When a Turkish Airlines flight touched down at Aden Adde International Airport near the Somali capital of Mogadishu on 16 March, it seemed like a sign of good things to come. It was the first time in more than 20 years that a passenger plane from Europe had flown into the volatile city.
Once labelled "the most dangerous city in the world," Mogadishu is now bustling with activity. Augustine Mahiga, the UN special representative to Somalia, recalls his first visit in 2010. The city was a ghost town, he told reporters in Nairobi. "There wasn't a single building that didn't have bullet holes, and most had been destroyed." While he was meeting with a Somali leader, for two or three hours "it was just the sounds of guns, guns of different calibres, small guns, big guns and big booms...."
Mogadishu has been free from the iron grip of the Al-Shabaab rebel group since August 2011, when it was flushed out by forces of the Somalia Transitional Federal Government with the help of troops from the 9,000-strong African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). In early October, the already weakened Al-Shabaab forces lost another strategic city, Kismayo. Its capture has been a major blow to the group, which is linked to Al-Qaeda.
A vote for change
A UN-backed plan known as the "Roadmap for the End of the Transition" has been lauded for breaking an eight-year political deadlock in Somalia. The Roadmap spelled out priority measures to end the transition by 20 August 2012 and restore stability to the country. After the dissolution of the Transitional Federal Government (TFG), which was established in 2004, strenuous negotiations between political actors in Somalia took place to adopt a provisional constitution, elect a new parliament, and appoint a new president and prime minister.
So for the first time since the collapse of the government of Mohammed Siad Barre in 1991, a new federal parliament was selected. Since security conditions still did not allow for general elections, 135 traditional elders from various clans and regions convened in Mogadishu to elect 275 members of parliament, including women, by secret ballot. Somali elders are influential leaders chosen by their communities to serve for life.
UN envoy Mahiga had earlier urged the elders to use the power of the secret ballot: "Between you and the box, it is only God watching you." The new legislators seemed to take the advice to heart. They surprised most Somalis by voting in a new kind of leadership. They chose Professor Mohammed Oswan Jawari, an attorney with a strong track record in public service, as the new speaker. And they elected a political outsider, Hassan Sheikh Mahmud, to the highest office on 10 September, a clear break from former president Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, a familiar figure in the Somali political scene and former commander of the Islamic Courts Union (Al-Shabaab was formed in a split away from his group). In contrast, Mr. Mahmud, an academic and activist, had only launched his political career a year before with his Peace and Development Party. President Mahmud in turn appointed as his prime minister Abdi Farah Shirdon, an economist and businessman who has vowed to fight nepotism and corruption. More recently, Mr. Shirdon named Fauzia Yusuf Haji Adan as his deputy and the country's new foreign minister - the first time a woman has held such high positions in Somalia.
Abdul Sharif, a Somali-American freelance journalist and Africa analyst based in Minneapolis, Minnesota, was pleasantly surprised by the outcome. "The Somali people have taken a great step forward on the path to prosperity. Many people thought the transitional government would not end, that it was going to be a failure. But the Somali people proved many wrong."
Good for business
Having survived an assassination attempt by suicide bombers just 48 hours after taking office, President Mahmud made clear his number-one priority: "Security." Although Al-Shabaab is in retreat, the group still poses a threat around Mogadishu, the recently liberated Kismayo and other areas in south-central Somalia.
Abdirashid Duale, the chief executive of Dahabshiil, the largest money-transfer business in the Horn of Africa, knows only too well the cost of doing business in Somalia. After two decades of serving the residents of Mogadishu, his offices have not been spared from the violence. In 2009, an Al-Shabaab attack that took the lives of some of his staff forced him to close some outlets.
Such attacks have so far not stopped the commercial boom the capital is experiencing. Dahabshiil has seen a 20 per cent rise in its Mogadishu transactions in recent months, and the Somali shilling has been getting stronger against the dollar, Mr. Duale wrote to Africa Renewal. "We have noticed that some of our customers are rebuilding their properties. There is also a high demand for rental properties, especially for business premises."
Mr. Sharif from Minnesota is looking forward to joining his grandmother, who has been living in Hamarweyme, a relatively safe area of Mogadishu. "Somalia is making one of the biggest transformations since the war in 1991. We need to give this government more of a chance to see what it is going to do, rather than criticize."
Many people with a vested interest in a peaceful future for Somalia agree that strengthening and reforming the national security forces is essential to keeping the momentum going. The African Union is pushing for the UN Security Council to lift its arms embargo on Somalia, while at the same time keeping it in force against non-state actors. The AU is also asking for an expansion of the UN support package to Somalia, as well as for help in financing the full deployment of military personnel for AMISOM, to reach its agreed level of 12,000 troops.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has agreed with President Mahmud to start peacebuilding activities. Mr. Ban wants the UN to establish a "heavy footprint" in the country, meaning he wants to have all relevant UN agencies, funds and programmes move to Somalia by January 2013 (most have been operating from neighbouring Kenya).
Restoring basic services such as water, education and health is also crucial to the new government's success, Maxamed Ibrahim, a graduate student of international development at the University of Vermont in the US, told Africa Renewal. He is from Bardera, an agricultural city connected to the port of Kismayo. He left Somalia in 1995 and has not been back since. He remains a bit skeptical about the country's future. Clan warfare, corruption, security challenges and the aftermath of the famine are problems carried over from the previous administration. "No one talks about reforming the army, paying taxes.... As for AMISOM, military victory is almost all they talk about. But once they capture a city, what's next? The AU troops are already stretched too thin and the government does not talk about services. People will turn to Al-Shabaab for security and services if they don't get them from the government."
The government's immediate challenge now is to establish local and district administrations, justice and the rule of law. Then it will be in a better position to provide for local populations.
For now, Mr. Ibrahim believes that the Somali people are "tired of groups like Al-Shabaab." As long as the Somali people remain in control of any future stabilization effort, he concludes, they will be "tolerant" and will give the new government time to resolve longstanding problems.