After decades of war and failed attempts by international actors to establish peace and create a working administration, the political situation in Somalia seems to be improving.
In a recent study by the Heritage Institute for Policy Studies, the majority of the 1,600 residents of the capital, Mogadishu, who were surveyed said they feel safer now than they did in 2013, and that they witness less conflict between clans and fewer attacks by rebel groups.
Abdirahman Yusuf, who grew up in Somaliland and cofounded a post-resettlement agency for Somali refugees in Boston in the 1990s, returned in September to Mogadishu for the first time in more than three decades. He acknowledges this headway and attributes it to the waning presence of one faction in particular.
“You could say people are a little bit more optimistic than they were before,” says Mr. Yusuf. “And the main reason for that is that the terrorist organization Al Shabab has been weakened.”
Other signs of normalcy are returning to the capital. In October, United Nations chief Ban Ki-moon, who had just visited Mogadishu, said conditions there were improving. That same month, the government relaunched a postal service that had been absent since 1991. A hotel became host to the country’s first ATM.
Although the government isn’t fully functional at this point, the changes in the capital are significant, says Michael Woldemariam, an assistant professor of international relations and political science at Boston University.
“Things are better than they were,” says Professor Woldemariam. “Mogadishu is making a comeback. People are buying land ... [and] the diaspora is coming back.”
One jolting setback for the diaspora came in early February. Because of Somalia’s lack of a functioning central bank – and because of concerns about the financing of terrorism – a California bank announced plans to drop the accounts of firms that transfer funds on behalf of Somali immigrants in the United States. That imperiled millions of dollars in such remittances, and was another sign that, broadly, the country has far to go on several fronts.
“When talking about security in Mogadishu and south-central Somalia more generally,” says Woldemariam, “we’re coming from a very low baseline.”
After the collapse of the government of Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991, the country became the standard for the political science term that gained popularity in the following years: failed state. Communities turned to ad hoc governance and traditional forms of conflict resolution as the state became more decentralized, with various opposition groups fighting for power. Soon south-central Somalia was facing sporadic attacks by Al Shabab, the jihadist militant group.
Then, again, came drought. A regional food crisis in 2011 killed some 260,000 people. By then Al Shabab had infiltrated much of the area. It hindered aid efforts.
But in August 2012 Al Shabab ceded control of the capital to Somali authorities from the Transitional Federal Government and AMISOM, the African Union’s peacekeeping mission for the country.
Still, threats to stability remain. In December 2014, Transparency International released its annual Corruption Perceptions Index; Somalia shared last place – and an abysmal score – with North Korea.
A skirmish between President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud and Prime Minister Abdiweli Sheikh Ahmed snarled Somali government operations. And disputes over landownership have flared as refugees return to land they once occupied and find others who have taken their place.
Such disputes can be complicated by the fact that Al Shabab has been known to recruit from competing clans, says Woldemariam.
“Sometimes what we think of as ‘Shabab versus government’ violence,” he says, “is really just clan violence.”
Despite the range of issues that strain the peace process, Yusuf maintains that ethnic Somalis who have left will play an important role in supporting their homeland’s rise. Yusuf himself attained American citizenship, but he hasn’t forgotten his first home.
“[Somalis in America] will probably go back ... [and] help people” even though they have made their homes in the US, says Yusuf. “That’s exactly what I’m looking for with myself.”