MOGADISHU — As the Somali capital Mogadishu emerges from years of war, it has become a magnet for investors from the diaspora.
With funding from abroad, new businesses are opening up across the city.
Liban Mahdi is among those who sensed opportunity and made the long trip back.
After more than 25 years in Canada and the United States, he returned to Mogadishu to help renovate the downtown Makkah hotel.
“During the war it got destroyed,” he said. “My cousins and I and my uncle got back together and we decided to put back the business.”
In March he also opened the Mug Coffee Lounge, a Kenyan franchise, on the ground floor. The café, with its gleaming décor and refrigerated cakes, has become a prime meeting place for the diaspora.
“This is their little Starbucks,” Mahdi says.
While Mahdi and his family have made the most of the opportunities in Mogadishu, he acknowledges that some of the city’s residents who survived years of war are skeptical of newcomers from the diaspora.
“The local people see that they suffered through this and they have a sense of entitlement for jobs,” Mahdi says.
“But sometimes the people with the better tools are the people who come from the diaspora, so at the end of the day who is better for the country is the guy with the better tools to fix the situation.”
In another part of town, Somali artist Adan Farah, who goes by the nickname “Affey,” displays his work at a gallery in the Center for Research and Dialogue.
One piece depicts a business suit, without a body, hanging limply over an armchair. The Somali flag is in the background, painted in black and white, while a British passport, painted in color, sits in the foreground.
The painting is called “Empty Suit.” Affey says it represents politicians from the diaspora, and their priorities for the country.
“The first politicians that came to the country,” he says, “the ones who got into politics, not business, were those that experienced hard times abroad and came here wanting to make quick money.”
Affey has lived in Mogadishu his entire life. He took his painting underground during more than 20 years of conflict.
Now that the city is experiencing a relative period of peace, since the removal of the al-Shabab militants in 2011, he finally has the chance to express himself more openly and has been observing the return of the Somali diaspora seeking opportunity in Mogadishu.
He says despite some negative elements, returning Somalis have also done some good.
“Apart from the money they bring in,” he says, “they have brought creativity from different parts of the world, they will change many things in this country. So many different businesses are being created.”
A Parliament of Two Minds
Returning Somalis also are making their mark in politics.
Diaspora politicians make up the majority of the federal parliament, which was established last year at the end of a long political transition. The country’s provisional constitution requires members to have advanced education, giving an edge to those who went abroad for schooling.
Hussein Arab Isse represents a constituency in Somaliland. He spent most of his life in California, but came back in 2011.
“We bring what we can add to the local culture here, whether it’s politics or anything else, social services, human rights, all that,” he says.
“There’s many issues, when you live abroad it kind of opens your mind up and you pick them up and anything bad you leave behind. All the good stuff you bring back home.”
Another Somaliland MP who spent time in the U.S., Abdullahi Haji, says he considers himself part diaspora and part local.
He first came back to Somalia in the mid-1990s and worked on the political transition process before joining the parliament last year.
He says local politicians have the advantage of knowing Somalia’s history, and the ins-and-outs of the overarching clan system, which guides decision-making on the local level.
“The diaspora politician who recently came here, is in fact inclined to approach the whole thing from the perspectives of formality and governance,” he says. “But they don’t really understand the clan factor in politics.”
He says it is easy for diaspora members to become discouraged as the government struggles to build the country’s shattered institutions and to reconcile regional disputes.
“When you come from United States,” he says, “you believe that you can make a change. As a matter of fact, it may be very difficult for you to do that, but still you can see that every day actually you can contribute."
After years of Islamist rule in Somalia, those who lived abroad find it a different country from the one they left.
The culture clash with “westernized” Somalis remains a source of tension
Khadija Ali has just returned to Somalia from Toronto, Canada after 27 years away.
“People are more religious now, people are more conservative than it was before,” she says. “And I can understand, in my culture as a religion, when we encounter difficulties, we go to God.”
Despite the culture shock, Ali, who worked as a doctor in Toronto, hopes to get involved in improving health services in Mogadishu.
Like many in the capital, sensing new opportunities, she has big plans to help rebuild a city and a country still fragile from years of conflict.
While many diaspora see Mogadishu as a blank canvas for business and innovation, local Somalis have a different experience of the city, shaped by years of war.
Jamal Abdirahman a youth activist in the capital, and lifelong resident, remembers the dark times.
“Many people died without reason,” he says. “Some people lost their loved ones, some people lost their hope and some people fled from their country to become refugees.”
Security remains a challenge in the city. Al-Shabab continues to launch one-off suicide bomb attacks on government targets, international institutions and diaspora-owned restaurants and hotels.
Still, Abdirahman is optimistic. He sees the influx of investment as a chance for all Somalis. “We see hope in the near future," he says.