the presidential ring.

For many years Yusuf Garaad has been running the BBC's Somali Service from Bush House in London. He quit last week and flew back to Mogadishu.

"I believe the diaspora will have a big role to play in Somali politics. We have seen what peace and development mean," he said. Hours after landing, al-Shabab announced on a website its intention to kill him.

"I think that [threat] is positive for my campaign. It shows that they know I mean business and I don't like them and won't let them exercise their brutal terrorism in Somalia," he declared.

That threat is one of many signs that a little scepticism may be appropriate amid all the excited predictions that Somalia is finally turning a corner.

The UN has already warned that the election process - consisting of a clan-based system for nominating MPs, who in turn pick the president - is riddled with corruption. Many insiders have acknowledged as much, with reports that $50,000 (£31,832) is now the going rate for an MP's seat.

"It's a very depressing situation," said Mohammed Nur, the mayor of Mogadishu. "Where do they get the money from? That money is supposed to build the roads and hospitals."

It's hard to gauge the full extent of the alleged corruption. But it's a measure of both how much worse things have been in the past, and how desperate Somalis are for progress, that most people I've spoken to here are inclined to invest real hope in the current "road map", even if it is an obviously flawed process at the mercy of the usual currents of clan rivalry and regional divisions.

"It's like sausages being made," said Abdul Karim Jama, a former presidential adviser who now runs a think tank in Mogadishu.

"The process is messy, but it should pave the way for a one person one vote election in four years' time. Most importantly, the ordinary people are behind this process."

Significantly, there's supposed to be a quota for women MPs, and a committee busy attempting to screen candidates and bar those without qualifications, as well as the more notorious warlords.

'Biggest vote of confidence'

In the Hamar Weyne market, a shop owner rubbed his fingers together to indicate that the election process was corrupt, but then shrugged and said "things are getting better, for sure".

"Hopefully we will reclaim our country in the next few months," said Tariq Bihi, a London-based Somali who came home this year to advise the Somali Prime Minister, Abdiweli Mohamed Ali, who is also running for president.

"Everybody is coming back. People are investing their money - that's the biggest vote of confidence you can have," said Mr Bihi.

He insisted Mogadishu was no more dangerous today "than any other big city", but conceded that the prime minister's campaign schedule was being severely curtailed because of fears he could be targeted by al-Shabab militants, who continue to infiltrate the city and only last week killed six soldiers with a roadside bomb.

Politicians expect a functioning government after the elections

"I'm more or less a prisoner here," said Mohammed Yahye, a 28 year old from Wembley, London, who came back to Mogadishu three months ago to help with a charity that provides small grants to youth groups in the city.

"People might attack me because I'm diaspora - thinking I've got money. They think we are all rich but that's not the case. Al-Shabab are still lurking around in Mogadishu streets so it's not good to walk around like back at home," he said, but insisted things were improving.

Back at the beach, Mohammed Martello was watching a bulldozer try to smooth over the dunes. Our security guards eyed the landscape warily - the edges of Mogadishu remain contested ground and this area used to be an al-Shabab stronghold.

For now, Mr Martello conceded, most houses are being bought by speculators looking "to flip" the properties for a profit. He said his company tries to work only with "legitimate" investors but has no real way of telling if the cash comes from pirates or other criminals.

"To be honest, corruption in Somalia is epidemic. It's worse than the warlords. Worse than al-Shabab. If we don't fight corruption we will end up with nothing," he said, but then quickly moved back onto more positive territory.

"After so many phases - tribal, warlords, religious - now every option has finished," he said.

So Somalis have run out of reasons to fight? "Absolutely."

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