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Dispatch from Mogadishu: A Visit to Somalia’s Parliament

We first saw Somalia’s Parliament building from a distance, at the top of a hill overlooking Mogadishu and behind the closed arm of a checkpoint barrier. Our meeting with the speaker of Parliament was scheduled for 9:30 that morning, but the Ugandan soldiers manning the checkpoint—part of the African Union Mission in Somalia—would not let us proceed. Our names are not on the list of people with meetings in the Parliament, they told us, and they could not allow people not on that list to pass. There followed a flurry of phone calls to the aides who had arranged the meeting. But the soldiers, while polite, remained firm. They had their orders.

We went back through town and tried to reach a group of MPs at another government building, but were again turned away. We consoled ourselves by noting that the soldiers’ commitment to following the protocol for access to government buildings was a promising sign of their discipline and improving security conditions, but decided that it was time to give up trying to make the meeting happen that day.

Somalia has been largely ungoverned since 1991, when the regime of President Mohammed Siad Barre collapsed and the country slid into a brutal war between rival clans. The US Black Hawk helicopter that crashed with horrifying consequences in 1993 was part of an effort to restore order and provide emergency aid to this stricken county. For the next twenty years, a succession of clans, Islamic groups, and warlords fought for power. A region in the north known as Somaliland broke away. There was a period when the Ethiopian army occupied the country. Hopes that a deal with the Union of Islamic Courts would bring peace were dashed when a more radical Islamists rejected an agreement and formed the jihadi group al-Shabab, which took control over the far south.

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A transitional government was established in 2004; not until 2012 was there agreement on a permanent government. Somalia’s Parliament—the “House of the People”—met for the first time in Mogadishu in August 2012. The two hundred and seventy-five members of this Parliament were not elected by voters. They were selected by clan leaders according to a formula that splits power between the five major clans. By most accounts, the Parliament has begun to take on some very basic political functions. Following a process established by the provisional Constitution, it elected a new president in 2012. It has adopted rules of procedure that have brought a little more order to its debates.

The US Agency for International Development (USAID), the United Nations, and the UK Department for International Development (DFID) have provided experts and financial support to help draft the Constitution, establish government institutions, and try to make them more effective and credible. Along with a Somali-British consultant, I was in Mogadishu to evaluate whether those assistance programs have had any success and what direction they should take in the future. It is only in the last year or so that foreigners have been able to move semi-freely in Mogadishu or stay outside of the heavily defended area around the airport for longer than a few hours. My colleague and I spent our week in Mogadishu in a villa originally built for a German sugar baron that has been converted into a guesthouse and has become a favorite stop for the growing number of journalists, aid workers, and others who pass through town. The courtyard is surrounded by high concrete walls and houses a troop of Somali guards, but retains a quiet, elegant atmosphere that contrasts with the heavily rutted roads, traffic, dust, and chaos of a poor city fitfully recovering from decades of seemingly permanent war.

We traveled around the area in beaten and scratched—but armored—Toyota Land Cruisers. The security team leader occupying the front passenger seat was a Fijian built like a welterweight boxer—kind and friendly when the team was at ease, but on-duty so focused and unflinchingly stern that others at the house called his official look his “Go Fuck With Someone Else” face. After a couple of days, I began to think of that as his name—“Go” for short.

Less than a month earlier, someone—al-Shabab? Random kidnappers? No one was sure—attacked a Swedish politician as she was on her way to the airport after giving a lecture about democracy to university students. She was wounded but survived. The word is she didn’t have enough protection—just a driver and one guard in an unarmored vehicle. The convoy led by Go was an assurance that this would not happen to us. Whenever we moved through the city, our vehicle was sandwiched between pickup trucks holding six Somalis sitting on benches in the truck bed with AK-47s slung over their shoulders. They jumped in and out at various checkpoints to either take up defensive positions or chat with the soldiers we encountered. It was hard to tell which.

 

After our first attempt on Thursday, we made sure that everything was in order, and on Saturday we breezed through the Parliament checkpoints, drove up a short road and arrived at a rough asphalt parking lot with a sweeping view of Mogadishu and its surroundings. Even at 9:30 in the morning it was ninety degrees and blindingly bright. There was no shade. To the right was the airport, which the UN has turned into a massive armed camp surrounded by ten-foot walls made from sand-filled barrels called Hescos and hedged with barbed wire. From here you see how big the UN compound really is, the size of a small town, with rows of tin-roof bungalows that provide housing and offices for UN staff.

Just down the hill, the Turkish government has built a gleaming new mosque. To the left is the old city of Mogadishu—brick, stone, and adobe shops and houses crowded into narrow streets. But this vantage point is dominated by a view of the ocean, which is a flat bright blue from left to right and all the way to the horizon with a curving sandy beach as far as the eye can see from north to south. The waves are small but roll into nice shapes. Someday people will come here to surf. The security guys say they’ll take me to the beach if I want, but the main danger is not from terrorists but sharks swimming close to shore because of the waste dumped by slaughterhouses.

The Parliament building was built in the 1970s, when Somalia under President Barre was a Soviet client state. It has the feel of socialist public architecture but is well proportioned and even elegant and distinguished by overhanging patios and verandas and curves in the roofline. White concrete pillars along the walls make it seem taller than its five stories.

Seen closer up, the building looks like an abandoned ruin. Large chunks of concrete are missing in some places, and all the walls are pockmarked with large- and small-caliber bullet holes. Knots of rebar stick out in a few places. There are scorch marks from a fire above all the windows. Sandbagged gun emplacements—recently abandoned and now filled with trash—are strategically placed around the perimeter.

For a minute I think that there’s been a mistake; maybe we’ve been taken to an old building and there is a new, even if temporary, structure where the Parliament actually does its work. That’s the way it is in Haiti, for example, where the Parliament building was destroyed by the earthquake and USAID provided a new structure—albeit a rickety and mostly dysfunctional one—where the legislators could work; or in Iraq, where an old government building in the secured “Green Zone” was quickly repurposed so the Parliament had a place to meet.

Another clot of soldiers, gathered around an unplugged metal detector gate, ask our business, but an aide suddenly appears to guide us along a path through the rocks and fallen chunks of concrete around to the shady side of the building. MPs, hangers-on, seekers of influence and favors—mostly men—sit on white plastic chairs around white plastic tables, presumably doing the same wheedling and dealing that politicians do around the world. One room has been restored and is used for the parliamentary staff. Young men and a few women bustle around or sit at workstations labeled “legislative drafting” and “research.” This looked pretty good, and I began to develop a narrative about the contrast between the war-damaged exterior and the refurbished and bustling work going on inside. Both the UN Development Program and USAID claim credit for the refurbishing, equipment, and training that brought about this one modern room.

We ended up in what used to be the plenary hall of the old Parliament. The roof was blown off or collapsed at some point—no one is exactly sure why, or when, or by whom—and the hall is exposed to the sky. Views of the city and ocean are visible through large gaps in the walls. The concrete floor slopes down to what was the presidium. Behind the presidium is a faded and pockmarked mural, about thirty feet high, of a figure breaking a gigantic chain. There are chicken bones on the floor from someone’s lunch. A woman in a blue hijab sweeps the floor. This is what Roman amphitheaters must have looked like after they had been abandoned, but before they became picturesque.

Moving further into the building, we enter a darkened hallway with low ceilings. This was once the underground parking garage. The windowless room now used for plenary sessions still looks like a parking garage that has been converted into a meeting hall.

We are ushered into a waiting room, maybe thirty by thirty feet, with shiny Pepto-Bismol pink satin-ish curtains covering the walls. There are no windows; light comes from bare CFL bulbs in the ceiling. A dozen or so people mill around. We are offered seats on the mismatched couches and chairs that line the walls, and then quickly brought into a part of the room that has been partitioned off with plywood walls to serve as the speaker’s office.

 

The speaker is a thoughtful and gentle man, apparently in his late sixties. He answers our questions about the progress of development projects and Somalia’s complex politics in perfect lilting English. He has heard these questions before but is patient and thorough. As we talk, aides and MPs periodically burst through the door, stop short when they see that the speaker is in a meeting, say something, then disappear. At one point, someone delivers a note, which the speaker reads and folds up, whispering a few words in response. As we talk, the interruptions grow more frequent and their tone more urgent. Voices outside are louder and more agitated. Occasionally a shout is heard. I put away my notebook, express our gratitude, and get ready to go.

The speaker, unrushed, emphasizes that Somalia needs more technical assistance in writing and passing laws. He describes the plans for a parliamentary election in 2016; to meet that deadline, the country will need a permanent constitution passed by a popular referendum, a law on elections, an election commission to administer the election, and a long list of other fundamental decisions and institutions, not to mention a level of security and stability in areas that are still controlled by al-Shabab. More than half of Somalia’s population was born after 1991. They have never lived in a country with a government, much less participated in an election. A significant percentage of the population believes that a constitution conflicts with the Koran and therefore violates Islamic law.

Legislation is enveloped by a cloud of unknowing. During our visit to Mogadishu, the Parliament was debating whether the government acted correctly in giving a Turkish company (the Turks have a very active diplomatic and economic presence in Somalia) the contract to manage the Mogadishu airport. But no one is clear what law governs public procurement. Is it the clauses in the transitional Constitution that give Parliament power to oversee government? Is it the law from the Barre era? So many records have been destroyed that there is no reliable body of legal authority.

The speaker is not ready for us to leave. He pulls a pack of cigarettes from his desk. They are the local brand of Royals in a red-and-black pack that sells for fifty cents, not the dollar that Marlboros cost. “If you will permit me,” he says apologetically, “I won’t have another chance for at least five hours,” and continues his explanation of the constitutional process and pressing legal issues as he lights up, exhaling into a small machine that withdraws the smoke.

The voices outside have grown more urgent, and there is a heavy thump on the wall, but the speaker does not flinch. He slowly finishes his cigarette, briefly considers having another, but regretfully puts the pack away. We say our goodbyes and thanks.

When his aide opens the door to let us out, fifteen or twenty men rush inside the office. Their voices are demanding and angry. They are not threatening us; we just happen to be in the way of what they want, which is to address the speaker.

We later learned that the conflict was between two sub-clans who both claimed a vacant parliamentary seat. The speaker had endorsed one candidate. Allies of the loser were pressing him to reconsider because it was their turn to have a seat in Parliament. The winner’s group was trying to stop them.

We push through the crowd and emerge outside the building. We’ve been inside for about an hour and the sun is even stronger.

There are more cars on the road now, and our convoy slows as we approach a traffic circle. This is where they ambushed that Swedish politician. To my surprise, a uniformed policeman stands where three roads intersect. Armed only with a whistle, he brings some order to the chaos and we pass through with little delay. He’s covered with dust and must be melting in the sun.

I think about the speaker in his underground office with plywood walls, dealing with a constant flow of questions, chaos, and conflict. Like the policeman, he’s trying to keep things moving so that everyone gets where they need to go without getting shot.

It’s not easy and it’s not glamorous, but it’s what Somalia needs.

A few minutes later we are back at the guesthouse. Guards open the high metal gates to let us in and close them securely when we are safely inside.

Tomas Bridle is an expert in international governance and legislative strengthening. He has advised parliaments and government agencies in Kyrgyzstan, Iraq, Afghanistan, and other developing and post-conflict countries. The opinions expressed are strictly his own.

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