Vol. 20 No. 17 · 3 September 1998

Country Cousins

Nuruddin Farah writes about the travails of Mogadishu

2985 words

For centuries, Somalis of pastoralist stock have described Mogadishu as justice-blind, whether they are alluding to the Mogadishu of old, ten centuries back, to the Mogadishu of Siyad Barre, or to the Mogadishu of the civil war. If Mogadishu occupies an ambiguous space in our minds and hearts, it is because ours is a land with an overwhelming majority of pastoralists, who are possessed of a deep urbophobia. Maybe this is why most Somalis do not seem unduly perturbed by the fate of the capital: a city broken into segments, each of them ruthlessly controlled by an alliance of militias.

Political power in our part of the world has for centuries been concentrated in the hands of city-dwellers, who made sure that the marginalisation of the pastoralists continued after colonialism. These city-dwellers were not necessarily cosmopolitans, however: the men who seized power in the post-colonial period were, in the main, first-generation townspeople, and they have gone on, one way or another, to act as though they enjoyed the support of the country’s majority – the pastoralists – whom they claim to represent. They relegated the old political élite, the cosmopolitans, to a state of subservience – describing them as ‘softies’ because of their peaceable ways – but, as upstarts are prone to do, they also disdained the pastoralists, saying that they were ‘unschooled in modern ways’ and not to be entrusted with affairs of state. These recent migrants to the city, who have arrogated almost every form of power to themselves, have all the trappings of urbanity, while giving pride of place to their pastoralist credentials. They are properly two-faced.

Before independence, huge numbers of Somalis, who could best be described as semi-pastoralists, moved to Mogadishu; many of them joined the civil service, the army and the police. It was as if they were out to do away with the ancient cosmopolitan minority known as ‘Xamari’, Xamar being the local name for the city. Within a short time, a second influx of people, this time more unequivocally pastoralist, arrived from far-flung corners to swell the ranks of the semi-pastoralists, by now city-dwellers. In this way, the demography of the city changed. Neither of these groups was welcomed by a third – those pastoralists who had always got their livelihood from the land on which Mogadishu was sited (natives, as it were, of the city). They were an influential sector of the population in the run-up to independence, throwing in their lot with the colonialists in the hope not only of recovering lost ground but of inheriting total political power. Once a much broader coalition of nationalists had taken control of the country, these ‘nativists’ resorted to threats, suggesting that the recent migrants quit Mogadishu. ‘Flag independence’ dawned in 1960 with widespread jubilation drowning the sound of these ominous threats. It was another thirty years before they were carried out.

The destruction of the city in 1991 was not the first occasion on which a confederacy of pastoralists from the outskirts of Mogadishu, and acting at the behest of city-based firebrands organised around the idea of aboriginal ownership of Mogadishu, had taken over the city and laid waste to it. The same thing happened more than four hundred years ago – the date given by Somali oral historians is between 1530 and 1580 – several centuries after the city was established. We know more of the present-day insurgents because of the international coverage of Somalia, but they have tended largely to redefine ancient wrongs as new grievances. The 16th-century city had something in common with its present incarnation: a cast of borderline characters posing as city-folk leading armed communities of marginalised nomads who are not privy to the political machinations of their leaders. The savageries visited on the city’s residents in the 16th century and in 1991 were in both cases masterminded by urbophobics already installed in Mogadishu, which for hundreds of years has lain under the envious gaze of people who hated and feared it because they felt excluded from its power politics.

Mogadishu is a city with several names, some of old and local derivation, some more recent, others of foreign origin. It has been a city-state, the capital of a nation-state and a metropolis with a multiple source of memories, some of which are alien to Africa, others native and of an enduring kind. No one knows for certain when the name ‘Mogadishu’ was conferred, by whom, or on what basis. Some people derive it from the composite Somali term ‘Maqal disho’ meaning ‘the place where sheep are slaughtered’ – an evocation of the days when pastoralists camped on the outskirts, visited the markets and bartered their livestock to the abattoir for imported food and clothes. To the pastoralists, Mogadishu was of only seasonal importance. The city owed its prestige and prosperity to its urban residents, many of them Persians or Arabs, from whom it acquired its heterogeneity. The relationship between the urbophiles and the pastoralists was a troubled one. In the recycled memory of the pastoralists’ descendants who took the city in 1991, the non-indigenous usurpers were so powerful that they could alter the etymology of the city’s name to comply with their lingua franca, Arabic: Maq’adu Shah, the Place of the Shah. It is said that not one of the Somalis admitted into the city as bona fide residents was local, all were migrants from other Somali-speaking regions.

From the time it was established as a city in the ninth century until it was first ransacked, Mogadishu had a negligible level of administrative powers, which did not extend beyond the city proper and were vested in the bourgeois élite. Two communities, therefore, existed in parallel, a city-based community, in the main foreign to the area, and a pastoralist community, wholly Somali, more or less peripheral. Each community organised itself on its own terms, hardly communicating and knowing little of what the other was up to.

An open city without walls, covering an area no bigger than four square miles, Mogadishu was unmistakably a Muslim settlement and the minaret dominated the landscape. Islam was the imperative faith, the currency in which all civic and social exchanges occurred. The city prospered, even though it was founded on the basis of conflicting memories. The pastoralists who camped on the city’s outskirts and went in and out for one reason or another seem to have lived under conditions of their own choosing, and to have been of a peaceful disposition, conscious perhaps that time was on their side – that the day would come when they could reclaim the territory which was theirs. They seemed unbothered, even when the city imposed its ways on them. Over the years, Islam became the pacifying force, prevailing both in the city and among the pastoralist communities on its margins.

Meanwhile the foreign fraternities at the heart of the city entered into binding treaties with other sovereignties, without consulting the ‘aboriginal’ Somalis and in due course the coexistence of the two parallel communities was upset. After the first sacking – also by a confederacy of clansmen – it took two hundred years or more for the older and more recent residents of Mogadishu to reinvest their disparate memories in the newly re-established city. But by the 18th century the self-run city-state’s sovereign authority had passed to an absentee suzerain, Sultan Barqash of Zanzibar. In 1899 he leased Mogadishu to the Italians, who used it as a primary frontier settlement for several years, and later consolidated their colonial authority over the entire territory, corralling the city and its periphery into a lowly position of clientage. The Italians snarled up the colony by racialising it. Colonial, neo- and post-colonial governments came and went without regard to the nomadic communities around Mogadishu. Wary of foreign and local migrants, the nativists – whether suburban pastoralists or city-dwellers – distrusted all others and continued to wait for the day when they would regain power over their ancestral land, if only to avenge the indignity of centuries.

The question uppermost in every Somali’s mind is this: does a city belong to those who claim to own the land on which it was sited, or to those who built it, making it into what it is – hundreds and thousands of migrants from other corners of the Somali-speaking peninsula who’ve known and loved no other place? Whatever the animosities within the city, and between the various mutinous communities, including the ‘chased-outs’ and the ‘stayers-on’, Somalis still fall broadly either side of the rough sociological divide between a substantial blood confederacy of pastoralists who raise livestock and a very large, very powerful fraternity of city-dwellers. One of the things the current militia wars have done is to bring into sharp relief the weakened position of all the other communities, including a sizeable but marginalised population of settled farmers, not to speak of a small group of fishermen.

All relationships, in Somali, are defined in terms of cognates, to the extent that we may address a total stranger as ‘cousin’, and those whom we know as ‘brother/sister’, to connote closeness. There are two broad categories into which one’s fellow Somalis fall: reer magaal and reer baadiye, the prefix reer indicating sibling status (magaalo is ‘city’ or ‘town’; baadiyo is ‘countryside’). If I find this distinction persuasive, it is because I am opposed to the fetishisation of the clan as a single-issue, monolithic, end-all, destroy-all and resolve-all description. Like other urban Somalis, I am loath to admit being related to my kinsmen or kinswomen from the baadiya, relatives whom we hold in very low esteem, and describe in unflattering terms, the more thoroughly to dissociate ourselves from them. The pastoralists for their part look on their city-based kinsmen or kinswomen from the vantage-point of a sour-grapes beggar, who has been denied an expected gift and has no option but to insult his potential giver.

We city-dwellers speak of ourselves as il-bax, ‘persons of special genius’, and of the pastoralists as jangali – a term alluding to the hot-bloodedness of nomadic stock. We recite to one another the terrible doings of our pastoralist kinsmen, who impose themselves on us, camping down as unwelcome guests for months, at times for years on end, in our small apartments. We complain to one another about our pastoralist kinsmen and women’s insistence that we foot their medical bills and their children’s school fees. We remind one another of how, as the end of the month approaches, they descend on the city, in anticipation of a share of our meagre salaries. When a drought decimates their cattle, they come to us, their urban-based relatives, but they are invariably mean to us when they are prospering. In other words, Somalis are no longer divided into clans and sub-clans based on blood links, but into city-dwellers and jingalis, the one group powerful, literate in the 20th-century sense of the term, the other an object of censure, relegated to the status of tribespeople. How has this come about?

In the Thirties, a great many Somalis were co-opted into serving in the colonial wars. In the British Somaliland Protectorate, young men were recruited to fight elsewhere in Africa, in the Middle East and Burma, in defence of colonial interests. Italy used Somali servicemen to expand into what was then Abyssinia. The returnees from the wars would, in due course, become the vanguard of the nationalist movements. No doubt the world changed – and along with it the Somalis who fought in its European wars. Our self-image was redefined; our association with the colonialists and with neighbouring countries altered; our place in history was no longer what it had been, now that we were party to another great repository of memories, held in common with the Europeans we had fought alongside and against. Our precolonial notion of freedom suddenly seemed rather inadequate. The changes were enormous, affecting our social existence, our system of self-organisation. By now, hundreds of thousands of our people had become city-dwellers; the country was undergoing tremendous demographic upheavals; it had one of the highest urban-migration rates in Africa.

As if intending to master this new sense of time-in-space, most able-bodied men and women came to the cities in search of employment and better (and secular) educational opportunities. The pull towards the cities and away from the capriciousness of the seasons, droughts and crop failures was so great that, in forty years, the pastoralist population was reduced to less than half of what it had been at the end of World War Two. Every passing year bore witness to the baneful addition of thousands more to the cities, placing further strains on the families with whom these new arrivals were lodged.

In the late Seventies, after another war, this time between Somalia and Ethiopia over the Somali-speaking Ogaden, the influx of a huge contingent of refugees, combined with mass internal migration from depressed rural areas, meant that urban growth reached alarming proportions. Siyad Barre, the dictator of the day, turned Mogadishu into the one and only city in the country worth the name. And when the time came for the confederacy of armed militias – predominantly pastoralist and urbophobe – to attack him, the city, which had seen so many other wars, was the ideal battlefield. It was not the structures of the state that were destroyed – there hardly were any – but the idea of cosmopolitanism.

Yet, even before the fury of the militias was unleashed, Mogadishu was already edging towards extinction. Anyone wanting to be part of the fast-moving, power-playing, money-dependent lifestyle of the big city naturally gravitated there. People came to find employment, to be where the action was, where the industries were situated, where the only university in the country was, where the embassies, foreign firms and aid agencies had their headquarters. If you needed to consult an optometrist or a specialist of any kind you sought them out in Mogadishu. As a civil servant, you came here to lodge a complaint about your salary arrears, your promotion or your transfer. Power was concentrated in the figure of Siyad: the city was his. Crowds of Somalis queued up to see him, to petition him, and as time went on, those crowds turned into mobs and the mobs became more aggressive. And finally that aggression gave rise to the militias.

Sometime towards the end of 1989 there were rumours that the armed militias were closing in on Siyad’s power-base and that if he did not quit, he would be taken captive. The ‘Mayor of Mogadishu’ – a nickname bestowed on him at the very moment he began to lose control of the city – made a prophetic vow: ‘If anyone tries to run me out of my city, I promise to take the whole country along with me to the land of ruin.’ The city went up in flames and Siyad fled, leaving it in the hands of fighters killing one another in the name of rival histories, contending memories and entitlements – over who had the right to live in it, who could own a house in it, who could think of it as their home. The long-term middle-class residents of the city fled, as Siyad had, first to points beyond the immediate fighting, then further and further, eventually crossing borders and seeking refuge in neighbouring countries and new continents. The only communities which survived the disaster more or less unharmed were the die-hard, pukka pastoralists – now about 35 per cent of the population – the ones who had always lived in rural areas and who did not join those who descended on the city, reclaiming it as their patrimony even as they visited ruin on it. The rest of the nation was swept into the vortex of Mogadishu.

There was, and still is, a hierarchy of logic to the plunder. Of course, things are clearer now, several years later. In retrospect, you might conclude that Mogadishu was selectively sacked, some districts being deliberately left untouched. It was as if the war leaders meant to take possession of the properties of the ‘chased-outs’ for themselves. By and large, the war leaders and middle classes who were run out of the city by the clan conscripts at the start of the strife led urban lifestyles, had a basic education, and knew each other well.

During my visit to Mogadishu in 1996, I was entertained to lavish meals and self-exonerating soliloquies by some old and new friends. I was shown houses whose owners had fled, many of which have since been taken over by the ‘stayers-on’, Mogadishu’s new élite. I suppose the city-sackers who now form the backbone of the armed militias must have their eyes trained covetously on the villas they ‘liberated’ in the name of the clan, but which have now fallen into the hands of people of much the same ilk as the original owners.

I remember having a candlelit meal in a three-storey house barely a hundred metres from the beach, the night resplendent in the full moon. My host, a former resident of Atlanta, Georgia, with a degree in economics, informed me without my asking that he was house-sitting for a mutual friend of ours. It is fair to assume that most of the city’s big villas are in the hands of the new élite. Many of these properties are being charitably looked after by friends or relatives, but you can be sure that some of the people now squatting in abandoned villas are intent on altering the certificates of occupancy, and of claiming them for themselves. Yet most of the diehard nativists of 1991 appear to have been cured of their bellicosity, no longer insisting that Mogadishu belongs to them and their kind, to do with it what they please. The spectacle of fair-weather clansmen attacking one another has led many nativists to change their position and to hope that the ‘chased-outs’ come back: Mogadishu might then be what it once was – a living metropolis with cosmopolitan virtues.

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