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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View from Paisley: How the Conservatives are wooing Labour's Scottish heartlands

Not so long ago, Conservative activists in Paisley could expect doors slammed in their faces. A referendum has changed that.

Tony Lawler, a Labour activist, was recently knocking on doors in the Scottish town of Paisley, when he came across a disgruntled resident. “I’m really disappointed in Douglas Alexander,” the potential voter complained. “I haven’t seen him. He used to be in Morrisons.”

Douglas Alexander, of course, has gone. He was the longstanding Labour MP and onetime International Development secretary who lost his seat in 2015 to a 20-year-old rival, the Scottish National Party’s Mhairi Black. He does not plan to stand again. But when I visit Paisley, a short train ride from Glasgow, I find that memories of him linger on. 

Two years after Alexander’s defeat, I meet Lawler and other local Labour activists in Morrisons, where Alexander used to hold his surgeries. As checkouts beep and trolley wheels roll over linoleum, they point to an empty table in the corner of this hallowed ground: “He used to sit just there.”

In 2015, the SNP’s victory in this former manufacturing town seemed to epitomise the earthquake in Scottish politics. But as the Labour activists know too well, no political fortress is undefeatable. And in Paisley, the home of one of the oldest workers’ festivals in the world, the party with the most to gain is one that previously never dared to canvass in the high street – the Conservative party. 

The town the Brexiteers forgot

In 1988, the historian Sylvia Clarke reflected on Paisley’s lost industries, wondering what was next for the former weaving towns. “Paisley as a tourist centre?” she wondered, in Paisley: A History. “Paisley as a place for visitors to come to, rather than a send-out of goods and emigrants?” 

For all Paisley’s industrial decline, it’s a pretty place. The town is in the running for the 2021 City of Culture, and has the second biggest number of listed buildings after Edinburgh. When I visit in the middle of April, blossom floats on the trees, and a river meanders through a neighbourhood of old, stone houses. It takes a moment to notice weeds tightening their grasp on the window frames. When I try the door of the ancient Paisley Abbey, it’s locked.

Perhaps if Paisley had been located the other side of the border, in Sunderland or Northumbria, it would be voting Leave and flirting with Ukip. But in the most deprived areas here, Labour activists tell me the EU referendum tally was still almost 50-50, and overall the town voted Remain.

There is a view that Brexit is an English concern. “We haven’t picked up anything about the EU referendum,” says Lawler of his doorstep conversations. “What people are talking about is the independence referendum, Jeremy Corbyn and the kids’ ward.” Scotland’s health secretary, Shona Robison, is due to make a decision on whether the specialist ward should be moved to a large hospital in the First Minister’s Glasgow constituency, against the wishes of many Paisley residents. The hospital in question is nicknamed “the Death Star”.  

Another concern, reminiscent of small towns across the UK, is the decline of the high street. When I walk down the historical shopping area Causeyside Street, I find mother and daughter Kate and Linda Hancy packing up what remains of The Pattern Café and Gift Shop. The wallpaper is a glorious Paisley print, but the scented candles are in boxes and a spray soap bottle hangs from a chair. After two years of trying, they are closing down.  

“People just don’t have money to spend,” Kate says. “A lot of people have been on the same wage for more than five years.”

Linda chimes in: “The cost of living going up but wages aren’t the same. I work in a supermarket, and people come in and say ‘How did I spend this much money?’ A lot of people are paying by credit cards.”

The Hancys voted to remain in the UK, and the EU. Although they knew Alexander, they have never met Mhairi Black, and feel devolution, if anything, has made politicians less accountable. “Why are we picking 1,2,3,4,” demands Kate, referring to Holyrood's voting system, which rejected first past the post. “Why can’t we pick one like we used to?”

Without the EU to blame, the most obvious culprits for Paisley town centre’s decline are the out-of-town shopping centres, where cinemas are opening just as historical ones in town close their doors.

Gavin Simpson, owner of Feel the Groove, a new record shop, remembers the 1980s, when a new release would have shoppers queuing round the block. However, he believes the town is over the worst. (As we speak, a customer comes in to reserve such a record and cheerfully warns Gavin that “even if I ask for my money back, don’t give it to me.”)

One thriving business is the longstanding butchers, Wm Phelps. Manager James Peacock tells me it is down to the trustworthy Scottish produce, which is carefully tracked and labelled. But the business has also embraced globalisation.  After noticing a large number of South African customers, Peacock began selling boerewors and biltong.

The other referendum campaign

If Paisley has been spared the divisions of the EU referendum campaign, its “buddies” – as residents are known – are still reeling with the repercussions of an earlier referendum, that on Scotland in the UK. In 2014, the town voted for independence, although the county overall opted to stay in the UK. 

The town is home to a particularly brash strain of indyreffers, including the “Smith Commission burners”, three SNP councillors who gathered in front of the council headquarters to burn a copy of the report setting out new powers for Scotland. One of them, Mags MacLaren, went on to manage Black’s constituency office.

But if the Paisley independence movement has been well covered, less is known about its opposite - the rise of pro-unionism. 

Of the three mainstream parties opposed to independence, it is the Scottish Conservatives, with their unconventional leader Ruth Davidson, who have most effectively capitalised on the pro-union message. In the 2016 Scottish Parliament elections, the Tory Jackson Carlaw captured the West of Scotland constituency of Eastwood, which had been held by Labour since its creation. 

In Holyrood, the Scottish Tories benefit from proportional representation, which allows voters to choose a constituency MSP but also rank parties. 

According to Paul Masterton, the Tory candidate for East Renfrewshire, and the secretary of the Renfrewshire and Inverclyde Scottish Conservative Association, the Conservatives are now getting huge numbers of first preference votes, including in neighbourhoods like the suburb of Ralston, where both Black and Masterton are from. So who are these voters? Masterton describes them as “New Labour voters who were happy with Tony Blair and Gordon Brown but didn’t like Jeremy Corbyn and get tied up into knots by [Scottish Labour leader] Kezia Dugdale flipflopping on the union stance".

The 2016 election saw the Scottish Conservatives surge to second place in Scotland – a superb comeback for a party once ridiculed as being rarer than pandas. The next electoral test is the local council elections. In Paisley, even Labour activists acknowledged the Conservatives were likely to be the most notable winners.

“For a long time we simply didn’t go out in Paisley," says Masterton. "We were written off and we allowed ourselves to be written off.”

But the referendum has changed this. “What I found was that last May, people weren’t shutting the door in your face," he adds. "Once you started the conversation they were far more receptive to that.” 

Like the Labour activists, Masterton argues that the constitutional question matters more than Brexit. “When Theresa May said ‘now is not the time’, I think a lot of people across Paisley did a small quiet fist pump,” he says of a second independence referendum.  

Ironically, after the early election is called, the Scottish Conservatives do everything they can to mention the prospect. “Don't mention the 'i' word,” crows a recent press release about the “SNP indyref ban”. Davidson tweets: “Nicola doesn't want to stand on her record. She knows the country doesn't want her #indyref2.” A Panelbase survey commissioned by The Sunday Times Scotland published shortly after the early election was announced finds support for the Conservatives at Scotland at 33 per cent, 18 percentage points higher than in 2015. 

What you stand for

For now, Paisley remains a Scottish National Party stronghold. George Adams, the MSP with an office off the high street, proves elusive – Labour activists confirm his reputation as a hardworking local. Black’s aide turns down my request for an interview for similar reasons, but I bump into her that evening at a protest against cutting child tax credits in Glasgow’s George Square.

Black, an admirer of the left-wing Labour figure Tony Benn, once said she feels "it is the Labour party that left me". I ask her if she, like her Labour predecessor, holds surgeries in supermarkets. Black says she’d considered it, but given the sensitivity of some of the issues, such as benefit problems, she thought her constituents might appreciate a more private space. “The main thing that crosses the door in my offices is Universal Credit changes,” she explains. She says she has raised her concerns about the children’s ward.

As for the independence debate, she argues that the Scottish government have been “incredibly compromising” since Brexit, but adds: “A lot of folk want another chance at the question.”

Black is standing for re-election. With a majority of more than 5,000, and neither of her previous challengers in the running, she’s likely to keep her seat, even if buddies' discontent over local issues rumbles on. 

Still, as I have discovered, the 2014 referendum continues to reverberate in towns like Paisley. It has divided friends and neighbours on constitutional lines, galvanised new strains of politics, and brought a Labour heavyweight crashing down, with no appetite to return. 

The Tories believe their unionist message is enough to flip seats like East Renfrewshire, once Conservative, then Labour, and now an SNP marginal. As the SNP's shine wears off, could Paisley, with its long tradition of the left, one day follow? It no longer feels implausible. “The one thing about the Scottish Conservatives - and this is true whatever you like us or not,” says Masterton. “You know what we stand for.”

 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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