Somalia, a country on the horn of Africa, now wrecked by years of civil war, was once an oasis of peace which offered refuge to the persecuted and gave hope for the hopeless. Many oppressed Africans including members of the Mau Mau rebellion who were fighting for Kenya’s independence were offered refuge and settled in different cities where they started businesses and found work.
At its pinnacle, the capital Mogadishu, had one of the most diverse populations you could find in any modern city in the world. They came from different racial and religious backgrounds; Italians, British Asians, Christians, Hindus. The first immigrants to the city were Arab and Persian traders, who also ended up having a great influence on its early architecture. To date, the part of the city which was inhabited by these early settlers still boasts of traditional Arab structures which overlook the Indian Ocean..
The second wave of immigrants were Italians who arrived as colonizers in 1920, and made Mogadishu an administrative and commercial centre. They introduced Italian-styled architecture, with its characteristic majestic arches and cathedrals. Among the most notable landmarks was The Mogadishu Cathedral built in 1928 by the Italians and which was the largest in Africa. Known as the Cattedrale di Mogadiscio, its construction was based on the Cefalu Cathedral in Sicily. Today the Cathedral is a shadow of former self after it was destroyed by radical islamists. The last Catholic Bishop of Mogadishu, Salvatore Colombo, was killed inside it while celebrating mass in 1989 just before the outbreak of civil war.
After Independence ushered in an African government led by Aden Abdulle Osman Daar in 1960, African immigrants from different parts of the continent began to arrive in Mogadishu as refugees escaping colonial brutalities in their respective countries, while others arrived in search of opportunities. During this period, Somalia was a peaceful, democratic and prosperous state with tourism as one of its top foreign exchange earners. Kismayo with its pristine sandy beaches, and jungles inhabited by a variety of wild animals, was a major holiday destination for western tourists. Its vast historical sites also gave great insight into the culture and history of Somalis.
But things began to change in 1969, when Mohamed Siyad Barre led a bloodless coup shortly after the assassination of President, Dr. Abdirashid Ali Shermakhe. After coming to power Barre aligned his government with the East, arguing that there was no inconsistency between Islam and “scientific socialism”. Even though he made attempts to introduce some reforms, his rule was largely tyrannical, nepotistic and corrupt. In June 1990 prominent Somali politicians who were unable to withstand Barre’s leadership came out to demand his resignation and the formation of a caretaker government. He reacted by jailing many of them, describing their demands as “destructive”.
In 1991, Barre was eventually forced to flee to exile following an offensive by the rebel group, United Somali Congress (USC),who went on to overthrow his government and declared Ali Mahdi Mohamed as the new leader. However the announcement of Mohamed as the new leader did not please a faction of USC led by General Mohamed Farrah Aidid. This split in the USC caused a civil war which was largely fuelled by interclan rivalry. The eventual result of the two decades war was the extensive destruction of one of Africa’s most beautiful countries.
Thousands were killed and displaced as war lords fought for control. Capitalising on the situation were radical Islamist groups such as Al-Shabaab which is a terrorist group allied to AL Qaeda. According to Human Rights Watch report of 2016, al-Shabab committed targeted killings, beheadings, and executions, particularly of those accused of spying and collaborating with the government. “The armed group continues to administer arbitrary justice, forcibly recruits children, and severely restricts basic rights in areas under its control,” stated the organization.
The good news is that Somalia is now on the road to recovery following the intervention of the African Union and international partners who have put in place various initiatives to stabilise the country. This includes providing troops who serve under African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). The mandate of AMISOM as per the United Nation Security Council resolution 2372 of 2017, includes assisting the Somali forces to provide security for political process as well as to support reconciliation and peace building.. It is also authorised to conduct operations against terrorist groups such as Al-Shabaab.
Such efforts have provided a conducive environment for the country’s economy to improve giving thousands of Somalis hope. The Minister of Foreign Affairs Mr Ahmed Isse Awad while speaking at Augsburg University last month said, “Economic activity is picking up throughout the entire region. To sustain that progress we need the diaspora to engage more in Somalia.”
The International Monetary Fund which keeps a close eye on the progress made by the Somali government recently revealed that over the last two years “growth has rebounded, inflation has slowed, and the trade deficit has narrowed”. The institution further predicted that the economy will strengthen by 3% in 2019 from 2.8% last year. “Somalia’s economy continues to recover, supported by vigorous activity in the construction, telecommunications, and financial services sector in 2018,” added IMF Director Allison Holland after leading a team to the country.
African Development Bank on the other hand advised that the greatest challenges Somalia has to deal with in order to have a more stable economy include “poor infrastructure, weak state institutions and capacity, weak public financial management systems, continued insecurity, limited resilience to environmental extremes, and large arrears to international financial institutions.” The poor infrastructure has resulted in the country being unable to provide basic services such as security, health, water, education, energy, and transport.
The silver lining is that there are vast opportunities the country can also capitalise on. According to the African Development Bank report, these include a “vibrant private sector; a diaspora willing to invest in the country; regional integration; import substitution and export promotion; nascent agricultural, agribusiness, and fishing industries; and a young population”. Somalia also has the potential to be a regional economic hub because of its strategic geographical position and by virtue of having the longest coastline in Africa.