Somalia’s city of war reopens for business

The Times of London
Mogadishu, Somalia

Mogadishu business
A soldier guards the catch at the fish market (Times photographer, Kate Holt)

The bombed carcass of an Ilyushin IL76 cargo plane which crashed next to the runway has welcomed visitors to Mogadishu since 2007, when insurgents shot it down with a missile. Last week, work teams began slicing it up and carting away the scrap.

Inside the airport terminal, arrival forms that until recently included a section for “make and calibre of weapon” have been replaced. Among those waiting in the visa queue a few days ago was a family of Somalis clutching British passports, cameras around their necks, excited to be visiting their home country.

Foreigners still need armed guards to move around the city where suicide attacks, roadside bombs and gunfire remain regular occurrences: on Monday, a car bomb killed a former minister. But the capital is experiencing an unprecedented renaissance, thanks to relative peace and growing investment.

Ahmed Jama learned catering at Solihull College and has a restaurant in Fulham Palace Road, London, but in 2008 he returned to the country of his birth. At the time, brutal battles raged between African Union soldiers and al-Shabaab Islamic militants and civilians bore the brunt of the violence.

“It was a war. I was scared all the time,” says Mr Jama, speaking at The Village, one of his chain of busy restaurants in a converted villa in Hodan district. Until last August it was a frontline neighbourhood, but then al-Shabaab withdrew from Mogadishu and everything changed.

With the insurgents pushed out, the Transitional Federal Government, which has UN backing, has been attempting to expand its control. Soldiers, police and traffic wardens guard junctions and security is bolstered by the presence of many of the 17,000 African Union peacekeepers who drove out the rebels. Mr Jama now employs 90 people at a coffee shop and two restaurants in town and a restaurant and hotel on the white-sand Jazeera beach, south of the city.

He also has his London restaurant. “My missus, she runs it,” he says with a faint Brummie twang, but adds that Britain’s dire economy means he might sell up. “It looks like it might be better to invest here than in London.”

Mohamed Abdi used to run an estate agent’s in Luton before returning to Mogadishu 18 months ago. He is planning a development of 4,000 plots spread along 2km of beachfront. “I am definitely optimistic, this is a long-term plan and a long-term investment,” he says. His research into the property market shows rocketing prices reaching as high as £190,000 for a 400sq metre plot on Maka Al-Mukarama road, the Mayfair of Mogadishu.

Across the city, wooden scaffolding clads new buildings, plasterers fill in bulletholes, refurbished shopfronts and premises are getting new paint jobs — garish murals, sky blue and salmon pink, being especially popular.

In a stone warehouse overlooking the ocean, where shark, tuna, snappers and an upturned turtle lie on a floor slick with blood, Ibrahim Aweys, a fishmonger, says that business is better than in years. “We’re making profits now. When security came, business improved,” he says. Mr Aweys and others say that the city’s tenuous security is driving change.

Mohamed Nur, the mayor, sees a deeper shift. “The most important change that happened here is a change in the mentality of the people. People have realised they can live as human beings again,” he says. Mogadishu remains a dangerous place, but the optimism is palpable and most powerfully distilled in the Vespa scooters that buzz around the streets again. They echo a time long past when Mogadishu was a beautiful, Italianate city famed for its architecture, culture and history.

“The city will be like it used to be,” says Mr Jama. “People are tired of war, they want jobs.”

PDF: Times-City of war reopens