Africa

Stoic Somalis give peace a chance

Nastasya Tay

In new President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud's in-tray: a war, a government bereft of functioning institutions or a budget, and a looming food crisis.

Abdul Aziz mosque imam Abdul Karim is saddened by the destruction of this ancient building but says it will be rebuilt. (Abdurashid Abdulle Abikar, AFP)

At Abdul Aziz mosque, there is no need for a painted fresco of a crescent moon. Every night Abdul Karim sleeps on a fraying grass mat on the rubble-strewn concrete floor and has a view of the sky.

He is the imam of this sacred space, now roofless, its apple-green walls edged with tired mustard, the muted peeling layers of its exterior revealing its long history. There used to be a powder-white minaret that he climbed ­every day and night to call his congregation to thank Allah. It was a place where he would stop for a moment and whisper thanks of his own for the view.

It was for this magnificent, strategic position that al-Shabaab captured the capital's oldest mosque.

Karim is angry, but patient.

He prayed here as a boy. And he has returned to the mosque entrusted to his care 15 years ago by his father, who received it from his father before him, to breathe life into its shattered walls. It is the country's birthplace of Sufi Islam, its proud construction by the Ottomans in 1033 engraved in Arabic on the inside walls.

Fighters lived and looted here. Al-Shabaab would target Sufis, killing without question, beheading them like animals, Karim said. So they hid their rosaries and stopped coming to pray.

The minaret was destroyed by a mortar from an African Union tank during some of Mogadishu's fiercest fighting last July. Its uppermost wooden platform was left hanging, ­disconnected from the sandy street, one half of the creamy stone crumbled to dust.

No food
But once a mosque, always a mosque, said Karim. He has not forgiven them. Until it was rebuilt, he said, he – and his forefathers – could not forget the pain.

In the bare lot next door, metal placards proclaim the site of the new Turkish embassy and the hope, for Karim, that the shell of his centuries-old mosque will be renewed.

"When people return, hope will come back," he said.

Some days there was no food, Karim said. But always there is faith.

This is a time of renewal in Mogadishu. It is peacetime, albeit a tense peace punctuated with suicide blasts and car bombs. The previously stagnant political process has yielded some progress. There is a Parliament, a president, a provisional constitution and the prospect of a stable, functioning government.

Abdirashid Hashi, an International Crisis Group regional analyst who has previously worked in the highest levels of Somalia's government, describes the country's presidency as the most difficult job in the world. After this week's apparent assassination attempt of the president, it is also clearly one of the most dangerous.

In new President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud's in-tray: a war, a government bereft of functioning institutions or a budget, and a looming food crisis. It is a heavy load for a man with no experience of government office and suicide bombers at his gate.

Dual explosions
"Al-Shabaab has made their intentions known," said Hashi of Wednesday's dual explosions outside Mohamud's temporary home that left at least two dead. "This is a wake-up call for the new administration and will show him what he is up against. But it will only strengthen his resolve."

It is the outcome of a seemingly tainted transition, although it has delineated some structure for governing and appointed people to the task. Thirty-five elders were proposed as members of Parliament. They were duly – and in some cases, controversially – vetted and then they elected a new head of state.

But the Somali people will have to wait another four years for a popular election.

The process, sponsored by a determinedly stoic international community, has been tarnished by widespread allegations of votes being bought, threats and bribery. The gifts doled out by candidates apparently increased in value with the seniority of the posts they were vying for.

But despite the criticism and cynicism that come with an 18th attempt at political resolution, long-time Somalia watchers said Mohamud's victory has brought newfound energy and a desire for dialogue in a growing political space.

Alexander Rondos, the European Union's special representative for Somalia, told the Mail & Guardian that the developing political climate was encouraging and would hopefully create impetus for accountability.

Rural hinterland
"Even people with dubious backgrounds – it is very much in their interest to become legitimate, if only because they want to do well," he said.

The security challenges that Mohamud said would be his "number one, number two and number three priorities" are not insignificant.

Although AU troops regularly claim victories against al-Shabaab militants, much of the rural hinterland beyond Mogadishu remains in their control. It also represents a patchwork of diverse and competing political dynamics, a stomping ground for those seeking to consolidate power.

As battles are won and the rhetoric of al-Shabaab becomes less of a unifying force, fragmentation will begin. At some point, too, the AU peacekeepers will have to leave.

Crucial, too, for success, is the necessity to change Somalia's narrative.

In the run-up to elections, presidential candidate Abdurahman Abdullahi Baadiyo described the perception of Somalia under the transitional federal government as being a fourfold world champion: in terrorism, piracy, corruption and the length of its existence as a failed state. "The world needs to see Somalia differently," he said.

For a new government without the intrinsic legitimacy of a popular vote, credibility will be key.

Without a history in public office, Mohamud's hands are clean, but he will have to lead the fight for transparency among the political elite if he wants to imbue the country's new administration with the sheen of integrity. The former academic tasked with the seemingly impossible was elected with what some analysts describe as a "protest vote", presenting himself as a viable alternative to former president Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed.

Disillusionment
Some suggest that in an effort to deny the president another term – three years is time enough in Somalia for disillusionment to set in – MPs voted for "change without upheaval". Mohamud is from the same sub-clan as his predecessor, allaying the worries of those fearing violence in the streets following a Sheikh Sharif defeat.

But others say MPs voted for a man who set himself aside from the crowd by keeping his distance from politics and clan conflicts and who stayed in Somalia and founded a university when others left. He also established what some argue is the only functioning political party in Somalia - the Peace and Development Party – mobilising other activists and lobbying for reconciliation.

Will the optimism continue? Expectations are high, but so is tolerance. "Somalis are sick of statelessness," said Hashi, and as long as Mohamud could capitalise on the momentum of his election he would be able to draw on citizens' reservoir of goodwill.

Mohamud has one month to appoint a prime minister, who will probably be from one of two clans yet unrepresented in the highest levels of government, the Dir or the Darod. Another month after that he has to form a Cabinet.

These are decisions that will leave many disappointed. But choices made between political expediency and competence would also reveal what kind of a leader Mohamud wanted to be, said Hashi.

"What Somalia needs now are leaders, not politicians," he said.

For Karim, his mosque in Abdi aziz and his hopes of a returning congregation amid the rubble, it is a time when the wisp of change is almost tangible, a time for him to find renewed belief that his patience, perseverance and faith in his country may finally pay off.

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