Saturday, November 10, 2012

Letter from Mogadishu

On the 5th of September, 2012, I packed up my bags and moved back to Mogadishu! I know, sounds mad to choose to live in a city known as the “most dangerous city in the world” when I have options. But you see, I am absolutely tired of visas, immigration offices, work permits, deportation threats, sneaking out of countries coz my visa expired, and learning new languages. I will rather dust off my Somali than improve my Portuguese or Swahili, I figured.
Secondly, if Somalis in the Diaspora, who are known as “fadhi ku dirir”, or “armchair activists”, and I was one of them for years, don’t move back to Somalia, we will have crazies, extremists, former government-hand-out-dependents, anyone who couldn’t find a job in the West, run this beautiful country to the ground. We literally have to vote with our feet and come back in droves to reclaim Somalia.
This is my second time ‘moving back home’ but this time I wasn’t running away from London’s depressing gray sky. I packed up my bags in London in 2004 and said “I am going back home”, showed up in Mogadishu and 4 months later, I was back in London, with the same “I am going back home” slogan! For some odd reasons, I have always felt a pull to this city even though I don’t have a lot of positive memories from when I lived here years ago. That decision was speeded up when I worked on the 2012 Presidential campaign for a former boss and good friend. I was supposed to help him only for a week in the first week of August, but I ended up staying for the whole campaign period. Looking back, I think it was a blessing in disguise to have stayed, at the cost of getting into a difficult situation with my then bosses at the NGO I was working for.
I have landed at the deep end of Somali politics and at a crossroads for this country’s bloody history of the past 22 years. I have met few of the presidential candidates, so many of the MPs (who were electing the President), traditional elders, women, youth, and lots of whealer dealers. The month and half of the campaign taught me more about the state of Somali politics than an MSc in politics did! It was raw politics, so much clan dealings and negotiations that in the end, didn’t get the candidate I was campaigning for elected despite so many promises and optimism! I was amazed by the sheer lies of the many MPs who spent a lot of time with him and promised they would vote for him. In the end, only 8 gave him their votes compared to nearly 40 of what we thought were solid voters for our camp for the first round (there were 3 rounds)! This will take time to digest and learn from, because there might be good reasons for this kind of brave lies and promises which I can’t understand at the moment.
Despite the loss in our camp, we have gained a lot from this election. My first support was for the candidate I was working for to win but when he lost, I was so glad to see a fresh newcomer defeating the overly confident, brutal and loaded former President lose! I chose not to be at the election venue that day, thank goodness! But I was glued to the TV and on social media watching the reactions of Somalis in the Diaspora. It was an emotional day and there was so much buzz on social media that Somalia became a trending topic on Twitter! During the day, I went for a drive, to get away from the tension of everyone gathering around the TV to watch the process. I knew the real election would be delayed so I went to the beach with some friends and driving thorough Mogadishu was like a ghost town! OK, so the image most people have of Mogadishu is that it is a ghost town with nutcase suicide bombers, which is not all accurate. Part of the city is very busy and you won’t even feel you are in an unstable city, with lots of traffic, noisy traders, police every corner. The other part, lives up to the reputation. Ghostly, ruined buildings, empty of its former residents and just a stark reminder of how far this civil war has gone.  
I got back in time for the elections and it was one of the most stressful experiences as emotions ran high both on TV and on social media. Our candidate sadly lost on the first round but the battle to remove the incumbent President was more agonizing and longer process. At the first round, he had the most votes, 64 out of 220 votes and 23 candidates! I thought that was it, it was over for Somalia’s chance to turn a new page. I kept calling a friend inside the election venue who usually has a good idea of how things work in Somali politics. He reassured me that since the second runner up has only 4 votes less, it is over for the President! I turned to social media to see if anyone agreed, but no, the mood was one of defeat.
You could hear the noisy shock of the nearly 2,000 people crammed in the election venue, thorough the live TV coverage. The minute the results were announced, almost everyone, apart from the President, were on their feet. Presumably, those with the lowest votes just got annoyed and left to evaluate the financial damage and others had to reshuffle their allegiance and do last minute campaign to either boost the President’s votes or make sure they give all their support to the runner up. The first round was supposed to produce 4 candidates with the most votes among the 23, second round was supposed to eliminate 2 of the 4 and last round to produce a President. However, the first round produced such an unexpected and imbalanced numbers that it upset the neat plan, with 64 for the incumbent President, 60 for a totally fresh face, Hassan Sheikh, 37 for the incumbent Prime Minister and 20 votes for a businessman newcomer!
­To make the situation even more tense, and maybe because they realized they had no chance and now the real fight was to block the incumbent President from staying in office, both 3rd and 4th runner ups decided to throw in their towels! They both also gave short speeches calling for MPs to support ‘change for Somalia’, which we all understood to mean vote the new guy in.
Few hours later the result was announced, after a lot of behind the scene last minute desperate moves by both sides, incumbent President apparently giving cash out to MPs to buy their votes, from the tinted-windowed black landcruiser parked in the courtyard of the election venue. There are also reports for the Mogadishu mayor lobbying for him by asking the candidates with the least votes to give the President their support! The mayor is supposed to stay out of this, or at least not be so blatant about it, it shows the over-confidence of all those in his camp about his re-election!
The second round counting was such a surprise I couldn’t believe it, I don’t think anyone could. The count was like, for every 20 votes, 3 went to the President and the rest to this totally fresh new face to politics! If there was a written profile of the new guy online, google search would have probably crashed that evening! Everyone was on social media and on the phone asking, who the hell is this guy? How did he pay (no other way can he defeat Shariif, the deep pocketed) to get these many votes? The answer is probably, a lot of Arab money and he was lucky enough to be in a place where he was competing against a guy who symbolized what Somalis are trying to bury and leave behind, a never ending transitional government and a deeply corrupt one at that. Talk about being at the right place at the right time, with a bit of work of course, to get 60 votes in the first place, takes a lot.
This was a massive achievement. Somalia has been under a limbo “transitional government” since 2006 and we needed to move on to a more permanent and stable government.
Apart from the hope raised by these changes, the people I have met during the campaign, especially younger Somalis with a vision of future Somalia I could relate to, has ignited a fire in me to want to return and contribute somehow. This is a place I dreamt of returning and living peacefully, under a functioning government. This was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. I just had to make the move and think later, about how to survive in a city where you need a bodyguard to move around. Apart from the fact that it is very expensive, it is also not how I ever imagined living. And how do you make a decent living in Mogadishu if you want to stay away from politics and don’t have money for business? Too many questions and I would have easily backed out, the solution was in dive first and think later, as usual.