Business trips to dangerous places: Meetings in Mogadishu

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Around the world certain cities have sadly become synonymous with war, brutality and lawlessness. For the business traveller, particularly the Western business traveller, Baghdad surely ranks among the most feared of assignments. Tripoli looks to be going that way soon. Beirut, long considered a byword for chaos, has in recent times rehabilitated its image. But of all the godforsaken places on the planet, Mogadishu, the damned capital of Somalia, evokes uniquely and impenetrably negative connotations. So it was with some trepidation that Gulliver set foot on the tarmac of Mogadishu’s Aden Adde International Airport.

First stop: the Turkish embassy. Ankara has been Somalia’s main benefactor and overseas partner since August 2011, when Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s then prime minister (and now president), became the first non-African leader to visit the country in nearly two decades. Mr Erdogan arrived just a fortnight after the Shabaab, the jihadist group spawned from Somalia’s Islamic Courts Union, abandoned its bases in the capital. Though pushed out of most urban areas, the al-Qaeda-linked group remains a force to be reckoned with.

Driving up to the outermost embassy checkpoint, a lone Somali guard with a distinctive red gangster hat tilted to one side approaches our vehicle. His jittery mannerisms and intimidating shouts betray a clear understanding of the dangers of his job. Turkish interests had at first been spared by the Shabaab during the 2011 East Africa drought. But as its humanitarian support evolved into political backing for Somalia’s transitional government—the body that ultimately wrested power from the Islamic Courts—they entered the crosshairs. In July 2013, a suicide car bomber killed two people at an office housing Turkish embassy staff in the capital. This May, the head of security for Turkish Airlines in Somalia was shot dead in his car. The star-and-crescent markings on our armoured vehicle do little to reassure the casually-dressed Somali guard; he trusts us as much as we trust him.

Safely inside the compound, Turkish special forces gently sip chai while stroking high-powered rifles. Their boss, ambassador Olgan Bekar, insists that he feels safe in the city. No “big attacks” have occurred since July, he says, glossing over the previous day’s bombing of a tea shop in central Mogadishu, which killed five locals. The Shabaab’s ability to mount spectacular attacks in the heart of government may—I stress, may—be waning, but its fighters are more than capable of slaying civilians. The group typically then fabricates military successes: claiming, for example, that the victims at the tea shop were “security officers and presidential palace workers”. More likely than not, they were simply passers-by.

Mr Bekar smiles when asked about a recent article penned by Somalia’s foreign minister, Abdirahman Dualeh Beileh, who argued that the country “has turned the corner”. The ambassador endorses the sentiment of the editorial, but amends its headline. “It’s turning; it has not finished turning,” he clarifies. Three political benchmarks will determine if the recovery has legs: the implementation of true federalism with semi-autonomous regions such as Somaliland and Puntland; the adoption of a new constitution; and the holding of national elections in 2016. These are tall orders for a country that lacked any central government between 1991 and 2012, when the federal parliament took the reins from the transitional authorities. Eager to derail any progress, the Shabaab killed ten people in a multi-pronged attack on parliament in May. Five MPs have been assassinated so far this year. “They need more time,” Mr Bekar stresses. “For us, the important thing is their determination, their sincerity to solve the problems facing the country.”

Paranoia takes hold again as we leave the embassy. The Shabaab has an endless supply of Somali army uniforms and weapons—sold openly in markets across the capital, courtesy of corrupt officials—so every roadblock and military vehicle is approached with suspicion. Zipping through the city centre, shop fronts call out with graffiti-esque depictions of the services purveyed within. These brightly-coloured, cartoon-like facades seem to epitomise the fragile state of Somalia’s recovery: rising commercialism on a canvas of rubble and bullet-holes.

Back at the airport, I meet brigadier general Dick Olum, who heads the Ugandan contingent of the African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM), the multinational “peace enforcement” body tasked with restoring law and order. His 6,000 troops are responsible for Sector One, the most strategically important of six AMISOM administrative zones. On the wall of Mr Olum’s bunker, a poster shows the Shabaab’s leadership hierarchy; a red X crossing out Ahmed Abdi Godane, its thuggish-looking emir, killed by an American drone in September. Now that the port town of Barawe, 250km south of Mogadishu, has fallen under AMISOM control, virtually all of the jihadists’ power bases in Sector One are gone. The Kenyans in Sector Two and the Ethiopians in Sector Three are mopping up rebel strongholds elsewhere. But Mr Olum is not boastful. “We are feeling the heat now,” he admits. “We are being hit by IEDs [improvised explosive devices] like nobody’s business. There could have been some plans by Al Shabaab to counter us from the rear, and that rear is Mogadishu.”

Such words will not encourage Gulliver readers to visit Somalia. That is probably just as well. But for entrepreneurial members of the diaspora—some of whom, I hope, might frequent this blog—connecting flights are available. Turkish Airlines serves Mogadishu four times weekly from its Istanbul hub. Somalia’s de facto flag-carrier, Jubba Airways, also connects the capital with the hubs of Dubai and Nairobi. Though the Shabaab would love to down a commercial flight, drone and boat patrols by AMISOM have so far kept travellers safe. Let’s hope it stays that way.

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