Abdirahman Osman has braved Islamist threats to help rebuild Mogadishu. His old job, as an anti-social behaviour manager for Ealing Council, has helped, he tells Nick Meo.
As his armoured car bumps through the rutted streets of Mogadishu on the way home from another day at the office, Abdirahman Osman often stares through the thick bullet-proof glass at the chaos outside and thinks of his family back in London.
The twice-daily commute from the government’s fortified headquarters, where Mr Osman is the prime minister’s right-hand man, is now relatively safe. At least, it is by the standards of Mogadishu, which until last year was routinely described as the most dangerous city in the world.
“When I speak to my family on the phone in the evenings, they often cry and ask me why I am doing this,” he said. “The risk is very high here. Grenades have been thrown at my house twice and I am on the Shabaab’s death list. I tell them it is my duty, and worth the sacrifice.”
Until 2008 when he decided he had to go back, Mr Osman enjoyed a successful career as a local authority official in Ealing, West London. His last job was anti-social behaviour manager, settling neighbourhood disputes and dealing with teenage gangs –all good experience when it came to Mogadishu’s violent politics. Home then was safe and leafy, and he was respected in the community as a school governor.
In Mogadishu, which he returned to after 17 years, his compound was regularly mortared and there was barely a school functioning. Somalia was a byword for war and anarchy, as Beirut was a generation ago.
“Somalia has suffered so much from warlords, pirates and terrorists,” he said. “Our capital city was destroyed. So much blood has been shed. The dreams of generations of our people have been destroyed.
“So when there was a chance to rebuild my country I knew I had to do it. We can make this a decent place. I am a hard worker and I want this task.” The outlook was grim indeed when he arrived in 2008, with the al-Qaeda-backed militia Shabaab, a kind of African Taliban, poised on the verge of victory.
Since then African Union troops have pushed the Shabaab out of the capital in a grinding, bloody campaign, and with some kind of normality returning to Mogadishu’s streets the crucial business of forming the first proper government in 21 years can begin.
It is the task of Mr Osman and the prime minister he serves, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, to secure a peace deal between the country’s tribal leaders, ex-warlords and clan power brokers.
The stakes are high. For nearly thirty years every attempt to broker peace and get Somalia back on the road to recovery has failed. If a peace accord is not enforced, Somalia will be doomed to sink back into bloodshed and misery – with dangerous implications for the West, and for Britain in particular.
The weight of responsibility weighs heavily on Mr Osman, but despite everything he is an incorrigible optimist. Some kind of normality is returning to Mogadishu’s streets and markets, the diaspora is returning to look for business opportunities, and the mood is genuinely hopeful. A sense of momentum is building and instead of just thinking of survival, Somalis are starting to believe they may have a future.
“The Somalis have had enough of war and warlordism, and they don’t want the Shabaab any more. At the beginning they did because they brought order, but the Shabaab treated the people harshly and didn’t allow them any freedom,” Mr Osman said. He lists a series of small towns around Somalia which have been “liberated” from Shabaab control in the past six months, with the help of soldiers from half a dozen African armies. The enemy have been pushed into the scrub miles outside Mogadishu, although there are still suicide bombings.
Food aid has arrived in large amounts from Muslim nations, easing the semi-permanent famine which has ravaged Somalia for years. Being able to feed the people has boosted the government’s fragile credibility.
“What we need now is more support from Western nations. We need to build schools, clinics and police stations, so people can see the benefits of peace. Then they will support the government,” he said.
“Even a pilot project would help, if we could point to one place and say, see the benefits of peace.” Britain has taken a leading role, with a budget of £60 million for aid this year. William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, visited in February and Her Majesty’s first Ambassador to Mogadishu for 21 years has been appointed.
The money is not being spent for purely altruistic reasons.
“A large number of young British-Somalis come here to fight jihad,” Mr Osman said. “While that happens there is a danger of terrorist attacks in Britain. With more resources, we can win the support of the people and then wipe out the Shabab. The only way to do this is to have an effective, popular government in Somalia.” There is an alternative, argued for by many Western anti-terrorism experts; Special Forces raids and drone attacks to pick off the most dangerous al-Qaeda operatives. In Pakistan such a strategy has had a terrible human cost and rallied popular support for al-Qaeda. It would mean abandoning Somalis to their fate – and perhaps turn them to the Shabaab.
But although the West has quietly committed itself to nation-building lite in Somalia, so far little of the funding that was promised at the London Conference on Somalia in February has arrived.
Mr Osman admits that the Transitional Government would soon collapse without foreign support. In particular they rely on the African soldiers from Uganda and other nations who have fought and died in Somalia. But the more difficult task is persuading Somalis who have grown used to anarchy to change their ways. “People had to adapt to warlordism. We are trying to change their culture after 21 years, and there are lots of competing clans. People here just haven’t seen the benefits of government yet.”
He does his best to get the message across. In Mogadishu, the former council official patiently explains the lessons he learnt in Ealing to Somali warlords, ruthless men who saw off the US military in 1991 and since then survived years of internecine bloodletting.
“In London I was dealing with noise nuisance, neighbourhood disputes, youth gangs, domestic violence, serious criminality,” he said. “It meant getting people to resolve their differences and learn to live together. Actually it was quite a lot like working here in Somalia.” Of course, even the toughest criminal in Ealing didn’t have machine-guns or rocket-launchers, or a private army of cut-throats to call on. But the principle was the same.
Mr Osman toured the schools of West London explaining to pupils why they should stay out of trouble, listened to the complaints of tenants on some dreadful council estates, and did his best to improve the lives of people who were often in despair.
It was painstaking and unglamorous, but it worked.
His proudest achievement was managing Golf Links, a rundown estate which sounds like a mini-Mogadishu without the guns. By persuading the community to work together, life got better for everybody.
Of course Somalia has problems that make the worst inner-city estate in Britain look like a paradise. But Mr Osman believes that with patience, foreign help and determination, a miracle can be worked.
“We cannot remake our nation in a year or two,” he said. “It may take many years. But we can do it.”