Country Cousins

Nuruddin Farah writes about the travails of Mogadishu

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.

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