Policy WATCH:Mubarak's Musings
Mubarak's Musings
Returning to Mogadishu: Detained for "Being Too Handsome"
By MUBARAK 06/27/2012

This weekend I came back to a Mogadishu that has changed very much since my last time here earlier this year. From the sense of victory in Somalia's Transitional Government (TFG) and pro-government crowd, to the building and rebuilding taking place in the city, Mogadishu is a city that has come a long way from its days as a city under siege from the Shabab, the Islamist group battling for control of the country.

My happiness in coming back to my city was briefly wrecked by Africa Express Airways that left my luggage in Nairobi 'to reduce weight'. Apparently this is a common problem with the airline. Travelling on this airline with luggage that needs to be checked in is now out of the question for me. They can fool me only once.

For a second I thought that I had also lost my passport. I was told that I would not be issued with a new passport for six months if I lost my passport. While I can pull strings to get a reissue much faster, the fact that my government would punish me for losing or having my passport robbed is very disheartening.

On my way home, the taxi had to park to allow African Union peacekeeping forces (AMISOM) armoured vehicles to pass. The taxi driver complained about their driving and how he thought they were trigger happy: “Nobody in Mogadishu likes them," he claimed.

African Union (AMISOM) Vehicle
©Somalia Report
African Union (AMISOM) Vehicle

Whereas this may be a little exaggeration, many people resent their attitude, but there is no hate towards them as was shown to the Ethiopians who were hated with passion by Mogadishu residents.

On the Turks who are busy with development in the city, the taxi driver was – like most Mogadishu residents – welcoming. “They are the only people who really care about Somalia," he told me.

The Shabab don’t share that sentiment, and consider the Turks to be agents of the 'crusaders', attacking the Turks days after my arrival. I had earlier warned the Turks in this column that they would be targeted by the Shabab after the group’s supreme leader released an audio message condemning their involvement in Somalia as part of a bigger plot against the Muslims in Somalia (almost everybody in the country).

My first impression of the city was that it had gotten much calmer than I had known it to be. I didn’t let looks deceive me; Mogadishu deceives the superficial. One has to be here for some time and go to some places to really grasp the feeling of the city.

To get that feel, I decided to go to a tea and coffee shop in north Mogadishu that I knew was a scene of high security activity. It was there that last year I was mistakenly arrested and released in minutes after calling senior contacts.

I met my friend at the tea place. I told him how strange it was that he was wearing the same shirt as he had worn that day when we were briefly arrested. He complained about my hair style and how it would get us in trouble again.

Immediately, we sensed rather rough-looking guys talking about us and giving us pointy glances. I knew I was going to be giving my normal welcome, so I just ordered a cup of cappuccino and slowly sipped away, waiting for the inevitable.

In the meantime, I called a TFG friend to whom many district intelligence chiefs reported to (as he claimed – I couldn’t confirm this). I expected to be approached by a security agent at any time, and that came after I had hung up the phone.

As expected, a white-clothed security agent came and whisked me away. My friend got lucky this time and was left alone.

When we got into the interrogation room two minutes from the tea shop, a new character was introduced to me as the district security chief. He asked me if I knew why I was arrested. I said I thought I knew: my long hair?

An idiot informant from the tea shop confirmed that and added, “And also because you look handsome”.

I literally laughed and mocked his idiocy, replying, “Well, well, well, now looking good is a crime? You should be questioning God why he made me look better than you, not me."

While this made them all laugh, I don’t counsel anybody to mock the TFG security. They can be very ruthless if they really suspect you, which was not the case with me.

After also quickly shooting down their suspicion that I was not a Somali (flimsy attempt to save face by one of them), I demanded the security chief explain why his men had interrupted my good afternoon at the tea shop. He conceded that indeed my hair had 'raised suspicions'.

To all Somalis visiting from the Diaspora, please heed this warning: don’t come to Mogadishu with long hair. I have briefly suffered for your sins, my friends.

The clearly Islamist security chief explained that “looking different” and not blending in makes one a suspect: “when you go somewhere, you look like how the people in that place look like”.

It seems the TFG security still think like the Shabab – from where many of its members have their roots – even though that mode of thinking is obviously not applicable in every situation, and proved they were wrong in this instance.

Since not 'blending in' is an attention grabber, a potential threat would not look different from the rest of the population. That should have been enough to make even the barely-intelligent security agents to have known better. With people like these, there is little hope for improvement in the TFG security services.

I went back to the tea shop where everybody proceeded to congratulate me on handling the security agents well. Normally they don’t release people very fast, but I just got up and shook their hands after our conversation got boring.

I realised that people were fed up with the TFG paranoia. Everybody just shook their heads when I narrated the story of my exchange with the security agents. Nobody buys their assertion that the Shabab would attack markets 'like in Iraq'. The general consensus was that they were more afraid of their lives than caring for the people.

The Shabab have been busy in the last couple of weeks assassinating TFG security agents, especially targeting real Shabab defectors. Most of the suspects are false defectors (Shabab double agents) who join the TFG to facilitate operations in government territory.

Since it is very hard for the government to ascertain who is a real defector or not, the 'vouching process' is no more than a guarantee from someone in a position of power that the defector is not a double agent.

The truth is no one can confirm whether that is true or not. The Shabab, however, claim that many of the defectors are double agents. While they may intentionally be trying to discredit genuine defectors, even if 20 percent are double agents we may have hundreds of Shabab loyalists in the TFG security apparatus. This is on top of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) fighters who joined the TFG in the thousands when Sharif was elected president in January, and of whom many may be Shabab sympathisers or loyalists.

In Mogadishu, the Shabab infiltrate the northern districts, which are virtually a war zone. As one city resident warned me, “Don’t go beyond north of 30th street”. He was over-cautious, as that is more than a third of the city. This shows the residents’ sense of distrust in the ability of the government forces to provide security in most of the recently-liberated areas, despite the fact that those areas are not that insecure.

According to residents, the Shabab rule the northern districts at night with the TFG forces confined to their bases. This can not be confirmed, but, again, it shows the general pessimism felt by many Mogadishu residents.

As the TFG and allied forces expand from Mogadishu into the districts surrounding the city, the security corridor around Mogadishu gets tighter and the Shabab inevitably reduce their attacks inside the city centre as they prefer targets that can easily be ambushed and attacked outside the city.

Perhaps this will help raise confidence of Mogadishu residents in the city’s dawn of peace.

Mubarak's weekly columns are published on Wednesdays. You can follow Mubarak on Twitter at @somalianalyst.