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Somalia wakes up to a different picture, a new sense of optimism
Mogadishu is a textbook dystopia, ruined buidings reminiscent of the second world war aftermath in Europe. But a new constitituion has offered hopes of a fresh start. Photograph: Goran Tomasevic / Reuters/Reuters

The Guardian
Monday, August 20, 2012

In Mogadishu, artists are back on the streets, a symbol of a new hope, borne from a new constitution, a new dawn.

Under cover of darkness the men creep out to their prime targets in the capital of Somalia. Their aim is to grab attention with a spectacular political statement. By dawn they will have disappeared without trace, but the city will not be the same.

Meet Muhiyidin Sharif Ibrahim, Adan Farah Affey, Mohamed Ali Tohow and Ahmed Ado, a collective of painters slowly but surely changing the face of Mogadishu through guerrilla art.

Their message – for peace, against corruption – is riding a wave of optimism unprecedented for more than two decades in this all but doomed city.

Militant Islamists have been chased out, thousands of expatriate Somalis are packing flights back, a new constitution has been passed and, on Monday, a new president will form the first functioning government since 1991. It is make or break time for Somalia, long seen as the world's most failed state.

At present, Mogadishu is dystopia. Countless buildings lie pulverised as if by an angry giant, evocative of the ruins of Europe at the end of the second world war. A lone staircase floats where a building used to be; a formerly grand hotel is now a skeleton stripped bare; a cathedral stands with no roof and broken masonry in the nave; a series of beachside bars and restaurants resemble ancient ruins. Few walls are free of bulletholes or cracked and crumbling plaster. Roads are rutted and potholed, quickly flooding with rainwater, and stinking rubbish goes uncollected. Displaced people squat in domed tents amid the rubble.Guns are everywhere.

It is into this apocalyptic vision that the artists project. At a garage-cum-studio last week, their giant works were leaning against the walls. One diptych showed rodents with moneybags queuing up at "the office of who you know", then the happier scene of people with qualifications lining up at "the office of what do you know". A triptych portays a fallen young Somali rising from the ground and finally standing tall with the national flag.

In the middle of the night, these works will be silently moved to prime locations in the city to make a public plea for justice, security and a national vision. The veteran artists are resurrecting a culture that was devastated 21 years ago when Somalia's government collapsed and warlords filled the vacuum.

Ibrahim, 62, relaxing on a car seat on the floor (the car is long gone), learned to paint under an Italian mentor and was the official presidential portraitist. "You had to try as much as possible to make him look more handsome and elegant," he recalled. "You could not show his age."

Hundreds of the portraits, and much of his other work, were lost in the chaos. Then came al-Shabaab, bringing a semblance of order and youth appeal (it runs a Twitter account) but also a Taliban-like ban on TV, music, bras and depictions of humans and animals. These artists continued to draw in secret behind closed doors, however, and when al-Shabaab was pushed out of Mogadishu by US-backed African Union forces last year, the artists could return to the open. "It was freedom for artists," Ibrahim said. "We decided to work again."

The old friends had been apart for years and were initially frightened of meeting again. They were helped by a parcel containing brushes, paints and other essential materials sent by a British benefactor. "We were like children on Christmas day," said Adan Farah Affey, 50.

The collective is now mentoring and teaching young people in a scheme run by Somalia's Centre for Research and Dialogue. Affey hopes to develop Somalia's first ever art academy. Yet he used to be afraid of young people.

"Al-Shabaab used youth for recruitment," he added. "A young guy can come and assassinate you. But I believe this project will stop them joining al-Shabaab because artists need to concentrate. It teaches them a way of life. If you are an artist, you need to be gentle and wise. You cannot kill yourself."

Among the students is Suleyman Mohamed Yusuf, 20, who previously spent two years in a militia, collecting money at checkpoints and witnessing the killings of car passengers including children. "At the checkpoint people were afraid of me," he recalled. "You have a gun and you have the power. At that time I behaved as if I was the most powerful man in the city – I could capture the city.

"But I don't miss it because it was the wrong way because either you kill or be killed. Neither has any benefit for you. I've seen many troubles and I do not want to see them again."

Describing the artists, Yusuf added: "These are the only guys I admire. I've never seen people like this."

The Centre, a thinktank working for reconciliation, is headed by Jabril Ibrahim Abdulle, 42, who lost his entire family in the civil war. It is running other youth projects including a My Mogadishu photography group – "instead of shooting an AK47, they shoot a camera" – a system for awarding grants and even a Somali Idols talent contest.

Jabril Abdulle argues that young people, who make up the majority of the population, will decide Somalia's fate. "The new constitution doesn't mention youth. There's no one consulting them. That's why al-Shabaab happened: they even took the name 'youth' [shabaab]. They did what the government is supposed to do in terms of reaching young people. They recruited people from the diaspora via Facebook to come and blow themselves up. It was a silent killer and no one was paying attention."

Jabril Abdulle reckons there have been "four or five" assassination attempts against him. He was at the national theatre when a suicide bomber struck earlier this year; giving up his seat to elders, until he was at the end of the row, saved his life. He speaks to the Guardian a day after the director of the international airport was gunned down on his way to breakfast.

Yet the defeat of al-Shabaab in Mogadishu, and the peace – a relative term – that has followed, offer a sliver of hope. Boys can be seen kicking footballs on the beach again,

the fish market is thriving and new shop fronts include Mogadishu's first dry cleaner for two decades. The city hums with crammed minibus taxis, land cruisers with darkened windows and saloon cars that have seen better days – a bustle unthinkable amid the bullets and mortars just a year ago.

"For the first time in Somalia, something is happening," Jabril Abdulle said. "People are saying we shall not rely on the government; what you see in Mogadishu is nothing to do with the government. People are saying enough is enough. About 150 buildings here are being renovated. Al-Shabaab will be defeated by the will and aspirations of the Somali people. They are really ready to move on."

He estimates that 4,000-5,000 members of the Somalia diaspora have been coming and going in the past three months, some bringing their children for the first time. But scarred by false dawns of the past, Jabril Abdulle warned: "Something good is happening and I am scared. I don't want to lose it. We are on the edge. I can't say we're at a tipping point; we're at a pre-tipping point."

The biggest hope, but also the biggest risk, comes on Monday when the weak transitional federal government is replaced by a president, prime minister, speaker and MPs elected by clan elders (Somalia is far from ready for a truly democratic election). The UN has already warned that the process is steeped in corruption; a parliamentary seat can reportedly be bought for $50,000 (£31,832). Jabril Abdulle is wary of the fallout.

"You will have a lot of bad losers," he warned. "They might not walk away. They might say, 'If I lose, everyone has to lose.' Somalia does not have a democratic tradition. There is a window of opportunity to engage the youth, but the possibility of returning to war is there. The value of an AK47 hasn't really gone down."

The result could be a melee of warlords competing for power redolent of Afghanistan. Already, some say, there is an increase of checkpoints in Mogadishu in the absence of African Union forces, who are pursuing the battle with al-Shabaab elsewhere. Two militia groups are said to be competing for the spoils if and when al-Shabaab is driven out of its stronghold, the port city of Kismayu. Some analysts believe the writing is on the wall.

One said: "My feeling about the transition is that it's quite a lot of hot air and there are really significant challenges in the next six months. Poor Ugandans in the African Union forces are getting killed to create space for something but nobody's sure what it is.

"There's a danger it's going to give power to the people who were in control before 2006 and made Somalia a really shitty place. The rhetoric is that something new and beautiful is being built, but I'm not sure I believe it."


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