Al-Ahram Weekly Online   29 March - 4 April 2012
Issue No. 1091
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

A stage play in Mogadishu

Asmaa El-Husseini sees light at the end of Somalia's tunnel

At last a glimpse of normalcy in Mogadishu. The Somali National Theatre, closed for nearly 20 years, has opened its doors, albeit briefly and under strict security measures during a show. It was the first time for many among the audience to see a theatre play, and you could feel the sense of anticipation when the curtain rose. The mere fact that this theatre, a gift of the Chinese government, reopened was a sign that at last this war-torn country may have a reprieve, a future even.

In another piece of good news, the hardline Shebab groups, which have terrorised the inhabitants of Mogadishu for years, have been expelled from the city by a combined force of the Somali army and African Union contingents. The Shebab groups are losing ground, and not only in the capital. In one province after another, coalitions of local clans, helped by African armies, are pushing them back.

In Mogadishu, the sense of relief is mixed with anxiety, for the Shebab fighters have not completely been defeated. They often plant bombs around the capital to bully the population and keep the army and its African helpers from consolidating their positions.

Since the collapse of its central government in 1991, Somalia has been caught in a spiral of chaos. Famine has claimed its heavy toll in the population and so has sectarian strife and clan wars. The country's coasts are infected by pirates, and its towns have been ruled by blood-thirsty militia. No wonder, those Somalis capable of leaving the country have done so already, swelling the ranks of legal and illegal immigrants in various European countries.

Meanwhile, a succession of warlords and religious fanatics have fought every imaginable sort of war, against others and against each other, sometimes for local control, sometimes for alleged jihad, sometimes for reasons hard to describe.

This may be finally changing. The apathy with which the international community has viewed Somali tribulations is over now. A lot of officials are showing up in Mogadishu, including Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan, and a lot of promises are being made.

The international interest in Somalia used to be confined to three issues: piracy, terrorism, and immigration. But these are mere symptoms of the real problem, which is that the country has no central government, no mechanism for reconciliation, and no immediate resources with which to start the reconstruction.

Somalia is not a poor country. The mineral resources in the country, according to experts, are plentiful although much of the wealth is yet to be discovered. The potential for agriculture and animal husbandry is impressive. And the fishing and trade possibilities are immense. The country's educational system managed to survive despite the horrors of the war, and the banking system is quite reliable, so is the telephone infrastructure. With a little foreign help, from the Gulf countries, from Islamic states, from the European Union, things can turn around. With so many talented Somalis around, with so many working abroad, it will not be hard to populate the country's business and administrative ranks. But first, Somalia will need some peace.

The world is waking up to the fact that it is perhaps cheaper to help the Somalis out than to let them burn in the hell of civil war. For one thing, the Shebab groups which have held the country hostage for so long are now a threat not just to fellow Somalis, but to the region and the world beyond. Some fear that they may connect with Al-Qaeda, which has operatives in Yemen and Nigeria. Already, the Shebab have been linked with attacks in Kenya and Uganda.

Recently, the Shebab succeeded in recruiting 50 Britons from Somali origins, thus bringing the horror closer to European capitals as never before.

This may explain the wave of international interest in Somali, and the fact that London has organised a conference on Somalia. Many countries have now proposed initiatives to help the Somalis, which is a step in the right direction, but it is not enough.

Many of the initiatives so far have been written by outsiders, not by the Somalis themselves. A country which has been divided for so many years, where provincial parliaments have a knack for sacking governors, for declaring independence, and for forming alliances with neighbouring countries, needs more than external encouragement to restore its unity.

Somalia needs the help of the outside world to get back on its feet. It will need reconstruction and rehabilitation, education and business, etc. But first of all, it needs a reconciliation plan, one which involves not only regional and international players, but all parties to the multiple civil wars that the country has endured.

When journalists, including myself, were allowed into Mogadishu for the first time in years, we were horrified by the scale of destruction. But we were also encouraged by the resilience of the Somalis we talked to. Everywhere, people were welcoming us as if our mere presence was enough to restore their faith.

The Somalis are evidently ready for a change. Some of them are already forming parties, small and weak now but hopefully stronger in the future, that promote unity and combat sectarianism and tribalism.

Somalia can make a future for itself. But first it has to find itself. The years of conflict have taken it so far into disarray that many Somalis have forgotten what their country is really about.

For the Somalis to have a future, they have to start thinking of the type of country they need to build. Will they maintain their clan structure? Will they be able to strike a balance between their own interests and those of their foreign helpers? Will they be able to rein in the marauding remnants of their militia?

Reconciliation is not going to be easy, but a capital on-the-mend is a good start. And a theatre play is Mogadishu is a reason for optimism.

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