Bombers coopt the 'symbol' of Mogadishu's National Theater

Mogadishu's National Theater has been used as a symbol in Somali politics and the western press, but others used it as a symbol of their own during Wednesday's bombing, writes a guest blogger.

Farah Abdi Warsameh/AP
Ambulances stand outside the Somali National Theater in Mogadishu, Somalia, April 4. An explosion Wednesday at a ceremony at Somalia's national theater killed at least 10 people including two top sports officials in an attack by an Islamist group on a site that symbolized the city's attempt to rise from two decades of war.

• A version of this post ran on the author's blog, www.sahelblog.wordpress.com. The views expressed are the author's own.

Maybe Mogadishu is in the early stages of a renaissance. Maybe Somalia is still a very dangerous and unpredictable place, whose would-be government is still a mess mostly propped up by regional and international powers. Maybe both. The point about the theater is, though, that if you – as a government or a news outlet – want to use a symbol in making your political argument, then others might decide to use that same symbol in making their (very different) political argument.

Here is a roundup of references to the theater in the weeks leading up to yesterday's attack:

Tuesday, March 20 (Reuters):

In the roofless, bullet-ridden building that houses Mogadishu’s National Theatre, Somali musicians staged a concert for the first time in 20 years, a sign of a marked improvement in security in the war-ravaged Horn of Africa country.

Under pressure from African Union and Somali troops, al Qaeda-linked militants withdrew from Mogadishu in August prompting a return to relative calm in the capital, although the rebels still manage to launch sporadic attacks.

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Wednesday, April 4 (New York Times):

Outside, on Mogadishu’s streets, the thwat-thwat-thwat hammering sound that rings out in the mornings is not the clatter of machine guns but the sound of actual hammers. Construction is going on everywhere — new hospitals, new homes, new shops, a six-story hotel and even sports bars (albeit serving cappuccino and fruit juice instead of beer). Painters are painting again, and Somali singers just held their first concert in more than two decades at the National Theater, which used to be a weapons depot and then a national toilet. Up next: a televised, countrywide talent show, essentially “Somali Idol.”

Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital, which had been reduced to rubble during 21 years of civil war, becoming a byword for anarchy, is making a remarkable comeback.

Wednesday, April 4 (AP):

Two weeks ago, Somalia’s National Theater reopened for the first time in 20 years for a concert that drew an audience in festive colors in a city trying to rise above war. A welcoming banner proclaimed: “The country is being rebuilt.”

On Wednesday, the theater was turned into a scene of screams, chaos and blood when a suicide bomber attacked another high-profile event, killing 10 people, wounding dozens and shattering a tentative peace in the capital of Mogadishu.

Only fifteen days elapsed between the re-opening and the bombing [of the National Theater]. What does the theater symbolize now? The fragility of the Somali government’s claims to progress, I would say.

Alex Thurston is a PhD student studying Islam in Africa at Northwestern University and blogs at Sahel Blog.

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