As the capital and the seat of the Somali government, Mogadishu has undergone a slow process of urban recovery over the course of the past decade. The city is experiencing rapid urbanisation, growing up to as much as 4% per year by some estimates, with a concomitant building boom driving up land prices. However, central tenets of the political settlement remain unresolved, including Mogadishu’s constitutional status.

Drawing on current political settlements and domain studies, ACRC researchers Surer MohamedAfyare ElmiAbdirizak Muhumed and Abdifatah Tahir discuss urban politics and power dynamics, issues of security and citizenship, and the trends they are seeing  that give them hope for urban reform in Mogadishu.

Surer Mohamed is the current Harry Frank Guggenheim Research Fellow at Pembroke College, University of Cambridge, focusing on  the politics of urban belonging in Africa and the aftermaths of political violence in cities. She is the ACRC uptake lead and domain lead for land and connectivity in Mogadishu.

Afyare Elmi is the executive director of the Heritage Institute for Policy Studies, as well as the ACRC city lead and political settlements co-lead in Mogadishu.

Abdirizak Muhumed is a senior researcher at the Heritage Institute for Policy Studies and co-leads ACRC’s political settlements research in Mogadishu.

Abdifatah Tahir is a postdoctoral research fellow at The University of Manchester and former member of Somalia’s federal parliament. He is working on the land and connectivity domain within ACRC.


The full podcast transcript is available below.

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Surer Mohamed Welcome everyone to the African Cities podcast, a podcast documenting the research and the work of the African Cities Research Consortium. My name is Dr Surer Qassim Mohamed and I’m a research fellow at Pembroke College, Cambridge, and the uptake lead and land and connectivity domain researcher for Mogadishu. I’m joined by three incredible guests who I will allow to introduce themselves. But first, just a bit of context. As the capital and the seat of the Somali government, Mogadishu has undergone a slow process of urban recovery over the course of the past decade. Mogadishu is experiencing rapid urbanisation, by some estimates, growing up to as much as 4% per year, with a concomitant building boom driving up land prices. However, central tenets of the political settlement remain unresolved, including Mogadishu’s constitutional status. Today, we’re going to discuss really important questions, including why it’s important to focus on an urban agenda for Mogadishu, particularly in the context of state- and peacebuilding. What are some of the future trends that we can anticipate from Mogadishu’s development? And for this, I open the floor to these really expert interviewees to introduce themselves. Take it away.

Afyare Elmi Thank you, Surer.  My name is Afyare Elmi. I am the executive director of Heritage Institute for Policy Studies based in Mogadishu. I am also the city lead for the ACRC and co-researcher of the political settlement component of the study. Over to you, Dr Abdifatah.

Abdifatah Tahir My name is Abdifatah and I’m a research associate at The University of Manchester and I’m working on aspects of the land and connectivity domain, focusing on land conflict adjudication in Mogadishu.

Abdirizak Muhumed Thank you. Thank you, Surer. Thank you for the introduction. My name is Abdirizak Muhumed, I’m a senior researcher with Heritage Institute for Policy Studies and research lead in the political settlement component of the ACRC studies.

Surer Mohamed Thank you all so, so much for your introductions and I’m really excited to get into this discussion with you today. The first is a very general question, and this is for anybody who’s interested in answering it. The question is: why is it important to study urban issues in Mogadishu? And perhaps, maybe, has urban issues gotten the attention that it deserves over time?

Afyare Elmi I think I would give this to the urban specialists, to you and Abdifatah first.

Abdifatah Tahir I think one of the reasons why Mogadishu’s urban growth, and particularly the interface with the state building, is very important for Somalia’s recovery from the conflict, is the fact that for a number of reasons. First, Mogadishu accounts for almost 30% of the Somali population. So if you have something going on well in Mogadishu, then you have almost 30% of Somalia going well. Secondly, Mogadishu is strategically located in not some middle, but in terms of  population wise, if you look at the population distribution of the country, then you realise Mogadishu’s geographical location, in terms of conducting businesses and in terms of where the critical economy of the country is based, then for that reason, it’s very important for the recovery.

Afyare Elmi Okay. Let me just jump in. I agree with Dr Abdifatah on a number of the issues that he raised, but there is also the historic nature of the city, one of the oldest cities in this part of the world. And I think the other, perhaps more significant, aspect is that for the past 30 years, Mogadishu has been the centre of the problems of Somalia. And, more or less, we had ongoing conflicts in the city from civil war and clans and factions and Islamists and Ethiopian occupation and so on and so on. So we had so many conflicts, which affected both the residents and arrivees of the city in a big way. Mogadishu has grown in terms of size, in terms of population, for the last 30 years, which basically means with that growth, which was more or less unplanned, created so many urban problems for the people and also for the entire country.

Surer Mohamed Thank you so much for that. Abdirizak, is there anything you want to add to that?

Abdirizak Muhumed Yeah. Thank you. Thank you very much. I agree with what Dr Abdifatah and Professor Afyare have said so far. But in my view, answering the question why is it important to study urban issues in Mogadishu, it’s actually relevant in many ways. One: Mogadishu is a city that is growing, and growing without meaningful planning, without development of sewage systems, without dumping sites in place. So in my view, the study is important, in the sense that it will be helpful in formulating urban planning, locating areas that might be designated as dumping sites in the near future, as the city stabilises. So, you can imagine a city as old as Mogadishu and growing as fast as Mogadishu, but without urban planning in place. So locating, even including part of the political settlement, identifying coalition groups that are willing to, for example, embark on reforms. So the study will be useful for anyone that’s interested in taking part in the wider reform of the city in future. Thank you.

Surer Mohamed Thank you so much for all of those excellent answers. That was really great. And in some ways, we’ve already touched on the following question, which is also a general question, which is: in your view, what are some of the largest crosscutting challenges facing Mogadishu’s current trend towards urbanisation? Some of the challenges that have already been mentioned include things around the lack of sufficient urban planning infrastructure and material infrastructure like sewage systems, the violent history of the city. What do you think are the most significant crosscutting challenges?

Afyare Elmi Okay. Let me jump in here. I think one of the main challenges, I would say, if not the most important challenge, is that the status of the city within the governance structure of the country has not been settled. Which basically means, will Mogadishu be a federal state? Or will it be a city within federal state? And so on. So that debate is still ongoing, and it has had implications for the way the city is governed. For instance, we have the security system of the city being run by the federal government of Somalia, which is really an issue that needs to be sorted out. And also the second big issue is that the city has been growing fast, with many, many people coming as internally displaced people. And when you look at these settlements, and back in the early 90s, all the way to now, we have a number of communities that have been living there more than 30 years who are still classified as IDPs, but technically they are urban poor because they have been living there, they’ve been staying there, and there is no plan for them even to go back. So that is actually very, very important – we have almost half of the population, or close to half of the population, who are facing settlement issues here. So that’s another huge challenge, I would say, that we are facing. The third perhaps would be the level of political contestations that are going on. For instance, at any given time, there are contestations between actors. So now it’s Shabaab and the government and maybe many other actors, and so, and still within that, the city is developing. There are so many buildings being built, so many things happening at the same time. So I think this is, again, another layer of challenges that needs to be addressed. There are many more that have been raised by both our political settlement part of the studies and also land and governance and others. But I’ll just conclude the fourth one, which is this constant problems of land-related issues that are being settled and then disputed and so on and so on. I think this is another trend that’s going on now. So I’ll stop there and I’ll leave the rest to Dr Abdirizak and maybe to you, of course, you have been doing this study for a while.

Abdirizak Muhumed Thank you. Thank you very much Prof. I think you have already given enough illustration. Just to add, I think one of those crosscutting issues and challenges in Mogadishu is the separation of powers, as Prof alluded to. Especially in the security sector. So this, as the research indicated and this as one of our findings in the research, is the territorialisation of the city. In other words, a soldier at a checkpoint is, to quote from a colonial observation that “each man is his own sultan”. In other words, each man is his own king at the checkpoint, so the security apparatus are not collaborative in terms of securing the city, either from clan militias or from al-Shabaab. So the territorialisation of the city is a major challenge. And another challenge is the interaction between the federal police and the district commissioners. So at the district level, you have a district commissioner, who is appointed by the mayor but becomes his own government, in a sense that he collects tax without basically reporting to the mayor or to the federal government. So harmonising these competing powers greatly limits the reforms that one might like to embark on. For example, the garbage collection and the dumpsites are basically controlled by one sort of militia leader. But that militia leader is not exclusively a militia leader. He’s a militia leader at one time, he’s a clan leader at one time, and he’s a member of the Somali National Army at the same time. And he’s largely out of control in terms of which jurisdiction he reports to, either the federal government or the city administration. So those are the types of crosscutting challenges. And what that presents is the challenge of urban planning, garbage collection and taxation in general. Those are some of the crosscutting issues that came into my mind now. Thank you.

Surer Mohamed Thank you both so much for that very comprehensive overview, and really helpful. I think I’ll follow Professor Afyare’s advice and put on my other hat, not right now as uptake lead, but as the land and connectivity researcher, to also highlight, you’ve spoken a bit, Professor Afyare, about land-related issues. And this is the research that I was doing under the auspices of the ACRC, but also before it: considering how the city’s urbanising trajectory, the building boom is all under riven with challenges around contested and overlapping land claims, which hearken back to really difficult history, and the contradictions that this can lead to in a rapidly reconstructing city, a reconstructing city that’s happening, as everybody here mentioned, really in the absence of urban planning. And how these kind of challenges can be future challenges for conceptions of what civic nationalism looks like, what urban citizenship and belonging looks like, and what obviously political recovery looks like. So that’s a bit of the crosscutting challenges that I’ve been thinking about. And I think it connects really well to the work that you’ve been doing, particularly in political settlements, around what kind of authorities exist in what kind of spaces. And so now, in Mogadishu there are four strands of African Cities Research Consortium research or ACRC research. The first is informal settlements. There’s safety and security, youth and capability, as well as land and connectivity, which is what I’m working on. But in addition to these kind of domain strands of research, which is what we call them within the ACRC, there are also large-scale comprehensive studies, and these are the political settlements as well as the city of systems research. And I’m happy to say today that we’re joined by a great deal of the political settlements team. And so it might make sense to take advantage of that and ask you some questions that come from the political settlements. Some of these questions, the answers to these questions, have been alluded to, but it’d be great to draw out some of the implications for research in Mogadishu and further policy priorities. So the first question that emerges from that is what is, or how would you describe, the political context in which the ACRC research is taking place? If you could set the landscape for us around what the political landscape in Mogadishu looks like at the moment. We’ve spoken about the constitutional status. We’ve spoken very briefly about al-Shabaab. If you could explain for people who wouldn’t really be familiar with the context of Somalia or the context of Mogadishu, what do they need to know, in order to really understand what this research is hoping to do?

Afyare Elmi Let me just respond to this, and Abdirizak will actually give more details on it. When we are talking about political settlement, we have to also remember Mogadishu is at times, some of the authors like Nuruddin Farah and others is called “Mogadishu is the country and the country is Mogadishu”. Basically what it means here is that whatever problems that Mogadishu has is what the country has. That said, we have a political settlement nationally, that has implications for the city. And that political settlement has three components, I would say. Actually, the main ones are the two: the 4.5 clan structure and the federal system. These are the two main domestic political settlements that are guiding the overall political system of Somalia. And then we have also African Union or the African Union forces, which are basically the police or the sheriff in town. And then we have the international system as well, which is playing a role. So, overall, these are the main factors. That said, then we have another level of political settlement, which is largely controlled by the federal government of Somalia. Federal government appoints the mayor and the governor, and then they appoint four deputy governors and one secretary general, based on clan considerations. So the four deputy governors and the secretary general, I think are largely, and the mayor as well, are largely from one particular community of Hawiye clan, except with the Benadiri deputy governor. So you have that arrangement that resulted out of a practice, not out of political consensus or even out of census or anything. So we have that practice in place now. And then you have the mayor who is appointing or who normally appoints 17 district commissioners and three still yet-to-be districts. So altogether 20. So you have that arrangement made and then each district has five people who run the affairs of the district. So that is the governance structure of the city. Most of the political decisions regarding the city are made by the federal government of Somalia. And everybody in the city, particularly the higher officials, normally serve at the pleasure of the president. So this is, again, we have a federal government-controlled city in Mogadishu. Yet there are aspirations of a number of communities within the city that they wanted to become their own federal member state in the country. So we have that challenges in here. And the political settlement, when we were assessing this, we analysed the implications of this current arrangement. And as well, we have discussed the different viewpoints that different actors in Somalia have when it comes to governing or managing this city. And by the way, this is highly contested. City of Mogadishu is not only for the people who live, it’s for everybody in the country. The decisions are, at least there are inputs that are coming outside the residents or people who are living in the city. Abdirizak.

Abdirizak Muhumed Thank you. Thank you very much, Prof. Just to add on what Prof has just said, one very important consequence of the current political settlement, is that the clan acts as constituents in terms of election. So an MP goes to his clan and gets maybe his many pledges and becomes a member of parliament through the clan, but even though the clan, the division of the Somali people, in terms of categorisation of the clan, is part of the political settlement, it has two other elements. One, the whole 4.5 political arrangement aspect of the 4.5 categorisation. But in terms of power, the clan is simply a constituency, but the clans themselves do not have the power, or a say in how the country is run or in that sense how the cities run. One might use the clan as a political vehicle individually to justify their personal interest. But the clans per se do not win much power in terms of governing the country. Generally, as the Prof said, both the overall state building and the governance in Mogadishu is still quite contested and the issues that are unresolved, largely because of the federal system that’s still new, that’s a system that’s still developing, that many people see as a system that’s imposed on them. But it seems that it’s now a largely accepted part of the political settlement. But in the post-election, it seems that the political context has been largely reduced, there is a lull in the elite political contestation after the election. So it seems now there might be a coalition for reforms in this current government because it seems the mayor and the prime minister and the president assumed that they’re all in one political block, unlike previous arrangements. So that is a new component in the political arrangement. For the first time that people see the mayor and the prime minister and the president being from one sort of a single political party, even though political parties, even though politics does not run along political parties, but that is the assumption that is in place now. In terms of the challenges, I think we have largely explained the ideas of informal settlements and who is powerless in the city and who has power. But there is interesting outcome in the research, for example, answering the question of who’s powerless in the city, district commissioners give very, very different answers. For example, one say the majority in the city are powerless because they cannot elect their mayor, neither can they can elect their district commissioners nor their members of parliament. And Mogadishu, by the way, does not have members of parliament elected from or selected from Mogadishu in terms of the representation of Hawiye clan. So that is still a contested issue. But one district commissioner, for example, say the majority are the powerless. Not because they’re in the minority, but because they cannot elect their leadership, as a result of the prevailing political settlement. And the other one says the powerless are those who do not have district commissioners in the city. So if you don’t have the district commissioner to run to when one of your members is arrested or something happens, then you are powerless. So that was another group that was seen as powerless. And the obvious other answers were going for the most obvious, the IDPs or people who live in the informal settlements scattered all over Mogadishu, and the minority groups. So in terms of who is powerless in the city, so one of the arguments is that whoever does not work for the government, whoever is not an employee of the government, who does not have that card indicating that he or she is working for one of the ministries, either one of the ministries or in any way if he’s not a public servant, or there are many ways of people becoming employees of the government, but if he or she does not have that card, he or she is powerless because he cannot pass roads, cannot pass checkpoints. And only around 5,000 people actually work for the government. So you can imagine Mogadishu’s population – people say 2 million, some go 3 million. So 5,000 out of 3 or 2 million, whatever, because the census has not been there so it is only estimation, so you can imagine only 5,000 government employees  have access to roads and the rest of the people… So you might find people parking their cars because they cannot access the roads, they cannot drive. Some people are selling their cars in a cheaper price because they cannot drive around. So what is most interesting, at least in the political settlement component, is the dynamics of powerlessness in the city. Ordinarily, people might think the minority are powerless, the IDPs are powerless. Those are the obvious ones. But at one point there is an overall powerlessness in the city, in terms of the population who live, of which the access of roads is very important. So you cannot even run your wife who is delivering to a hospital quickly, unless you have, they will tell you “go back, go”. But they don’t even care whether the mother is in labour or anything. So that is one of the most interesting dynamics that came out of this research. Thank you.

Surer Mohamed That question of urban mobility is so, so important. And it came up so clearly in the land and connectivity research as well. How security infrastructures themselves, visible architectures of security, such as roadblocks, checkpoints, and the constant need to reiterate and prove yourself, containerises the city in so many different ways. And it’s really important that you think about how people can move through the city as a form of power. That’s a really, really critical insight. Thank you so much for bringing that here. So I’m now going to ask the last conclusion question, which is just like the introductory questions, very general. The question is: what trends, what general trends in Mogadishu concern you the most and which trends inspire hope? What kind of seeds do you see now that might be concerning for the future, generally? Or what seeds do you see now that you think might be the beginnings of something worthwhile? Some kind of urban reform?

Afyare Elmi Okay. Let me again start the general answer. I think the most concerning part for me is the security of the city. A city as important as Mogadishu and as highly populated as Mogadishu city, I think one needs to have solid security system in place, both in the policing, in the prison system, in intelligence, in every aspect of it. And I think that is a general challenge that we have. And the contestation is at this time actually even quite visible in the cities. So I think that is the glaring fact that will hit you in the face when you are in Mogadishu, when everything is talked about in the realm of security. You can’t go there, you can’t go this, you can’t do this, you can’t do that, all kinds of things. So that is actually a very, very important and concerning trend. And now, particularly with al-Shabaab taken out from outside, and now that they are coming into population centres, it’s even becoming a bigger problem. And this has to be resolved at the different levels of the government. The city administration do not have a control over the security component, or at least that they could be accounted for. So that is a very, very important factor. Second, I think is that the city has too many people that are not appreciated or actually considered citizens. I think still having that label “IDP” for longtime residents or this idea of autochthony where a particular group claims the city, whether it’s at the Hawiye level or at the sub-clan level, also is another complication where citizenship is affected and also where overall political settlement of the country is problematised. And I would just go a little bit further and say it’s not just for Mogadishu, it’s also for other big cities, where citizens should have equal rights and equal responsibilities and actually representation based on election. So this is a serious component. I guess the other important aspect is when you look at Mogadishu and the land that it sits on, it’s not big, but you have a huge population. In that, all kinds of health issues can be a problem, if this is not well run, from sewage system to public health aspects and this and that. So I think when you see this city that has been undergoing constant wars from ’91 until now and people mobility and all kinds of things, maybe this is another trend that we need to pay attention. In fact, this time, if you just look, more than, I would say 80% of the explosions and the fights that were taking place for the last while were taking in this city, which is just about 20 kilometres squared. So just imagine the implications that can stem from this constant warring issues, the mental health issues, all kinds of issues. That’s a big one. So I think these are the concerning trends that I see. Then comes hopeful ones. I see a lot of development going on. And there are, by the way, as you know, there are some theories that suggest security through development. Once you have a development, security can also come. It’s not just the other way round, but development leads to some sort of security, some sort of job creation, some sort of order, so that I can see in the city. Because when someone builds this ten-storey building in the middle, then that person needs to come up with a way of securing it, whether by paying extortion or by hiring more security forces. But still, you can see Mogadishu of ten years ago and Mogadishu of today, things have changed in a big way. And it’s the infrastructure aspect of the city, particularly buildings, not the roads. So that’s, I think, encouraging. And the other encouraging thing is that when I go around in the city, I see many, many students are going to schools, to universities, are struggling in their own ways. This is actually a hope that I see, and that itself is a pacifying effect, when there is an area that’s abandoned, one of the ways communities dealt with it was they just established a school in the area. So then people start to walk in the area and movement and then the bad guys just leave that area. So basically I can see that human development of a sort, regardless of the quality, at least there are so many people who are now in the schools, who are now trying to make ends meet in the city and in big numbers. I think that’s another hopeful trend that I see. And overall, one thing that makes me happy in Mogadishu is when I meet with the young, they still lead, the overall, I would say, optimism and happiness, in the sense that Mogadishu has always been a city where nobody cared about where you came from or who or which city or whatever it is. And the young actually is something that you can easily see in there. So these are the things that keep me hopeful. Overall, I’m optimistic, and I think, despite these challenges, the city will come out of this in a good way.

Abdirizak Muhumed Just to add to what you have just said, Prof, I think you have elaborated and you have said enough, so you almost left me with nothing to say here. In terms of the concerns, I think nothing tops the security, and so the security, as the Prof said, is the number one priority, I think, both for the current government, and for the residents of Mogadishu. So that’s a given. But there are other ways of tackling the security and some of the district commissioners actually have been doing this lately, which is really encouraging, is the way, for example, they’ve been dealing with the gangsters in the city or the young people who, for example, branded themselves as Swinging Stones (ciyaal weero). So, for example, some of the district commissioners came up with this innovation, in terms of securing their neighbourhoods. So what they did is, when a gangster is caught or a member of this youth group that has recently been almost terrorising the city or the neighbourhoods, apart from al-Shabaab, even though the focus is mainly al-Shabaab, but there are other also elements that are causing insecurity, and one of them is the youngsters who call themselves Swinging Stones. So the district commissioners adapted this method, that if, for example, a member of this group is caught, the parents come, they fine the parents with 200 US dollars. And instructing him or her that if your son is caught again, or he continues being a member of these gangsters, you’ll be fined with 500 US dollars next time. And the third time, the gangster is transferred to a central prison. So this type of local initiatives at the district level is making the city at least to control the gangsters and violent youth groups, making, in fact, this Swinging Stones, all the gangsters, quite unfashionable. At one time, almost every youth wanted to be a member of that, so they were largely a threat equal to al-Shabaab. But now, because of the local initiatives adapted by the district commissioners, localised solutions are really inspiring. So that’s one example. So the other inspiring sense is the return of a large diaspora, a diaspora that’s investing in the city. So you have coffee shops and franchise brands popping up in the city. So that’s also another inspiring hope. But most importantly, a very, very booming private sector that is really, really efficient in terms of its service delivery. The internet in Mogadishu is way better than any city that I’ve been to in Africa, including Johannesburg, South Africa. And that’s largely provided by private sector telecommunication. So that is an inspiring aspect. There’s also the notion of people now realising that nobody else is coming to rebuild the city. So you might find people collectively donating things, for example, to rebuild the district administrative offices. So you recently have seen about eight district offices that have been rebuilt, not with the usual international assistance and the donors and that stuff, but people themselves coming up and even cobblestoning the whole compound. So there is that collective desire to reform, or to rebuild the city. So in terms of trends that are inspiring, I think the list goes on. But the most concerning aspect is the security, so I will leave it there. Thank you.

Surer Mohamed Thank you both so, so much. I think that listeners can take away a little snapshot and get really excited about the publications and the writings that are coming out from the ACRC Mogadishu team and on behalf of, of course the uptake team, but on behalf of the ACRC more generally, thank you so much.

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Header photo credit: AMISOM / Flickr. Hamar Weyne market in Mogadishu.

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