Somalia — 20 years on the brink of chaos

The story of Somalia’s troubles can be read in the decay of its capital, Mogadishu. As the country i

The story of Somalia’s troubles can be read in the decay of its capital, Mogadishu. As the country is once more gripped by drought, Xan Rice charts its downfall.

I was new to Somalia and Mohamed Abbi, a tombstone-toothed, guitar-plucking security guard, was telling me some important truths.

The first was that if he crossed the invisible line that divided Galkayo, the scruffy town that I was visiting, he would be killed.

This was nothing personal, Abbi explained. Most of the town's residents were either Darod or Hawiye, two of Somalia's main clans. The people looked the same, spoke the same language, and were all Muslims. Yet the Darods, including Abbi, were confined to north Galkayo, the Hawiyes to the south.

“If I had to go to the south now, surely I would be shot," he said earnestly. "A southerner coming here to the north, he would be shot, too."

Abbi was not exaggerating. So entrenched was the clan divide that the international ­medical charity that was hosting me in 2005 operated separate hospitals on either side of town. Even a dying man could not cross the "Green Line". And in Galkayo the frequent clashes between the rival clans meant there were plenty of ­dying men. Which led Abbi to reveal his second truth: that virtually every man had a gun, from the teenagers who rode around town on the back of pick-up trucks mounted with machine-guns to the middle-aged shopkeepers selling tea and cigarettes. (Ab­bi's weapon of choice, like most men's, was an AK-47, which he wore slung over his shoulder so its barrel pointed past his green fedora.)

As we sat outside the aid agency's fortified compound in the early evening, he moved on to lamenting the ineffectiveness of the current government. It was the 14th attempt at instal­ling a national authority in 14 years and, in its desperation to find a solution to Somalia's ills, the international community had endorsed a warlord as president, the 70-year-old former colonel Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed. But Yusuf, like most of his government, preferred to live in the comparative comfort of Nairobi, Kenya, rather than the Somali capital, Mogadishu, where other warlords held sway. Anarchy might have been too strong a word for the situation there, and indeed across much of the country, for the bullet did ensure a certain type of order - but it was not too far off.

“If we don't get a national government, it will always be like this," was Abbi's final truth. Having grown up in Mogadishu in the 1950s, he was old enough to remember a different time, long before the mention of Somalia immediately brought to mind the words "failed state". Those were the peaceful, dying days of the "Italian empire" that had been established in the Horn of Africa by Mussolini.

Back then, the Somali capital was a handsome, orderly city, beautifully appointed on the shores of the Indian Ocean, Abbi told me. Independence followed in 1960, but the promising start did not last long. Clan loyalties were already threatening the stability of the government by the time Mohamed Siad Barre seized power in a bloodless coup in 1969, promptly suspending the constitution and banning political parties.

Barre viewed "clanism" as a deadly disease, but his efforts to create a national identity that trumped it failed, not least because he soon turned into a dictator. He was overthrown in January 1991 by the warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid and his clan militia. Abbi, who was working as a policeman by then, fled the capital for Galkayo. The age of chaos had set in.

Fifteen years on, people were still fleeing the city, as I found a few months later when I visited Bosaso, a sweltering, somewhat seedy town on the northern coast of Somalia that faces on to the Gulf of Aden. So dire were the prospects at home that thousands of young ­Somalis from Mogadishu - as well as some Ethiopians and Eritreans - were willing to risk their lives to cross the sea in overcrowded smugglers' fishing boats in order to reach Yemen. The risks were huge. Of the 20,000 people who had made the crossing in the previous six or so months, nearly a thousand were believed to have died. Yet the young men whom I spoke to as they sat watching the turquoise sea from the hills near Bosaso were happy leaving it to fate. Better to die trying to escape at sea than die sitting at home, they reasoned.

I was beginning to wonder if I would ever get to see Mogadishu, which was still considered too dangerous for outsiders. Then somethingextraordinary happened: the warlords were defeated. It was June 2006.

“Liberation"

The victor was the Union of Islamic Courts, a coalition of sharia courts that had slowly begun to bring to order to pockets of the city in the preceding years, gaining tremendous goodwill from the population. I flew in on a commercial flight a few weeks after the city's "liberation" and was met at the airport by my fixer and my security detail - a pick-up full of men with AK-47s. As we drove around Mogadishu, I was astonished at the level of destruction.

“Battle-scarred" was the description I had always read, but it did not seem to do this justice. Building after building bore the acne of bul­lets or heavier weapons. Along the seafront, once-beautiful houses, offices, ministry build­ings and embassies lay in ruins. Years of rubbish had accumulated alongside the rutted streets. The city was utterly destroyed.

But its people were not. For the first time since the early 1990s, residents could move freely in their own city because the warlord checkpoints were gone. Men and women actually dared to walk around at night, or share a dinner with friends. The nightly soundtrack of gunfire had disappeared, as had the fear of kidnapping, robbery and extortion. The head of a local radio station told me that what had happened was a "miracle".

The euphoria all around gave me a false sense of security, and I thought it would be safe enough for a foreigner to cover a political rally in support of the Islamic Courts. One of the two other foreign journalists who made the same calculation was Martin Adler, a brilliant freelance televisionjournalist with a wife and two young daughters at home in Sweden. As he filmed the crowd, he was shot dead at close range. I flew back home the next day in the plane that carried his body. Nobody claimed ­responsibility for the killing.

The Islamic Courts leadership included a few radicals with alleged links to al-Qaeda, but numerous moderates, too. Indeed, many people in Mogadishu believed that the Islamist authority was the best hope in years for the country to move forward. But neighbouring Ethiopia and the United States viewed the courts as a terror threat that needed to be eliminated. Ethiopian troops swept into Mogadishu six months later.

Within weeks an insurgency had begun. Out of the spiderholes into which the courts had disappeared crawled the al-Shabaab rebels, a radical militant group with very real links to al-Qaeda and a seemingly limitless capacity for brutality. As I covered Somalia from the safety of Kenya over the next few years, the insurgents' catalogue of cruelty thickened: from suicide bombs at home and in Uganda, to the public stoning of a teenage girl accused of ­adultery. Last year, one of my Somali friends introduced me to a 17-year-old boy whom he had helped escape from Mogadishu. Accused by al-Shabaab of theft, the boy had his right hand and left foot sawn off in front of a large crowd that included his mother.

I've still not been back to Mogadishu, which remains only partly controlled by the government. Yet, despite the dangers in the city, people are now arriving in the thousands from the al-Shabaab-controlled countryside where famine has been declared. Others are heading to Galkayo. The town remains split in two.

Xan Rice is a contributing writer for the New Statesman

Xan Rice is Features Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 01 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The rise of the far right

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The fish-eaters and the fasters

With a population split between whites and Asian Muslims, in some ways Nelson in Lancashire feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication.

In the late afternoon of local election day this month, the chairman of Nelson Town Council was working the terraces of old cotton weavers’ houses on his patch. Sajid Ali was wearing a red rosette and a navy blue cardigan over his capacious white shalwar kameez, and what looked like his dancing shoes.

This was not the forlorn ritual of unanswered doors, blank looks and curt responses habitually experienced by Labour canvassers even in more promising political times. Along these streets Sajid is a figure of some consequence: a jolly fellow and, as one opponent put it, an “interesting character”.

Almost everyone was in; Sajid knew almost all of them; and they in turn understood what was required. Sometimes a quick burst of Lancy Punjabi did the job: “Salaam alaykum, yoong maan, how yer doing? What time yer coomin’ to vote?” To older voters his spiel would be entirely in Punjabi and the response would often be a head-wobble, that characteristic south Asian gesture, which, when given to Westerners, can be baffling, but in these cases clearly signified solid intention.

The Labour candidate in the Brierfield and Nelson West division of Lancashire County Council, Mohammed Iqbal, held his seat comfortably on the day his party lost control of the county. And he did so on a poll of 58 per cent: a far higher turnout than in any of the other, whiter areas of Pendle; the highest in Lancashire; and higher than wards with these demographics would usually expect even at a general election. The average across Lancashire on 4 May was 37 per cent. It seems reasonable to conclude that the votes from those of ­Pakistani heritage, marshalled by Sajid, were wholly responsible.

Nelson is a strange, sad, divided, forgotten old cotton town, not without beauty. The weavers’ houses are stone not brick, which, elsewhere, might make them rather chic. A few minutes from town is wonderful Pennine countryside, and to the north the view is dominated by Pendle Hill itself, brooding like some sleeping sea monster.

Pendle is both the borough council and the constituency, where the mix of urban and rural has delivered it to the winning side in seven of the eight general elections since its creation 34 years ago. (Labour took it, five years prematurely, in 1992.) No one seriously believes the 5,400 Tory majority is in play. Nonetheless, Nelson can explain a lot about British politics in 2017.

“This was a cracking town,” said John Bramwell (“John the Fish”), who has been purveying cod, haddock and non-stop banter to Nelson for 41 years, first on the market, now from one of the last white-run, independent shops in the town centre. Nelson had a football team that played fleetingly (1923-24) in the old Second Division, what is now called the Championship. And in 1929 the Lancashire League cricket team, flashing cash in a manner that baffled the national press, signed Learie Constantine, the most gifted and thrilling West Indian all-rounder of his generation.

“When he arrived, no one in Nelson had ever seen a black man close-to,” said Derek Metcalfe, the club’s historian. “People would cross the road when he passed by. But he grew into their affections. He was a highly intelligent man as well as a great player.” Constantine, after a post-cricket career in the law, Trinidadian politics and diplomacy, finished life in the House of Lords as Baron Constantine of Maraval and Nelson, Britain’s first black peer. In July 1943 the Imperial Hotel in Bloomsbury accepted his booking but not his presence, and he promptly sued. His victory at the high court the following year was an early landmark in the fight against racial discrimination.

It was the 1950s before Nelson would get used to seeing non-white faces again, when the mill owners, battling labour shortages and overseas competition, turned to Pakistan to find biddable and affordable workers. They found them in Gujrat District, which is not one of the more worldly places, even in the rural Punjab.

“The first group were young men who in many ways integrated better than they do now. There were no mosques. They went to the pubs with their workmates and knocked around with local women. Then they had to go to the airport to collect the intended wives they hadn’t met yet,” recalled Tony Greaves, the Liberal Democrat peer who is deputy leader of Pendle Borough Council.

The mills disappeared, gradually but inexorably, but the Pakistani community kept growing and has now reached its fourth generation. The young men do not normally spend time in pubs; indeed, in a town of 30,000 people, there are only two left, plus a couple on the outskirts. It is hard to imagine anywhere that size in Britain with fewer. There are, however, at least a dozen mosques. The 2011 census recorded 40 per cent of the population as Asian, but on market day in the town centre the proportion seems much higher. The most prominent retail outlets are two bazaars: the Nelson (the
old Poundstretcher) and the Suraj opposite (the old Woolworths). Few white faces are seen in either: the saris and hijabs are beautiful but of little interest. They are all imported to this textile town from south Asia.

The white people have retreated, either out of the town altogether or to the semis of Marsden, on the hill. In the visible life of Nelson, they are clearly a minority. Population change on this scale can be accommodated, if not always easily, in large cities. It is a different proposition in a small town that was once tight-knit and, despite its closeness to larger places such as Blackburn, Accrington and Burnley, largely self-contained.

Even after 60 years, hardly anything has melted in the pot. The early migrants were villagers who placed little value on education. Recent history has led Muslims all over the world to turn inwards, to their own religion and culture. This is being exacerbated by white flight and by the advent of religious free schools, a disaster for anywhere in search of cohesion. The old Nelsonians have turned away. “Nelson is not multiracial or multicultural. It is biracial and bicultural,” says Greaves. “I would love to tell you that I go round to Abbas’s house to have chicken jalfrezi and he comes to mine for steak pudding and chips,” says John the Fish. “It’s just not like that.”

Unemployment is high at 18 per cent; there is no shortage of taxis. Educational attainment is patchy. Teachers at the two high schools fear their best pupils will be creamed off further by the promised grammar-school boom.

The vicar of Nelson, Guy Jamieson, and at least some of the local imams do their utmost to make connections between the communities. In certain respects Nelson feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication. In other ways, this description is unfair. When Burnley, just four miles away, suffered riots in 2001, Nelson stayed quiet. I could sense no threat, no active tension, merely resigned indifference on both sides. “There’s a poverty of confidence,” Jamieson said. “They don’t know how to sit down and engage.”

***

A modern English town council, subordinate to Brussels, Westminster, county and district, is an improbable power base, but Sajid Ali seems to be making Nelson’s work. Its precept is only £330,000 a year but this is not capped, so it suits both district and town if Pendle offloads smaller assets: parks, play areas, community centres. It is a minimalist form of devolution, but harks back to the days when Nelson was a borough in its own right, and looks forward to an improbable future when our towns might again be allowed to take their own decisions as they do in more grown-up countries.

But the council votes on party lines, Labour’s 16 councillors trumping the Tories’ eight. “They won’t work with us,” Sajid says flatly. “They don’t run it fairly for the town itself,” says the Conservative Neil McGowan. “If we put something forward for Marsden, we are always outvoted. One council official told me they’d never come across a town like it.” In Tony Greaves’s words, “The
politics in Nelson were always sour.” In the 1930s it was known as Little Moscow.

When I first met Sajid, however, he was outside a polling station doing a stint as a teller and laughing merrily along with his blue-rosetted counterpart, Arshad Mahmood. Yet things were not quite as they seemed. Mahmood was part of a mass defection of Pakistani Lib Dems to the Conservatives which appears to have nothing to do with Brexit, extra taxes for the NHS or Maymania. What it does have to do with remains elusive even to local politicians: “clan politics” and “personal ambition” were mentioned. It may be even more complicated than that. “So you’ll be voting for Theresa May next month?” I asked Mahmood. “Oh, no, I like Jeremy Corbyn. Very good policies.”

Perhaps this helped Sajid maintain some enthusiasm for the bigger campaign ahead, though he was daunted by one fact: the general election coincides with Ramadan, and dawn-to-dusk fasting comes hard in these latitudes when it falls in summertime. Still, he was impressed by all the new members Corbyn had brought to Labour: “The way I see it is that each new member has five, ten, 15, 20 people they can sell the message to.”

This seemed a bit strange: it implied he thought politics in the rest of Britain worked as it did in these streets. He had boasted earlier that he knew everyone. “All over Nelson?” “Oh, no,” he had backtracked. “In the English community nobody knows their next-door neighbour.” Which was an exaggeration, but perhaps not much of one.

There were no posters along Sajid Ali’s streets – not one. The information about which house to choose was on the canvass return and, more significantly, in his head. Just once he got it wrong. A little white girl opened the door and then a tattooed, muscular figure in a singlet barrelled towards the door. He wasn’t aggressive, just brisk. “Naaw. I doan’t vote.” End of. It was a sudden reminder of the norms of modern British politics.

***

Another norm is that, at any local count, no one ever thinks much of the big picture. The rise and fall of prime ministers, earthquakes and landslides are no more than distant rumours, of surprisingly little interest to the principals; what matters is the here and now. Where did that ballot box come from? How big is the postal vote? Any chance of a recount? When the five seats for Pendle were counted the next day at the leisure centre in Colne, one stop further up the clanking branch line from Nelson, no one was talking about the Tory takeover at County Hall.

Here there was something for everyone: Mohammed Iqbal won, just as Sajid predicted. Azhar Ali took the other Nelson seat even more easily for Labour. Both results were greeted with more effusive male hugs than would be considered seemly in Berkshire. In Pendle Central the Tories knocked out the sitting Lib Dem, but – heroically, in their eyes – one of the Lib Dem candidates grabbed a seat in the rural division.

But the most interesting result came in the most trifling contest: a twinned by-election for two vacancies in Nelson Town Council’s lily-white ward of Marsden, so electors had two votes each. The seats were won by a Conservative married couple, the Pearson-Ashers, who got 426 and 401; the single BNP candidate had 359 votes, with one Labour candidate on 333 and the other on 190. The first of these was called Laura Blackburn; the second Ghulam Ullah. This suggests a good deal of vote-splitting that Labour might find rather unpalatable.

In fact, Marsden already has one far-right relic: Brian Parker, who sits on Pendle Borough Council, is the last survivor in the top two tiers of local government of the BNP mini-surge that took them to 55 council seats across the country by 2009. Of Parker, two opposing councillors told me: “He’s actually a very good ward councillor.”

Curiously, Ukip has made little impact in Nelson or in Pendle as a whole. So there is not much scope for the party to fulfil what appears to be its immediate destiny: as a way station for Labour’s historic core voters to catch their breath on the arduous journey into Theresa May’s arms. According to John the Fish, whose shop functions as a kind of confessional for white opinion, they may no longer need a stopover: “I’m getting plenty of people, staunch Labourites, telling me they can’t stand Corbyn.”

I asked him how many Pakistani regulars he had. He broke off from chopping hake and held up five fingers. On 8 June the fish-eaters of Marsden can be expected to rouse themselves more energetically than the Ramadan fasters across town.

***

Seedhill, the cricket ground graced by Constantine, is pretty Nelson rather than gritty Nelson, even though a chunk of it, including the old pavilion, was lopped off years ago to form an embankment carrying the M65. Upstairs in the pavilion is a wonderful picture of the great man, eyes ablaze, down on one knee for a full-blooded cover-drive. It would have made a better monument in the town centre than the 40-foot weaving shuttle that has dominated Market Street since 2011. I thought it was a torpedo; children think it’s a giant pencil.

The packed houses that watched Constantine lead Nelson to seven league titles in nine years have dwindled now: there were only a couple of dozen to watch his successors play Accrington recently. But it was a drab day with a chilly breeze and Burnley were at home to West Brom in the winter game down the road.

And generally the club thrives better than the town. Given the lack of hotels and pubs, the pavilion is much in demand for functions, and the team remains competitive. Nelson fielded four local Asians for the Accrington match, which suggests that, in one activity at least, integration is just about where it should be.

It seems unlikely that a similar situation would apply at the crown green bowls or the brass band, or any other of the long-standing recreations in Nelson (though small but growing numbers of Pakistanis are now taking allotments). The knee-jerk liberal reaction might be that this is somehow the fault of the white Nelsonians. I think this attitude is a grave oversimplification that has done much damage.

In one respect the incomers have re-created the old life of Nelson. In the hugger-mugger stone-built terraces, the neighbourliness, the power of extended families, the external patriarchy and the internal matriarchy, the vibrancy, the sense of communal struggle . . . that is exactly what this cotton town must have been like a century ago. 

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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