Life goes on in Somalia amid the chaos

Monday August 16 2010

Militants of al-Shabaab train with weapons on a street in the outskirts of Mogadishu. Photo/REUTERS

Militants of al-Shabaab train with weapons on a street in the outskirts of Mogadishu. Photo/REUTERS 

By PATRICK GATHARA

Hussein Abdulkadir wakes up every morning at 5.30 am. After a quick shower and morning prayer, he has breakfast with his wife and three children.

He then makes sure they do not miss the school bus, and he also gets on a bus to travel to the hospital where he works.

Money is in short supply and, like many workers across the globe, the 30-year-old nurse worries about his ability to provide for his family.

“I have to pay rent at the end of the month. The kids go to a private school, which is very expensive.”

What makes Abdulkadir’s mundane story remarkable is that he lives in what has been described as the most dangerous city on the planet: Mogadishu.

For many, Somalia epitomises a situation of constant crisis, a “black hole” of death and disaster.

For the past three years, the country has occupied the top spot in the Failed States Index compiled by the Fund for Peace and Foreign Policy magazine.

Though there is a paucity of meaningful human development data, available indicators paint a sorry picture.

For example, drought and civil unrest have displaced 1.5 million people and, according to the World Food Programme, left 70 per cent of the population in central Somalia in need of humanitarian assistance.

Overall, a third of Somalis are dependent on food aid and one in six children is acutely malnourished — a total of some 240,000 children — the highest acute malnutrition rates anywhere in the world.

Maternal mortality rates are also among the highest in the world, with studies showing that as many as 45 women die everyday during pregnancy and childbirth.

However, this image belies the reality of emerging national and sub-national political entities that have ensured a degree of civilian security in particular places at particular times as people have adapted their behaviour and livelihoods to cope with insecurity and even to profit from the opportunities that conflict throws up.

“There is life in the midst of all the chaos,” says Abdulkadir. “Not everyone has left. We cannot leave the country to the dogs.”

Anna Lindley, formerly a research officer at the Refugee Studies Centre and now a lecturer in development studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, says: “On one level, the question of why people have been leaving Mogadishu since 2006 has an obvious answer. But on another level, many of the people find ways to negotiate daily dangers. They are witnesses to the past two decades of insecurity, but their voices are rarely heard. Life does go on, albeit in ways outsiders often find hard to imagine.”

“Four of my children go to school but for the past few weeks their learning has been interrupted by the fighting,” says Abdullah Nur, a 55-year-old porter at the city’s Aden Ade International Airport.

“We are used to such clashes and after some time, life goes back to normal.”

The absence of a central government has had a surprisingly limited effect on daily life, with “local authorities” largely filling the vacuum.

These have provided a surprising degree of stability in some places.

“Notwithstanding the general perception of Somalia as anarchic, basic law and order is in fact the norm in most locations... much of the Somali countryside — especially Somaliland, Puntland, and pockets of southern Somalia — is safer for local residents than is the case in neighbouring countries. It is important not to confuse the security problems of international aid agencies with security problems for average residents,” says Ken Menkhaus, a professor at Davidson College and a specialist on Horn of Africa issues.

Under the stewardship of the Transitional Federal Government, which has been in place since October 2004, the country has made major strides.

That year, according to African Executive, enrolment in primary school shot up to 300,000, much higher than what it was before the civil war.

In addition to secondary schools, vocational institutes, and adult education colleges, the country now has up to 10 universities, three of which are ranked among Africa’s top 100.

They include Hargeysa University, Mogadishu University, Puntland State University, Amoud University and Banadir University.

Improvements have also been recorded in the health sector.

Unicef country representative Rozanne Chorlton says Somalia is on track to be free of measles and tetanus.

It has been polio-free since 2007 and in 2009 immunised 1.5 million children — 85 per cent of those under five — as well as 1 million women, 65 per cent of those in childbearing age, against tetanus.

Ordinary life is sustained by a vigorous economy based on pastoral and agro-pastoral livelihoods, and on trade.

Nomads and semi-pastoralists, who make up a large portion of the population, are dependent on livestock for their livelihoods.

The sector accounts for about 40 per cent of GDP and about 65 per cent of export earnings.

Commercial infrastructure and institutions, says the World Vision, are functional and relatively sophisticated.

The sprawling Somali diaspora sends home an estimated $1 billion every year.

The country has some of the best telecommunications in Africa — a number of companies are ready to wire home or office and provide crystal-clear service, including international long distance, for about $10 a month.

According to the BBC, it takes just three days for a landline to be installed — compared with waiting-lists of many years in neighbouring Kenya.

Prior to 1991, the national airline had only one aeroplane.

Now there are approximately 15 airlines, with 60 sixty aircraft plying six international destinations, and many more domestic routes in Somalia.

According to a 2005 World Bank report, “the private airline business in Somalia is thriving.”

The carriers offer competitively priced tickets and are crucial to Somalia’s booming trade and the delivery of humanitarian assistance by the international community.

The international airport in Mogadishu has been renovated and sports a new three-kilometre runway, an 80-foot air traffic control tower, a reorganised baggage system and even a duty free shop and restaurant.

However, the insurgency continues to pose grave problems.

Jihadist cells in Mogadishu are increasingly fragmented and answer to no one.

Some have targeted national aid workers and civil society leaders.

This has infused political violence with a high level of unpredictability and randomness in Mogadishu, eroding the ability of Somali aid workers, businesspeople, and civic figures to take calculated risks in their movement and work.

The US State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report, published in June 2009, noted the widespread use of children in fighting forces in the country.

Extremist groups opposed to the TFG, such as the Al Shabaab, conscript and recruit children as young as eight years, including girls, to plant bombs and carry out assassinations.

“I have so many friends who were brainwashed by the Al Shabaab to join them. I don’t think we will realise peace at home as long as Al Shabaab exists,” says a Somali teenager who gave his name simply as Kadhar.

The militias also reportedly traffic Somali women and children within the country for sexual exploitation and forced labour.

The diminished capacity of the transitional government also presents huge challenges.

The livestock industry, one of the main pillars of the economy, lacks proper regulation and lacks certificate of origin regimes needed to meet phytosanitary requirements for international trade, affecting access to export markets.

Following an outbreak of Rift Valley Fever on the African Horn in 2000, Saudi Arabia banned livestock imports from the country for nine years.

Similarly, the lack of a monetary authority has resulted in the frequent issue of “counterfeit” Somali shillings, triggering inflation.

The informal hawala system of remittances may be efficient but is unable to demonstrate compliance with international standards and regulations, and has in some cases been subject to legal sanctions.

In addition, the absence of macroeconomic management leaves the economy at the mercy of businessmen and money traders.

Abdallah Hussein, 20, who lives in the capital, says: “Life in Mogadishu is very harsh. There are no jobs, there is nothing at all. I wish the country were a better place where I could go to school, live a better life and shape my future”

The situation is complicated by easy access to firearms. Mogadishu is awash with weapons.

There is even an arms bazaar called Cirtogte or “Sky Shooter” within the expansive Bakara market where feuding groups have a ready supply of cheap munitions, guns, grenades and mortars.

Says Saado Ahmed, an 18-year-old resident of the city: “The biggest challenge facing the youth in Mogadishu is lack of opportunities. Youths have nothing to do, they are all idlers and that is what makes them vulnerable to these armed groups. Most of the soldiers you see fighting each other are youngsters with no future at all. They just believe in guns.”

Additional reporting by Guled Mohamed and Alinoor Moulid