May 30, 2014

The Phoenix City of Mogadishu Somalia - Can the city hold on?



When I began working with the government of Mogadishu, I was deeply optimistic about the future of the city.  The city was at a turning point and was gaining momentum in a positive direction.  At this very moment, as I have returned to Mogadishu for another project, I have much less certainty.

What the hell happened?

For a little background, Mogadishu has a long history of ups and downs. In 1992 the city imploded upon itself with the fall of the Soviet Union combined with bubbling local tensions. After more than a decade of civil war, the rise of the Islamic Courts in 2006 gave it a chance to recover. When the courts collapsed, a radical offshoot of its police force established al Shabaab which then squeezed much of the country with a crushing grip of violence and intimidation for 5 years. In 2011, Mogadishu got its second chance as Shabaab withdrew from the city under pressures of drought, finance, and foreign military pressures by Kenya and AMISOM.

About 90 days later, in December 2012 I was contacted by the city government of Mogadishu and I boarded a plane. Over the next couple years I was living in Afghanistan and periodically traveling to Mogadishu to conduct evaluations, pitch new solutions, and augment existing efforts. You can think of this as consulting, but with teeth. This was truly a satisfying experience because using urban planning and design strategy to stabilize and rebuild a city like Mogadishu is a highly creative effort. While the profession contains a vast wealth knowledge and expertise on how to run a city that is already functioning, there is very little on how to pull one from the ashes.

Throughout that time, the city government was led by Mohammud Nur, also known as Tarzan.  Tarzan is an inspiring man. He grew up in Mogadishu as a homeless orphan, and received his nickname because of the way he would climb buildings to evade local police for acts of petty theft. When Tarzan had the opportunity to relocate to to the UK as a refugee in the early 1980s he saw much his community living on welfare and doing little with their lives. Motivated for change, he went to school to learn new ideas and skills - I believe eventually earning an MBA - and founded one of the first internet cafes in London in the early 1990s. This single business venture expanded to include others, and along the way, he became a leading figure in the Somali diaspora as an outspoken activist and community leader.

When he was appointed Mayor, the city had no electricity, garbage collection, or sanitation services in over two decades. The city government only controlled about 4 blocks and the majority of the city was controlled by al Shabaab. It was the bleakest landscape and Tarzan likely had the hardest job in the world.

With the withdrawal of Shabaab, he jumped to the opportunity and began seeking resources, strategies, and tools for rapid change.  He wanted new ideas (thus my own modest contribution). Much happened and fast.  At the time I believed this was a historic turning point for the city, as evidenced by this video I produced during that time on the reconstruction of Mogadishu.





Fast forward to today and the future is not so certain. Tarzan was fired  in February of 2014 by the president, who cited security concerns, but there is a general consensus in Mogadishu that it is because the Mayor's popularity overshadowing his own. Shocked by the sudden dismissal, Nur left his office in prime condition as the the city government had over $100,000 USD in assets for investment (acquired primarily through the 15% airport tax). For the first time in the history of Somalia, the city was not sitting in deficit.  

The new mayor, Hassan Mohamed Hassan Mungreb, formerly held a position at the Somali Army's war college.  He came into office saying he would have Mogadishu safe within 30 days. Given the deep history of insecurity in the city, I feel little need to give commentary on the capability of the Somali military.

Also, upon entering Benaadiir, Mayor Hassan fired everyone. There is nearly zero carry over knowledge from one administration to the other. Every clerk, speaker, project manager and account were dismissed. The Deputy Mayor Iman Icar survived the purge, but he was removed from his seat as Head of Finance and put in charge of Civil Services.  Now it is three months later and the $100,000 USD is gone.  The city is again in the red.  It is also the most dangerous in the last three years with almost daily attacks.

Mayor Hassan also fired all the district representatives. This has had a mixed effect. For years, Nur struggled with many of the district representatives because many of them were longtime warlords with significant power. His strategy was to slowly push these guys to the edge, to make them less significant, ultimately by awarding promotions into superfluous positions wherein their power base would erode. He would then replace them with younger, better educated, and capable individuals. The former district commissioner of Hamar JibJib is a good example of this change.

Under Hassan all the old regimes are gone and in many ways, that is promising. Yet he personally appointed new Disctrict Commissioners that have no following or reputation. Today, Somali citizens do not know their local leaders, creating a new level of chaos. Worse, the former DCs have now become targets for al Shabaab.  With no government protection, they have built their own personal militias, again, distorting the landscape of power away from centralized governance and into fractured chaos.

As a whole, the problems of the Somalia government are not restricted to the municipal level.  I am not as intimate with the individuals holding federal office, but I do have some knowledge of the mechanics. For example, when Parliament passes a motion - perhaps a new law? - the motion is not written down or archived in any fashion. There is in fact no written record or knowledge management system within the government. Obviously laws are made and forgotten or applied inconsistently because there is no basic platform for communication.

I wish communication and information management was the biggest problem, because it is easy to fix. Parliament is a big building. You could probably run the country using a wall full of colored post-it notes with much success.

Yet a bigger problem exists in the substructure of the government, and community, that is common within all fragile states but acute within Mogadishu.  In a society of scarce resources,  perpetual state of crisis of dominates all actions and within Mogadishu. It create fear and paranoia and here, this mode of thinking is entrenched.  In a state of emergency, everything is about "me first" thus negating opportunities for creativity and reason. As long as Mogadishu is always a city of emergency (by the residents, the actors, and the outside community), the political will and collective action will remain fractured by the myopic fight-or-flight sensibility of emergency thinking. When your leader's actions are founded on "me first" impulses, then your own only response becomes "me too," and no one can win. Binary conditions give no room to consider the greater good.

In 2012 and 2013 I cautiously walked the streets of the city, if only for a few minutes, hopeful that in a year I could soon walk them freely. I travelled freely in a car from one destination to another, sometimes with armed guards and sometimes not. Now, while I'm willing to venture past the airport (why are there so many white people at the airport? what could they possibly be doing?), I can't actually leave the hotel. Because of the extreme level of suspicion dominating the community, I can't even conduct business in the lobby or have a lunch meeting in the restaurant. Even worse, this sort of restricted mobility does little to improve security. Sunday, when the parliament exploded in chaos, the ground shook with explosions and stray bullets bounced off the walls (listen to an audio recorded moment of the event below or here). Everyday there has been some kind of attack and the population is tense. The majority of Somalis I meet are afraid to walk down their own street.



What is next?  I don't know. I want this city to succeed.

Most people I know, from my upbringing in the US, think of a place like the city of Mogadishu the far edge of the world. But I disagree.  A city like Mogadishu is the center.  It is in Mogadishu that the smallest changes can have the biggest impact on the global community in terms of creating a safe and free world void of suffering or one that is distressed and painful. If a day goes without a gunshot in Detroit, it is novel, but if it happens in Mogadishu it creates entirely new possibilities for the future.  A thriving Mogadishu opens trade and creates new markets for western business.  A stable Mogadishu can build more jobs in America or send more goods into Europe.  If you don't believe me, then why did Somali piracy cost the world 18 Billion Dollars? If Mogadishu, and the greater Somalia, can continue to push through and establish itself on stronger footing, it won't just change the lives it's people, it will change the world.