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Somalia rushes to make up for lost time

by: CHARLES ONYANGO-OBBO
Sunday, May 06, 2012

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Is the samosa the devil’s food? Is the stuff inside it kosher? Is its triangle shape Zionist?

These are unusual questions to ask about the humble samosa, but the Al-Shabaab militants in Somalia did.

Their verdict was that there was something suspiciously infidel about the samosa, so this worldwide favourite and age-old snack was banned in the areas under their control.

In most of the Somali capital Mogadishu, there was no samosa on sale.

Now that all the 16 districts of Mogadishu are under the control of the African Union peacekeeping force Amisom, the samosa is back.

We were driving by a thriving market in Mogadishu when a Kenyan consultant with Amisom told me the story of the close call the samosa had.

Its comeback has been bold. At the corner of the market I saw a vendor sitting behind the largest piles of samosa and mandazi I have ever seen.

They basked in their glittering brown majesty under Mogadishu’s unforgiving sun.

Ingenuous power suppliers

It was another example of the fascinating tales of Mogadishu and Somalia. In the night, there are quite many places that are lit.

However, we all know that there is nothing like KenGen or Kenya Power in Somalia. Trust the Somali, they have come up with a new energy and utilities model.

Every street or neighbourhood in Mogadishu has a wealthy and shrewd businessman who has a generator and/or a massive underground water tank, who supplies anything between 20 to 50 homes and establishments near him.

That close proximity means you can literarily shout over the fence to your electricity provider if your power is off.

Because of this proximity, customer care is intimate and excellent. I gather these electricity suppliers provide a service that is several times better than the big utility companies anywhere else in East Africa.

Now that things are beginning to normalise in Mogadishu, I was told the government is holding talks with dozens of these mini water and electricity providers for a public-private partnership to provide the services.

Somalia looks set to have the world’s most unusual energy and water sectors. But will Somalia ever normalise enough for this experiment to happen?

At a minimum, the Al-Shabaab would first have to be totally defeated. One cannot be sure that all the pronouncements about the militants being on the run are not borne out of hope, rather than reality.

One man who thinks Al-Shabaab is in its dying stages is Amisom’s Col Kayanja Muhanga. Col Muhanga heads a battle group of the Uganda troops in Amisom based at the once fabulous but now bullet-riddled Mogadishu Stadium.

He explained that part of the Al-Shabaab’s strength used to be its technical competence at bomb making, battlefield tactics, and such things.

A lot of that was provided by nearly 600 foreigners – Americans, Britons, Kenyans, Ugandans, Nigerians, Afghanis, Iraqis, and Pakistani’s – in its ranks. Most of these had either fled, been killed, or captured, he said.

The most objective measure of the Al Shabaab’s decline, he offered, was that since the beginning of the year there had been 15 premature bombs that killed suicide bombers before they got to their targets.

The old Shabaab, he said, wouldn’t have been that sloppy. I thought he had a point. He should know.

In the stadium there is a giant thick metal plate. It is the kind of metal used to build the bodies of the casspir armoured cars and the tanks Amisom uses in Mogadishu.

The Shabaab used it to test the most effective bullets at piercing through the casspirs and tanks.

There are a couple of bullets that had made clean holes through the thick metal plate. These Shabaab chaps were not boy scouts.

Meanwhile, the city is enjoying its newfound peace. A few weeks ago, it had its first bicycle race in 20 years. Mogadishuans have also returned to the beaches, the first time they have been able to do so in 10 years.

The men are free to frolic in the water in shorts and bare chest. Not so the women—this is not Mombasa.

Because of strict dress code, the women have to cover their hair and upper body parts, but the younger ones are permitted to wear knee-high leggings.

Apparently in the Middle Eastern countries where there are similar dress rules, some clever designers have developed some elegant beach wear for women that the mullahs and sheikhs approve of.

I was told it is called the “burkini” (a combination of burka and bikini). The best measure of sentiment in places like Mogadishu, of course, is not from the soldiers or politicians, but businessmen.

I spoke to a Somali working with an international NGO, who doubles as a real estate developer and land speculator.

He told me that properties that were selling for $50,000 (Sh4.1 million) a year ago in Mogadishu are now going for $500,000 (Sh41 million)—ten times higher. It was getting difficult to find good land to buy in Mogadishu, he mourned.

However, opportunities had opened further afield. There was a rush for land in Baidoa, which was captured by the Ethiopians in February, and is now being taken over by Uganda contingent.

He had bought 10 acres there recently, he told me with a satisfied grin. Business is booming at Mogadishu seaport too. About 70 ships and “big boats” dock at the port every month.

The buildings at the port were hollowed out over the years of war. The port authority has rebuilt them.

However, it still doesn’t have money to buy the expensive loading equipment and cranes. Where then did all the loading equipment at the port come from, we ask a port official.

“From Somali businessmen”, he said. “Where did they get them from?” we asked.

“Oh, some of it was looted from the port during the wars. We are happy to hire them back from them,” he said, “it is more important to keep the peace”.

Indeed.


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