2014-07-31
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On Somali president's plate: goat liver and state rebuilding

Friday, March 01, 2013

Breakfasting on porridge, vegetables and goat liver, Somalia's president listens attentively to his advisors -- a new day is starting for the man tasked with rebuilding his country ravaged by years of war.
President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud during an interview with AFP at Mogadishu's Presidential Palace on February 26, 2013 (AFP/File, Abdurashid Abdulle Abikar)

It is almost six months since Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, a former professor and virtual newcomer to the political scene, was elected president by the new parliament.

Since his surprise election he has governed the part of the country under his control with a small team of advisors.

This morning he is scolding the team for their "lack of preparation" the previous day when ambassadors from five European countries presented credentials and a microphone failed to work.

"If something does not work, there must be an immediate backup," Hassan said.

The advisors keep their eyes fixed on their plates in the dining room of Villa Somalia, the elegant art deco presidential palace built under Italian colonial rule.

A microphone that conks out may seem like a minor detail in a country where hundreds of thousands have perished in the war and tens of thousands in famine, but for Hassan, seeking to "re-lay the foundations of the state" the devil is in the detail.

The conversation turns to domestic politics.

His flashy computer open in front of him, Malik Abdalla, the young man in charge of communications, reads a rambling statement by the Shebab Islamists in which they distance themselves from a former comrade in arms, Al Amriki or the American, a militant who came from Alabama to fight in Somalia.

President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud (L) and an advisor (R) at the Presidential Palace in Mogadishu on February 26, 2013 (AFP/File, Abdurashid Abdulle Abikar)

"They want to send a message to their financers that the Shebab are one," Abdalla analyses.

Three years ago, the same Al-Qaeda-linked Islamists controlled most of the capital Mogadishu, launching regular attacks on the tiny government foothold of Villa Somalia.

Since then the Shebab have been expelled from all major urban strongholds by a 17,000-strong African Union force.

The Shebab sent suicide bombers against Hassan, barely two days after his election, but he survived the attack.

To get close to the presidential palace visitors have to zigzag their way through a series of road blocks.

The sharp comment about the failed microphone is Hassan's only flash of bad temper. He comes across as an affable man, with a round face and small beard, who seems willing to listen.

Hassan, 57, who has a background in working with civil society groups, tells diplomats and UN officials in good English that what he really wants is help with nation building.

Since his election Hassan spends most of his time at Villa Somalia -- where his two wives have a separate house -- or outside the country, in London, Brussels or Washington.

Improved security inside Somalia has allowed him to make two trips out of Mogadishu, to former Shebab-held bases in the towns of Beledweyn and Baidoa.

Mogadishu itself has come back to life, and from the roof of Villa Somalia new buildings can be seen under construction.

"One year ago we couldn't have stood here because of the snipers," a security agent tells visitors, as they look out at the city at their feet.

But security remains a concern, and foreign diplomats wear flak jackets and helmets and travel in armoured vehicles for the short journey to Villa Somalia.

Mogadishu has been rocked by half a dozen attacks in the space of six months.

But Shador, a young presidency official driving back to the airport, is proud to point out that he is "driving a normal car and not wearing a flak jacket".

He weaves his way between the street sellers, and points out what is quite an event in a town that was for so long a no-go zone: the beginnings of a traffic jam, hailed with a flurry of hooting.





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