Bullets to Boomtown: The Making of Contemporary Mogadishu

by Tony Roshan Samara

Forced evictions in Mogadishu lay bare a particularly violent strand of contemporary city making.

First published: 18 March, 2014 | Category: Inequality, International

In a recently released report, Amnesty International draws attention to forced evictions in Mogadishu, Somalia.  The target of these particular evictions are internally displaced peoples (IDPs). Many of these are refugees of the war that plagued the country for much of the past two decades, while others are refugees of poverty and famine in Somalia’s rural areas. Over the years, thousands of IDPs settled in abandoned buildings, both public and private, in the center of Mogadishu.  Largely ignored, or at least tolerated, many slowly became a part of the urban fabric. But as the civil war winds down, authorities and investors have initiated a redevelopment of the city center and by many accounts the city is booming.

The presence of internally displaced people in the city has, as a result, become a thorn in the side of ambitious city builders and evictions are their response. Amnesty’s report documents not only the complete absence of due process as people are forced out of their homes, but also the central role of violence in driving internally displaced populations from the city center and out into the urban periphery. It would, however, be a mistake to attribute the treatment of IDPs merely to the violent legacy of the city’s very recent past. Forced evictions are a global phenomenon, and can be found almost anywhere cities are being transformed by the financialization of land. Across the world we can observe cities being essentially split into pieces, the urban poor forced into marginal places, while more affluent groups fortify their enclaves. Forced evictions in Mogadishu, and the politics driving them, are not outliers – they are central to the making of the contemporary city.

Urbanization in extremis

It was around 10 in the morning, the military came and told us that we had to move away within three days, that the government wanted their land back. People were angry, it was not enough time to move, so we started demonstrating. Some people threw stones, so the military started firing. It was chaos. Soon after I was called, I was told my son had been shot by a stray bullet while he was playing inside our shelter. I went immediately, but he had already died. He was eight years old.

Mohamed, August 2013.

Government troops murdered Mohamed’s son during the forced eviction of residents from the Hodan district in central Mogadishu. Mohamed and his family are just a few of the approximately 370,000 internally displaced peoples (IDPs) who live – often illegally – in over two hundred settlements scattered across the city, and comprise about one quarter of the population. According to Amnesty, thousands of IDPs were displaced from the city center in 2012, soon after the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) wrested control of the Mogadishu from al-Shabab fighters. In early 2013, the TFG announced plans to relocate hundreds of thousands of displaced peoples from the city to camps on the urban periphery as part of its redevelopment campaign. Since the announcement, forced evictions have accelerated.

The accounts of brutal and systemic humans rights violations contained in the report, from which Mohamed’s story is drawn, are a jarring contrast to the many heady accounts of a city slowly emerging from the ashes of civil war and opening to the world. In the latter, foreign investment and Somalis from the diaspora are pouring in to rebuild the city, the pervasive sense of fear is lifting, and daily life is returning to normal, if in fits and starts.

These divergent narratives may appear contradictory, but they capture processes of contemporary city making that are intimately bound up with one another. Urban redevelopment may conjure up images of abandonment and decay, of areas desperate for the bulldozer and wrecking ball. But the reality behind this image is that redevelopment often means the destruction of communities struggling to survive in harsh conditions, and their replacement with infrastructure and services meant for others. City building is frequently a turbulent, violent process for most residents, even as it generates great wealth, glittering facades, and opulent new spaces of consumption.

We can only hope that Mogadishu really is moving away from its recent history of conflict, but the forced evictions suggest that for many people, post-conflict does not mean post-violence. Instead of delivering security, reconstruction may simply replace one form of endemic violence with another. And while the violence of the civil war was rightly condemned for the toll it took on vulnerable residents, the violence of contemporary city building is often tolerated (when it is acknowledged at all), a price to be paid in making up for lost time. Even human rights and refugee support groups that condemn the means of evictions often affirm the legitimacy of the ends.

Mogadishu is not alone here, far from it. The mistake would be to explain the evictions through reference to the caricature of the city – until recently – as the “world’s most dangerous.” Forcible evictions are an all too common feature of contemporary city building, reinforcing existing inequalities and creating new ones. In the push to remove the poor to the urban periphery, by whatever means necessary, city authorities in Mogadishu are acting in concert with their counterparts across the world.

The noise of construction

Internally displaced peoples in Mogadishu live in very difficult conditions that mirror those of residents in many poor urban communities. According to a report prepared for the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in 2009, IDPs often live without access to even basic services in abandoned buildings, struggle with high unemployment, and must often beg to feed themselves and their children. Most of their children are not able to attend school and suffer a mortality rate well above the city average. Amnesty’s report four years later points to the prevalence of severe overcrowding and unsafe conditions, making particular note of the widespread sexual violence against women.

In a bitter irony, the evictions, beginning just as the war drew to a close, are increasing insecurity for displaced peoples. The UNHCR reported in 2007 that the threat of forced eviction was not a major concern for the IDP population at the time, though it also noted that newly formed transitional government had plans to reclaim public buildings throughout the city, many of which for years had served as settlements for displaced peoples.

Five years later, with al-Shabab on the run, the authorities implemented their plan. The city – or at least certain parts of it – are in the midst of a boom. This, in turn, is transforming many of the more centrally located public and private lands on which IDPs have been living into valuable real estate. The push to transform the city, however, has come up against an entrenched, vulnerable, and in many cases centrally located population that, for a variety of reasons, is both reluctant and often unable to simply pick up and move. For city authorities and other parties eager to speed redevelopment along, internally displaced peoples, largely because of their location, have become a stubborn obstacle to Mogadishu rebirth.

The Transitional Federal Government, for its part, denies the allegations of abuse made by Amnesty and justifies the evictions as important measures for establishing security and preparing the ground for redevelopment. Speaking to the forced evictions of IDPs from government facilities, local government spokesman, Mohammed Yusuf, told the BBC that, “The government has the right to reclaim land and buildings belonging to its former institutions, so that it can offer the public service that is needed… For that purpose, we move out people living on such lands or in those buildings. We tell them to put the national interest before the individual interest”.

According to Amnesty most of the evictees have been moving to the Afgooye corridor, on the outskirts of Mogadishu and establishing settlements there without government assistance or coordination. “In effect,” the organization observes, “IDPs seem to have been left to find their own solutions.”

“Real estate is booming in Mogadishu”

The sound of bullets that was once so common in the Somali capital of Mogadishu has been replaced by the noise of construction.

Laila Ali, writing in the Guardian, January11, 2013.

A recent review of forced evictions around the world by UN Habitat found the most common causes include urban development; large scale development projects; mega-events; and evictions related to economic forces and the global financial crisis.[1] The causes of eviction in post-war Mogadishu appear to fit this pattern: ambitious redevelopment plans to modernize the city and a commitment to economic growth through increased global connectivity – which here, as elsewhere, means competing for foreign investment. Land that had previously been surrendered to the urban poor has very quickly become essential to achieving both goals, transforming abandoned property into real estate. Real estate, in turn, becomes a magnet for investment and the people on it an obstacle to profit.

There is little doubt that Mogadishu’s real estate market is red hot, fueled by foreign capital and investment by Somalis themselves, including members of the diaspora. Mursal Mak, a British-Somali property developer, tells the Guardian “Retail estate is booming in Mogadishu. This evening I had a meeting with a client and he said: ‘Mogadishu is becoming like Manhattan or central London; you are talking incredible prices when it comes to property’ ”. In some in-demand areas rents are reportedly tripling.

But what kind of cities emerges from a hot real estate market? In addition to raising the cost of land (and therefore of housing) real estate driven redevelopment is also producing cosmopolitan forms and culture that have become representative of urban modernization and progress, from chain coffee shops to art galleries and higher end shopping malls. The city even hosted a local TEDx event this past August – the same month government troops shot Mohamed’s eight year old son. Copy from the event website proclaims, “Peace has continued to take hold, children are playing in the streets, and the beaches are filled with weekend swimmers.”

Investors are also banking on a growing demand for hotels and resorts by a foreign clientele in and around the central city as stability improves. Local hotelier, Bashir Osman is currently developing a multi-million dollar beach resort, in anticipation of growing numbers of holidaymakers from the West. Osman tells CNN, “If you go to Mogadishu the construction is very, very booming. That is the sign of peace”. And in June, Kenyan-based Icon Hotel Group announced they, too, saw a bright future for the high-end tourist market, and would open a luxury hotel on the city’s renowned coastline.

Tourism is an important example of how the city is being redeveloped internally, but it also opens a window onto Mogadishu’s emerging relationship to the wider world. Large scale infrastructure investments by China, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia are integrating the city’s air and water ports with international trade and transport routes. The city’s airport, for example, Aden Abdulle International, has been reopened and upgraded through Turkish investment. In December 2011 Turkish officials announced a plan to modernize the facility and have already committed $150 million to the project. The upgrade includes construction of a modern control tower that would help to raise the airport to international standards.

In September 2013, Turkish-based Favori LLC took over management of the airport from SKA Air & Logistics, based in Dubai. Favori is expected to further upgrade the facility by building a new runway and starting 24-hour operations. In March 2012, Turkish Airlines became the first long-distance international commercial airliner in two decades to fly to Aden Abdulle and it now offers two flights a week from Mogadishu to Istanbul via Djibouti. And in November 2013 Somali Airlines was re-launched after 22 years. The two airlines join the many private enterprises that popped up during the war years to transport business travelers, religious pilgrims, and members of the diaspora.

The upgrading of transport infrastructure isn’t driven by the same concerns that fuel the rise of tourism and upscale development – at least, not only by these concerns – but it does complement the broader vision currently shaping redevelopment in the city. In facilitating the efficient circulation of people and goods between the city and far flung ports, a renovated Aden Abdulle plays a central role in Mogadishu’s cosmopolitan rebirth.

But in a city where almost half the population lives in extreme poverty, it is difficult to glimpse the average city resident in this cosmopolitan vision, of where they might live or how they may participate, other than as sources of cheap labor. In fact, the treatment of internally displaced peoples in the process of rebuilding the city and their expulsion to the periphery of the city further suggests that the emerging city will be one marked by a deep and structural exclusion of the poor from well guarded enclaves for the affluent. The investment in “world class” infrastructure will certainly bring parts of the city closer to similar enclaves elsewhere, but it will also widen existing divisions, spatial as well as social, within the city.

The Janus face of city making

Despite some acknowledgement of these concerns, boosters of the current approach see the revival as evidence that Mogadishu is finally falling into the groove set by well known “celebrity” cities of the West (and adapted for local context by many aspirants from around the world). These cities have come to represent a comprehensive urban model – covering everything from built environment to security practices to everyday street culture – which others should strive to emulate. And in recent decades there has been no shortage of those trying, from the astonishing and largely successful transformation of downtown Shanghai, to ongoing efforts in Rio de Janeiro and New Delhi. Despite growing anxiety over severe urban inequality in principle, support for this model is holding firm in practice.

Consequently, we see similar efforts underway in many less prominent cities. But here city builders often have no choice but to carve out relatively small sections on which to concentrate their attention and resources. As a result, transformations here are partial, fragile, and much more unevenly distributed across the urban landscape than they are in their wealthier counterparts. Across all of these cities, however, what is almost unquestioned by city builders is the idea that the cosmopolitanism of the world’s most iconic cities represents an ideal worth pursuing, whatever the cost.

Against this view, a more critical assessment suggests that rather than being historical laggards, cities like Mogadishu are important to understand because they are harbingers. It is cities like this where most people live, where global inequalities are becoming concentrated, and where social and political tensions run increasingly high. What have traditionally been referred to as the urban peripheries – not only these cities themselves, but their slums, ghettoes, favelas and townships into which the poor are meant to disappear – are emerging as new global centres.

These deeply divided cities, in which affluent groups work hard at creating social and spatial distance between themselves and everyone else, are not deviations from some ideal urban norm, they are the norm. To understand these cities – the spaces, people, and political struggles which constitute them – is to glimpse the urban future. The glittering, cosmopolitan cityscapes surrounded by armies of cheap labour do not, as proponents would have it, represent progress as measured on some linear scale, but the outcome of very specific political battles that could have gone, and can still go, in very different directions and produce very different looking cities. 

Viewed in this light, the forced evictions of internally displaced peoples in Mogadishu are more than simply human rights abuses committed in the process of breathing life into a dying city. Instead, they represent a central, and far from resolved, conflict in the fight over the making of the city itself, over ownership of its spaces and resources, and over who will have the right to live there and who will be swept away.

This article is part of NLP’s series The Contemporary City.

Tony Roshan Samara is an associate professor of sociology at George Mason University, who chairs the Cities and Globalization Working Group and serves on the national steering committee of the Right to the City alliance. He tweets from @CGWG2, you can email him at samar495 at gmail.com, and many of his publications can be downloaded free at Academia.edu.

[1] The other major cause they identify is natural disasters and climate change. Even this is often implicated, as we saw when the “natural” disaster of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans provided a pretext to demolish low income housing in the city, preventing many low income African Americans from returning.)

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