I do not know quite what to make of reports from Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia. There are at least two ways to read the news: 1) the situation is clearly improving or 2) positive steps toward security, peace, and prosperity exist alongside threats to the same, making for a mixed and unpredictable situation. Recent Western press narratives have tended to follow the first reading, with headlines and ledes that emphasize “progress” or “normalcy,” but these news stories contain serious contradictions, sometimes even within individual sentences.
VOA (statements that contradict the progress narrative are in bold):
The defeat of al-Qaida-linked Islamic militants in Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, has triggered an influx of people escaping starvation in the countryside. The city has grown from 1.8 million to 2 million residents in eight months, putting a strain on humanitarian agencies trying to help tens of thousands of people living in tent cities with no means of support. Officials say security is much improved, although there are still sporadic clashes and the occasional suicide bomb attack.
AFP (statements that contradict the progress narrative are in bold):
Eight months after Al-Qaeda-allied insurgents abandoned much of the city following pressure from the African Union and government forces, the capital is showing signs of life, with reconstruction underway and land prices soaring.
“Security is still not reliable, but people decided they wanted to return life to normal,” trader Ahmed Sheikh Gure said.
“People are rebuilding their destroyed buildings,” he added, waving at a newly repaired shop and a busy construction site.
Though Somalia’s war is far from over, a regional offensive did force Islamist Shebab insurgents from many strongholds and they abandoned the city in August.
The scars of war remain clear, with hundreds of thousands of displaced people living in and around Mogadishu, many in basic rag-and-plastic shelters, some in the crumbling ruins of roofless houses.
I am not in Mogadishu and I do not have a first-hand perspective on the situation there. But headlines that emphasize progress, reconstruction, and normalcy seem overly confident to me. Alongside gains in security there are lurking threats; alongside reconstruction there is humanitarian crisis; alongside normalcy there is political confusion. Symbols of progress can quickly become symbols of conflict.
I will be happy to eat my words on this: a thriving, prosperous Mogadishu would be a triumph for Somalia and for the world. But I will not celebrate a reconstruction until I see clear signs that a stable political framework is in place to safeguard that reconstruction. As Somalia prepares yet another draft constitution, I have not seen those signs yet (more here and here).