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Inside Villa Somalia: 72 hours with the president promising to rebuild his broken country

Friday February 3, 2023

By Tom Gardner in Mogadishu

Hassan Sheikh Mohamud says Somalia’s factions can find peace, political Islam need not be violent and democracy can grow. Here’s his exclusive interview with the Observer

Hassan Sheikh Mohamud is the first person to be elected as Somalia’s president on two separate occasions. Photograph: Girma Berta

The drive from Mogadishu airport to the presidential home at Villa Somalia should take about 15 minutes. It rarely does. Every few hundred metres there is a police roadblock. Nothing can be left to chance: lethal explosions at checkpoints are commonplace.

To avoid security breaches, nobody except Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, the recently re-elected president, and a few aides, know about the Observer’s visit. We arrive in a bulletproof Hilux behind a Jeep carrying seven soldiers and a mounted machine gun, along a road lined by shipping containers padded with sandbags and walls topped with razor wire. It is eerily quiet.

Arriving at the airport earlier that morning, lugging a weighty flak jacket and a helmet, it seemed rude to bring them to wear them in front of a man who has survived multiple attempts on his life – including one inside the presidential compound – and governs what is arguably the most dangerous country on Earth.

A posse of unsmiling young men in Ray-Bans guard the entrance to his office, where Mohamud is sitting alone at a modest wooden desk, facing a portrait of Somalia’s first post-independence president, Aden Adde. Dressed in a simple blue suit, shirt collar open, Mohamud appears distinctly relaxed and offers an enthusiastic handshake.

Being president of Somalia – a country whose name is still used widely, if slightly misleadingly, as shorthand for “failed state” – could seem a uniquely thankless job.

Mohamud has the unique distinction of having done it twice. His first government, between 2012 and 2017, was the country’s first elected, non-interim administration since 1991, the year Somalia’s long-ruling military dictator, Mohamed Siad Barre, was overthrown in a coup. Almost immediately after his election Mohamud survived an assassination attempt at a hotel where he was meeting Kenya’s foreign minister. On another occasion, terrorists belonging to al-Shabaab, al-Qaida’s richest and most lethal affiliate, which controls much of the country, blew up a car at the gates of Villa Somalia. One of the fighters got to within 100 metres of the president before being shot dead.

Re-elected in May, Mohamud is, according to his own intelligence agency, al-Shabaab’s “No 1 target” once more. Just days after this interview, the jihadists carried out twin car bombings in Mogadishu that killed at least 100 people. One of the targets was the education ministry, which is headed by Farah Sheikh Abdulkadir, Mohamud’s closest friend in politics (he survived the attack).
Debris in the streets of Mogadishu after a car bombing targeted the education ministry on 29 October 2022. Photograph: Hassan Ali Elmi/AFP/Getty Images

The president denounced the killings as revenge for the victories his new government has scored in what he describes as a “total war” against the jihadists. His government recently recaptured a number of strategic territories. But the gains it has achieved are fragile, and Somalia still faces a daunting array of challenges – not least accelerating environmental degradation and deepening hunger. Somalia regularly finds itself at or near the bottom of global rankings for corruption, poverty and state fragility.

Inside the Somali bear pit of politics, the 67-year-old Mohamud cuts an unusual figure. Throughout all the blood-soaked years that followed the spectacular collapse of the central state in 1991 – he never left. Each of his 20 children was born here. That marks him out from his most recent predecessor, Mohamed “Farmaajo” Abdullahi Mohamed, in particular, who spent most of his adult life in upstate New York, alongside a great many of Somalia’s educated elite. As Mogadishu descended into anarchy in the wake of America’s botched intervention in the 1990s, most fled abroad.

The skyline of Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital. Photograph: Girma Berta

Mohamud, then a teacher and businessman in the capital, remembers this period as one of looting and killings, marauding militias and sleepless nights when “you never know when a shell might land in your house”. He recalls the death of an old friend, struck by shrapnel from a bomb that landed a few metres from him. “They were very difficult times,” he says. “We did not think we would survive.”

With a postgraduate degree from an Indian university, Mohamud was exactly the type of Somali who might have flourished in neighbouring Kenya, or have been granted a visa for a safe country in the west. Yet he felt uncomfortable abroad. “I never had this idea of going outside … Mogadishu is the place I belong,” he says. With characteristic optimism, he assumed that the clan conflicts that raged back then would be short-lived, a brief interlude before the restoration of a strong central government. “The warlords said good things were coming, and we believed them,” he says. “Unfortunately, it was just the beginning.”

Mohamud became a civil society activist, putting his soft diplomatic manner to use by mediating between the warlords who had carved Mogadishu into sparring fiefdoms. It was dangerous work. Several of his colleagues were assassinated. He recalls one day in 1998 when a group of militiamen beckoned him to enter an open doorway as he passed.

Mohamud, a moderate Islamist, believes religion can be the glue to bind a fractured nation, and that political Islam need not be violent. Photograph: Girma Berta

Inside, he found a body sprawled on the ground: “At first, I thought it was somebody sleeping.” The militiamen robbed him, but let him free when they discovered he was from the same clan.

Mohamud’s star rose in the 2000s when he founded a private university and became the de facto leader of the civil society organisations that had stepped into the vacuum left by the collapsed state. By the middle of the decade, jihadism was on the march and neighbouring Ethiopia had invaded. Somalia had sunk to its nadir. The jihadists, who would later metastasise into al-Shabaab, fought Ethiopian soldiers street-by-street, block-by-block, leaving “dead bodies everywhere”. The future president and his friends spent days collecting them from the rubble.

A succession of “transitional governments” were established to keep the peace, though their control extended barely a few hundred metres beyond Villa Somalia. Demoralised, Mohamud and his friends started debating among what to do next. “We’d ask ourselves, ‘How many more years can we wait?’” Mohamud concluded he had few options but to enter politics. In 2010, he established Somalia’s first political party since the military coup of 1969.

In those 12 years, Somalia has made some progress. Al-Shabaab has been pushed out into the countryside, and the five federal state governments (excluding the breakaway would-be state of Somaliland), which were established or strengthened in Mohamud’s first term, have grown. Later that afternoon, as he is driven in his motorised cavalcade, there is a boulevard festooned with banners commemorating the founding of one of Somalia’s prosperous telecoms firms: even in the absence of a state, businesses have found ways to thrive.

Mohamud at an anti-al-Shabaab rally on 12 January. The president is the terrorist group’s ‘No 1 target’. Photograph: Hassan Ali Elmi/AFP/Getty Images

But the journey also demonstrates limits to the state-building project. Villa Somalia is emblematic. Unlike other state houses in African capitals, it conveys little grandeur. There are bullet holes and rubble lying around. With the exception of an Italian colonial art deco building at its core, the complex looks more like a military barracks than the nerve centre of government. Ugandan soldiers from the African Union’s peace mission in Somalia patrol its perimeter, a daily reminder for Mohamud of his government’s dependence on foreigners. Being president of Somalia is less about enjoying the trappings of state power than slowly erecting the scaffolding for it.

The streets are cleared in advance for the president’s passage. At our destination near the fortified “green zone”, which hosts foreign embassies and the most secure hotels; two blocks have to be cordoned off by red-bereted special forces. Mohamud is speaking at the final day of a conference on Islamic education in schools and madrassas, which the government is sponsoring as part of an initiative to “reclaim the Islamic narrative” from al-Shabaab. Mohamud, a moderate Islamist, believes religion can be the glue to bind a fractured nation, and that political Islam need not be violent.

As he delivers his central message – that it is time for clerics and community leaders to speak out and denounce al-Shabaab, the crowd – which mostly comprises men from the mosques – seems to be on board. Whether genuine or not it is hard to tell, but they laugh at his jokes (one of Mohamud’s nicknames is “Qoslaaye”, which means laughter), and in their own speeches they lavish him with praise.

Mohamud does not cut a dash on stage, but rather peers through his spectacles like a fusty academic. Even so, he has a strong, gravelly voice and a reassuring manner. His eyes sparkle when he smiles, and he has the power to uplift his audience. Today, he paints a picture of Somalia before the arrival of foreign-imported jihadism – a time, in his telling, of peaceful coexistence between the sects that can be revived.

The next day is the inauguration of a mass tree-planting campaign. The venue is a plaza in the old city centre, beneath the striking husk of Somalia’s first parliament building, destroyed during the civil war of the 1980s but kept in ruin as a memorial. In opposition, Mohamud helped to organise a march that was to end symbolically at its steps, to protest against the postponement of elections by Farmaajo. Farmaajo’s election shenanigans had tipped the country into a new crisis, and were part of what prompted Mohamud to run again for the presidency. But, before the march could begin, soldiers loyal to Farmaajo raided the hotel where Mohamud was staying – a move he considers an attempt on his life.

This time he makes it to the plaza, to a rapturous welcome. The crowd is mostly made up of women, dressed in the blue and white of the Somali flag. Posters, billboards and T-shirts all bear the president’s likeness and music dedicated to him blasts from loudspeakers as he walks, sporting a green and white baseball cap, towards the patch of earth where he will plant a tree. Beaming widely, he glad-hands members of the cheering throng beneath the punishing midday sun. After his speech – he promises 100,000 seedlings in the ground by the end of the year – photos from the event appear on his various social media accounts.

Few doubt Mohamud’s knack at the horse-trading and clan-bargaining that characterise Somali politics. Twice now he has stitched together a broad enough coalition to succeed in Somalia’s notoriously dirty game of indirect elections (whereby members of parliament are elected by delegates chosen by about 14,000 clan elders). A former camel herder, whose parents died when he was young, Mohamud grew up in the countryside, imbibing the head-spinning complexity of its clan culture. “If you live in the nomadic rural areas you spend a lot of time talking,” says the foreign minister, Ali Omar, an old friend. “So he knows the culture and the language better than the rest of us.”

Mohamud’s hours are gruelling: 20 hours a day, seven days a week. Photograph: Girma Berta

Whether Mohamud is popular among the wider public is open to question. The jingoistic Farmaajo pumped money into public relations and has an active army of loyalists on social media. There is little reliable polling in Somalia, and journalists are far too constrained by security risks to assess public opinion beyond Mogadishu. The scene at the plaza is too stage-managed to provide a definitive answer. Within seconds of the president leaving the podium he is back behind tinted car windows, speeding along the tree-shaded avenue in the cavalcade to Villa Somalia.

On the third day the president is late again. Sitting on the asphalt at the airport, Mohamud has been held up by calls with military commanders. This, his aides say, is typical: he is almost always on the phone, receiving battlefield updates and taking an indefatigable interest in the minutiae of the new offensive against the jihadists. It is a strength and a weakness. His predecessor showed barely a flicker of interest in combatting al-Shabaab (his critics accused him of being more focused on eliminating political rivals), but Mohamud shows commitment to the fight. He is a micromanager who relies on a tiny circle of trusted advisers. But Somalia’s problems are too deeply entrenched, cutting across too many social and religious cleavages for any single person to provide a solution.

The president seems tired, pausing occasionally mid-conversation to gaze out of the window. His hours are gruelling: 20 hours a day, seven days a week. Yet as the conversation moves from the headline purpose of the trip (the inauguration of a new port in Puntland, the oldest and most powerful of the federal member states), to more philosophical questions about nation-building, he becomes animated. Mohamud has an academic bent, and reflects on what he considers to be the roots of Somalia’s troubles: the clans; the legacy of military rule; alien forms of violent Islam. “I believe a democratic state can be built in Somalia,” he tells me. “And that is the only way out.”

The threat from al-Shabaab is real – and unpredictable. Soldiers are pictured from within a secure vehicle during a journey around the Mogadishu. Photograph: Gary Calton/The Observer

Yet Mohamud is also a proud nationalist, and he bridles when asked about the tag that bedevils his country. “Yes, we were a failed state. But now there is a state, however weak it is,” he says. “The challenge is to move from being a fragile state to being a fully functional one.”

This will require what Max Weber, the German sociologist, called the “slow boring of hard boards” – the patient pursuit of incremental change, however long the road may seem. His goal is to “set the foundations” for recovery and, at his age, he knows he is unlikely to see that in his lifetime. But he believes change is possible. “The only agenda I have is to see Somalia back on its own feet,” he says. “There’s nothing else I want in life.”


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